By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – It is interesting—last week we had extensive discussions on reimagining policing and then, over the weekend and throughout this week, we had several police incidents. The death of Daunte Wright on a pretext stop has the potential to put traffic stops back on the table.
When we discussed reimagining policing last week, one area that seemed pretty clear-cut for reform—and indeed the city and county are moving in the right direction—is diverting mental health calls away from the police toward some sort of co-response model. While I have a bit of concern that we are still routing these calls through police, there is clear consensus both within the department and in the city to move in a new direction.
But for a long time my biggest concern has been police stops, racial profiling, driving while Black and pretext policing. This is where a police officer stops someone for a minor infraction and then does a search both in their database as well as the vehicle itself to determine if a larger law has been broken.
The problem is that this sort of policing disproportionately impacts people of color.
The 2019 RIPA (Racial and Identity Profiling Act) data shows: “Black people are arrested at a rate 5.9 times more, and Hispanic people 1.5 times more, than their population share; when considering only Davis residents, Black people are arrested at 5.0 times and Hispanic people 1.4 times their population share.”
Statewide, the Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board found that “individuals perceived to be Black were searched at nearly three times the rate of individuals perceived to be White.” In addition, “officers arrested individuals perceived to be Black at nearly 1.6 times the rate as individuals perceived to be White.”
The question is how best to address these disparities. Some have called for unarmed traffic enforcement. I have always been a bit reluctant to go there, believing there is an inherent danger in pulling people over in a vehicle, even for routine stops like speeding.
In my podcast this week recorded for a future episode with Emily Galvin-Almanza and Alana Sivin, both former public defenders and now analysts with the Appeal, pointed out that the relative risk is actually quite low with just 48 police officers killed in the line of duty (just six of them in traffic violation stops) in 2019 compared with 999 people killed by police officers.
Still, my preference would instead be to go to the Berkeley model.
Let us start with the data. In 2020, 121 people were killed during traffic stops. In fact, the majority of the people killed by police are killed in response to things like mental health calls, traffic infractions and other low-level offenses.
The case of Daunte Wright fits the pattern of so-called prextextual stops, where police use a minor violation as a pretext for investigating an unrelated crime. In his case it was an air freshener in the window that drew police attention and an expired license plate, and when they pulled him over,they found he had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant.
Some may wonder why there is a problem here?
But if you look at the NYU Study released in May 2020, police are not equal opportunity enforcers here.
The study, undertaken by Ravi Shroff, an assistant professor holding joint appointments at NYU Steinhardt and NYU CUSP, and his colleagues at the Stanford Open Policing Project, found “in a dataset of nearly 100 million traffic stops across the United States, black drivers were about 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers relative to their share of the residential population.”
Once stopped, the study found, “black drivers were searched about 1.5 to 2 times as often as white drivers” but “were less likely to be carrying drugs, guns, or other illegal contraband compared to their white peers.”
These findings have been repeated in many different studies—Blacks are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be searched, but less likely to be found with contraband, in part the reason is that whites are getting searched for an actual reason while Blacks are being searched due to biased policing.
So what is the solution here? When pushed on this issue last week, Chief Pytel talked about the need for better unconscious bias training.
The problem is that current training is not closing the racial disparities gap.
He explained, “I believe… we never actually bridged the gap between what unconscious bias training was supposed to do to bring issues to the conscious realm from the unconscious realm and how that affects decision making in the law enforcement process.
“An officer sees someone go through a stop sign and that’s a legitimate violation and something an officer can stop them for. In unconscious bias training, a lot is talked about if you’re going to stop a person, here’s all the biases that may take effect and can impact thinking,” he said.
But as Pytel points out, “Studies don’t show that unconscious training doesn’t change the stop data and the racial inequities. Also doesn’t prevent those rapid decision-making (instances).
“Unconscious bias training should translate to officers making more conscious decisions when there’s time—and 99 percent of the time, there’s time to consider what is it that I’m doing during this stop that may negatively impact a person and ends up just feeding the machine for the sake of feeding the machine (ie, the entire criminal justice system).”
He continued, “I think everybody would agree that there’s disparity in the criminal justice system.”
He said over the next year he wants to see if they can “individually bridge that gap and see if we can make those unconscious biases that everybody is affected by and see if the officers can bring that to conscious realm and make different decisions in every single stop or contact.”
But there is another solution here. The Berkeley model simply outlaws these type of pretextual stops.
In February, the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to support a package preventing Berkeley police from being able to stop drivers solely for minor traffic violations that include: equipment violations, expired vehicle registration, or not wearing a seat belt.
The police will only be able to conduct stops for violations “that endanger public safety.” These include excessive speeding, running a red light or stop sign, and driving under the influence.
Those pulled over for a public safety reason can still be cited for low-level offenses.
Some have taken this to mean that people can get away with not paying for their vehicle registrations. The reality is there are many ways to enforce vehicle registration violations administratively, and it does not have to become a law enforcement issue. They can also be assessed if they are committing a moving violation.
The Berkeley policy also addresses the search disparity by requiring Berkeley police to obtain written consent from motorists before doing a search without a warrant. A working group report found that requiring written consent reduced the number of warrantless vehicle searches by roughly 75 percent.
Additionally, “Officers are also no longer allowed to search a person who is on probation or parole unless the officer believes there is evidence of imminent danger, or that the person has committed a crime or is about to commit a crime.”
Current law allows police wide latitude to search all people on probation or parole. But of course, this also underlies bias policing because people of color are heavily over-represented among those under community supervision.
People of color are nearly twice as likely to be on parole as their white counterparts, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Last week, this kind of change seemed a bridge too far for Davis, but after Daunte Wright, the energy and impulse may be there to be make more fundamental changes.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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