Law enforcement officials are raising concern about a Virginia policy instituted last year that bans police from making traffic stops over minor infractions. The policy is intended to reduce racial disparities in policing.
Following the death of George Floyd and the outpouring of activism across the country, Virginia instituted a controversial policy to ban traffic stops over minor infractions to reduce racial disparities and regain trust with the Black community.
Democratic legislators, prompted by public defenders, made quick work passing the bill that banned police from making traffic stops over broken taillights, the smell of marijuana, and tinted windows, which they argued was often used as a pretext to search for guns and drugs.
According to NBC News, the new policy is having an impact on the percentage of Black motorists pulled over during traffic stops, with the number of motorists subjected to searches being significantly lower than before the law.
Police data obtained in a public records request reveal that the number of Black drivers searched dropped by 40 percent since the ban.
The nationwide controversy over low-level traffic stops has also included other states. For instance, California and Minnesota district attorneys are ordering prosecutors to drop cases in which an officer found guns or drugs during traffic stops. Other states, such as Washington and Massachusetts, are considering passing similar bans to Virginia’s.
While advocates for the law say it will prevent a policing tactic that unfairly discriminates against Black drivers, law enforcement officials argue they are going to be handicapped in enforcing laws that protect the community.
Maggie DeBoard, the chief of the Herndon Police Department in Virginia, said that routine traffic stops are effective in stopping a wide variety of crimes – such as reducing vehicle accidents, arresting criminals and confiscating illegal guns or drugs.
“We are eliminating more and more interactions with criminals by not allowing us to enforce the laws that are on the books,” said DeBoard, president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police – a group who fought the bill.
DeBoard questioned the rationale behind Virginia’s policy, arguing that traffic stops are not made based on race or identity because police cannot see who they are pulling over in the first place.
“A lot of times you stop a vehicle, you have no idea the race, color, creed, religion of the person you’re stopping,” DeBoard said. “You see a violation, you stop the car. And at night, you definitely don’t know who you’re stopping. So it is not about targeting.”
Police chiefs and sheriffs in Virginia said the law goes too far and endangers public safety during a time when murders and fatal accidents are on the rise. Chesterfield Count Police Chief Jeffrey Katz pointed to the yearly crime rate to prove his point.
“Lawmakers were making decisions based on the loudest voices in the room, but not necessarily the most informed voices in the room,” said Katz. “And all you have to do is look at the crime rate in the last year and a half.”
Data from Virginia State Police show that murders have risen sharply since the coronavirus pandemic. Fatal traffic accidents following the law have also hit a 10-year-high.
Petersburg Police Chief Travis Christian said that while he understood the Black community’s mistrust during traffic stops, he is still trying to get the ban reversed.
Christian, who is Black, said that traffic stops have “given us the ability to use it as an investigative tool to get to other crimes that have been committed. That tool has been eliminated for us.”
According to the police chief, his department has confiscated 1,000 illegal firearms during traffic stops.
However, police chiefs in liberal areas like Oakland, California and Portland, Oregon, have reassessed their traffic enforcement policies to avoid unnecessary confrontations, which has led to push back from police unions.
The Oakland Police Department, for example, issued a directive discouraging officers for pulling over drivers for low-level offenses like equipment violations and expired registrations. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s push to pass similar laws was opposed by police union officials.
“If they want to continue to handcuff the police in doing their jobs, the unintended consequences are going to be more crime victims,” said Tony Montoya, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.