Pretextual stops for minor traffic violations are down across Los Angeles after a new policy passed in March that limits the circumstances under which officers can make them.
According to data from the LAPD, stops for non-moving and equipment violations — justifications used in the past for pretextual stops and searches — are down 40% compared to the same period last year.
Indeed, in the five months from April to the end of August this year, stops for minor offenses such as broken taillights or expired plates accounted for just 12% of total stops, compared to 21% in the same period in 2021.
The only change between this year and the last was the new policy approved by the Los Angeles Police Commission, a five-member civilian oversight board, that limits police officers to making stops only if they have a reasonable suspicion that a more serious crime has been committed.
The policy also requires officers to record their reasoning on a body camera before stopping an individual. If officers fail to do so, they can be disciplined.
Data also shows the policy change is leading to more targeted and successful searches. In stops following the ruling, police found something illegal in 26% of searches, implying they are being more selective about who they stop. Officers are also not relying as much on drivers’ consent to search their vehicle, but instead on sound judgment and reasonable suspicion.
“What we’re doing is we’re explaining ourselves more and identifying the reasoning behind it, instead of, ‘Well, I just had a hunch. I saw the guy and he looked like he might have been doing something. He gave me that look,’” LAPD Sergeant William Batista said. “That’s not enough. We got to make sure that we’re appropriately criminally profiling. We don’t do racial profiling. We do criminal profiling.”
In the past, pretextual stops were a useful tactic employed by police to confiscate drugs and illegal firearms. However, following the killing of George Floyd in 2020, pretextual stops have been increasingly seen as a form of discrimination against minorities, and have led to a breakdown of trust between police and the community.
According to the policy, officers are expected to use their “training, experience and expertise” to decide whether to make a stop and cannot make their decision based “on a mere hunch or on generalized characteristics such as a person’s race, gender, age, homeless circumstance, or presence in a high-crime location.”
The commission approved the policy despite objections from the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) — the union representing LAPD officers — that pretextual stops were necessary to ensure public safety.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore also expressed concern to the commission the agency did not have enough time to train officers to follow the new guidelines. Lizabeth Rhodes, director of the LAPD’s Office of Constitutional Policing and Policy, said it could take four months to train officers on the new policy.
LAPPL leaders argued that the new policy will negatively impact public safety, as pretextual stops have proven effective at getting guns off the street. The union also argued that the policy violated its collective bargaining agreement with the city and is considering legal options to oppose it.
Officers Jason Goode and Michael Babel told the Los Angeles Times that stopping people for minor violations is now a rare occurrence.
“We don’t do those anymore because it’s not a public safety issue,” Babel said. “It’s in the vehicle code, and we can’t enforce it. That’s the weird thing — it’s so odd.”
Batista said stops now depend on the context. He explained that in a case of multiple burglaries in a neighborhood, stopping a car with an expired registration would be justifiable.
“Is that a pretext? Absolutely, but you had prior information of criminal activity. And as long as you identify that it was a pretext stop and you justify the reasons why you did it, it’s completely OK,” he said.