Another bad bill targets the PPD

Our editor takes a look at a City Council bill that needs scrutinizing

Philadelphia City Hall
Democratic City Councilman Isaiah Thomas recently put forth his Driving Equality Bill in response to the issue of “Driving While Black.” | Image: Alejandro Barba

Anyone else notice City Council has a bad habit of introducing bills for the sake of looking busy?

I have, and I’ve covered this legislative body for a while now.

Freshman Democratic Councilman Isaiah Thomas recently put forth his Driving Equality Bill in response to the issue of “Driving While Black.” According to a press release, 43 percent of Philly residents are Black and Black people make up 72 percent of the drivers pulled over for alleged motor vehicle code violations. After a traffic stop, Black drivers are twice as likely to be searched but 35 percent less likely to be found with contraband.

So Thomas introduced the Driving Equality Bill, which will prohibit police officers from stopping anyone for minor traffic violations, such as tinted windows, broken headlights and taillights, blowing a stop sign, expired tags, and who knows what else, exactly. He and his co-sponsors – Councilmembers Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, Kendra Brooks, Kenyatta Johnson, Jamie Gauthier, Helen Gym and Cherelle Parker – claim that the bill will promote public safety.

“I’ve been pulled over more times than I can count and it never felt like it was keeping me or my community safer,” Thomas said in a news release.

“We need to improve police-community relations and, at a time of economic crisis, ensure that we are not wasting a single dollar of taxpayers’ money.”

But here’s the thing. We already have a Motor Vehicle Code that deals with headlights, rear lights, turn signals, if your license plate is falling off, tinted windows, if your bumper is busted, and a litany of other problems that may be wrong with your car. In any number of cases, you could be pulled over.

The newly proposed modifications to the City Traffic Code are so long and convoluted they remind me of a chart I once saw of someone trying to make sense of a Brexit flowchart.

Thomas’ Communications Director, Max Weisman, told me that Council, on its own, doesn’t have the power to change the state vehicle code but that’s not what they’re trying to do anyway. He said what Council does have the power to do is change how Philly police enact it. He said that his boss is merely trying to “really, tangibly, break-down racial barriers.”

“As a young Black man, [Thomas] fits the profile, but since being elected to office, it’s changed that…We saw the year that we had and he’s been an advocate for police reform in a number of ways. This is very personal to him,” said Weisman.

Many times, a traffic stop results in police finding a lot more than they expected, and that is good for public safety, at large, if what they find takes something dangerous off the streets.

“A tinted window is still a motor vehicle code violation. We’re just saying that instead of being pulled over, they could just send a citation in the mail the same as you would receive a parking ticket…We see this as one tiny solution to a big problem.”

So the police would issue a ticket for these minor infractions rather than pulling someone over. No one likes getting pulled over. I have been pulled over countless times. It sucks. It can ruin your day, your next 10 years, or your lifetime. But many times, a traffic stop results in police finding a lot more than they expected, and that is good for public safety, at large, if what they find takes something dangerous off the streets.

Vehicles that are unregistered, unlicensed, uninsured or otherwise illegal, should be off the road. They could be hazardous and cause accidents. I know, because I once drove one for way too long and the power steering failed, the timing belt snapped, and I was lucky enough to manhandle it onto the shoulder of I-676 before my 1990 Toyota Celica broke down and blocked traffic.

Police who are doing a good job should not be told they can’t continue their work because of a few – yes, a few – bad actors. Police are trained to protect and serve – not to target individuals based on race. If they are doing that, they should be fired.

Racial profiling exists, is a problem in our police department and has caused trauma for many Philadelphians. There’s been plenty of debate whether police need better training, new criteria for hiring, or sweeping reform altogether. I don’t know the answer, but shouldn’t solving the problem and coming up with a solution fall in the hands of the police commissioner or the mayor to whom she serves? This is not a City Council issue.

The bottom line is this: Why create a new law that allows people to violate an existing one? If you’re worried you have police doing illegal, targeted traffic stops, you don’t need a new law. You need better police. 

    • PW Editor Jenny DeHuff

      Jenny DeHuff has been a part of the Philadelphia media landscape for the last 15 years on just about every level of journalism. She started out at The Bulletin, a conservative voice for Philadelphia, then moved through the region as she honed her career as the City Hall reporter at the Daily News, and later as an editor at Philly Voice. As Philadelphia Weekly's new editor-in-chief, DeHuff brings a viewpoint that constantly begs the question of a progressive-leaning Philadelphia. Say hello at jdehuff@philadelphiaweekly.com.