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Cities Looking To Reform Police Traffic Stops To Combat 'Fishing Expeditions'


Last Sunday's fatal police shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in a Minneapolis suburb began with a traffic stop for an expired registration on his car. For decades, civil rights and civil liberties groups have decried traffic stops like that one as nothing more than racial profiling fishing expeditions. They say too often they're a thinly veiled pretends to search for drugs or guns or outstanding warrants. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, a small number of states and cities are now trying to figure out how to reduce or even eliminate these kinds of traffic stops.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: For many people of color, this most common interaction between cops and the public is a looming fear and potential flashpoint that can too often lead to humiliation, violence or worse. With that reality in mind, Virginia recently enacted new legislation that limits the use of the most notorious pretextual stops - defective taillights, loud exhaust, objects hanging from the rearview and more. Public defender Bryan Kennedy is with the group Justice Forward Virginia.

BRYAN KENNEDY: And most importantly, I think, it made it so you could not search a car or a person based solely on the odor of marijuana, which only ever seemed to emanate from Black and brown people who were stopped and never from white people who were stopped.

WESTERVELT: The Virginia law just took effect in March, so it's too soon to know what impact it's having there. Study after study has shown that police disproportionately target people of color in traffic stops. Texas and Oregon are among the handful of other states looking to limit police traffic stops. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in late 2019 that officers need to stick to questions reasonably related to the traffic infraction at hand, so cops there can no longer pull someone over for a minor car issue and ask unrelated questions about drugs or guns. And in Texas, the reform effort is led by State Representative Garnet Coleman of Houston. Coleman, who's Black, remembers his initial excitement of getting his driver's license in Houston in the late 1970s.

GARNET COLEMAN: I got stopped 11 times the first year I got my driver's license. I can tell you I grew up afraid of the police.

WESTERVELT: Coleman calls it Texas stop and frisk in a car, and he says the problem hasn't changed at all since he was a kid. So he has proposed legislation effectively banning traffic stop fishing expeditions in the state.

COLEMAN: Unless we get rid of pretext stops, unless we get rid of the use of conjecture and lack of probable cause to search and stop people, then we'll end up with even more injuries and death on our highways.

WESTERVELT: But that'll be a hard sell in Republican-controlled Texas. And police say the routine traffic stop remains a valuable tool, and they contend it's among their most dangerous duties. In Texas, four officers have been shot during traffic-related stops just in the last month. Studies show such traffic ambushes are rare. And nationally, it still remains a long road ahead to limit or end pretextual stops. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that they do not violate the Fourth Amendment, rulings that continue to give law enforcement wide discretion in enforcing traffic violations.

A few cities, meantime, are also radically rethinking traffic stops. Berkeley, Calif., is the first city in the nation to move toward removing police from most traffic encounters. The plan, passed last summer, is for Berkeley to transfer traffic enforcement and accident duties to a newly created unit of unarmed civilian traffic agents. City Councilman Rigel Robinson led the effort.

RIGEL ROBINSON: I mean, this is a story about the failure of our war on drugs. It's also a story of the failure of our approach to traffic enforcement and the way that we overpolice Black bodies in this country from coast to coast.

WESTERVELT: But the Berkeley plan remains a slow work in progress. The city has to create a new transportation department. An even bigger challenge, Robinson says - state prohibitions on turning over to civilians duties currently handled by police.

ROBINSON: That's a tall order. So cities like Berkeley and Oakland and some of our colleagues in Los Angeles are really working towards trying to figure out what it would look like to have the state grant more flexibility to local municipalities to adopt the traffic enforcement approaches that they think will work best for their city.

WESTERVELT: And unless that expanded state flexibility comes, Berkeley's pioneering plan risks becoming yet another progressive reform floated in the wake of George Floyd's killing that will remain more goal than reality. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berkeley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.