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Bait and switch

Philly’s Driving Equality Bill was castrated between first draft and passage

Photo by Michael Förtsch on Unsplash

It looks like “bait and switch.”

What started out as Philadelphia City Councilman Isaiah Thomas’ “driving equality” bill was castrated, transitioning before passage into a “break the law with impunity” bill. 

The original bill, written in 2020, had language about how so-called “secondary offenses” – such as expired registration stickers, broken tail lights, missing license plates – would be gently handled by police. Instead of stopping the motorist, it allowed officers to write a ticket and mail it to the owner of the car, just as is done with red-light cameras.

But enforcement language mysteriously was stripped from the bill that passed 14-2 by City Council in early October. With no enforcement language, the bill effectively wipes “secondary violations” off the books. (It is one of two “driving equality” bills awaiting Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature. The second bill creates a public database listing information on traffic stops.) Those “secondary offenses” join the chaos of Philly’s other unenforced laws, such as pot smoking, shoplifting under $500, red-light running, prostitution, drug use, drag racing, and ATV parades down Broad Street. 

This “bait and switch” is a classic illustration of Otto von Bismarck’s quip that, “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” But I do want to see how this particular sausage was made. To be precise, unmade. But finding the name of the butcher is a challenge.

Let’s take a page from Genesis and start at the beginning, October 2020. In the wake of the George Floyd murder, and reacting to statistics about car stops, Thomas drafted a bill to prohibit police from making car stops for a number of “secondary offenses.”

It seemed “like another half-assed idea to help the irresponsible avoid the consequences of their actions,” I wrote a year ago. But Thomas’ office made available statistics developed by the Defender Association of Philadelphia that show African-Americans – 43% of the Philly population – are 72% of those stopped by police. Those statistics backed up what Thomas (who is Black) and others call “driving while Black.” 

Thomas’ bill permitted police to write a violation for “secondary offenses” and mail it to the car’s owner to reduce face-to-face confrontations between cops and civilians that can lead to conflict.

One of my operating systems, if I can slip into computer slang, is three little words: Obey The Law. It’s amazing how much less conflict there would be in America if people just followed those three little words. 

As long as the law had enforcement teeth, I was satisfied. Not everyone else was.

One talk radio host guffawed that violators would tear up tickets that came in the mail. Well, maybe, but they could tear up tickets that were handed to them. Police would still be authorized to stop cars for more serious offenses, such as speeding, running red lights or making illegal turns.

FOP President John McNesby last year said he believed the law was illegal. He could not be reached for comment on the current bill. Thomas’ spokesman, Max Weisman, said the bill had been approved by the city Law Department.

Here’s a secret: If you represent the city of Philadelphia and you can’t find a city lawyer who will endorse your opinion on anything, you better get a new job. The Philadelphia Police Department was offered input. “PPD worked collaboratively with [Councilman] Thomas to structure a bill that achieves the goals of healing police-community relations, reducing racial inequities in stops, and maintaining community safety,” police spokesman Eric McLaurin  told me in an email. 

When I asked for a list of “secondary offenses,” and how officers would enforce the new law, he vanished. Laws that put them in short pants harm their crime-fighting ability, says Tom Garvey, past president of the city and state FOP. “In a city where the population is 43% black, the City Council has 13 of 17 members who are Black, the police commissioner is black, 45% of the police force is Black, then why did City Council pass a bill that reduces revenue, violates state law, has shown jumps in vehicle injuries and deaths because drivers feel empowered and take more chances?” he asks.

“How many members of the City Council discussed the bill with members of their district who are Black police officers? When did any member of Council take a ride along in a high-crime area on a Friday night with two Black Highway Patrol officers who live in their district?” asks Garvey, adding that car stops are most common in high-crime areas (which in Philly happen to be Black).

What he was getting at was further explained by City Councilman David Oh, one of two Council members who voted against the bill. The other was Northeast Republican Councilman Brian O’Neill, who has been on Council since the Stone Age. 

The bill undermines citizen safety, Oh says. Inspection stickers, for example, ensure that the

car is roadworthy. Registration stickers and license plates prove that cars are safe and legal. “I do not think the bill is legal,” he says. “It’s outside our powers. Why would you need an executive order?”

Glad you mentioned that, Councilman.

I first heard those two words when I contacted Inquirer reporter Sean Collins Walsh to ask why his story on the bill said “officers can issue citations for those infractions that will be mailed to drivers.” He agreed such language was not in the latest bill, but said he was told by Thomas’ office that the missing enforcement language would be restored by an executive order [EO] when it reached the mayor’s desk.

So I emailed the mayor’s office, asking if he would restore enforcement language. While I awaited the mayor’s response, I made an entry in my Dream Journal: The mayor who supports illegal (not) safe injection sites, and who actively shields foreign felons from ICE, he is the one to insert teeth into this bill?

The answer from his spokeswoman was 225 words, with the consistency of a bottle of Gerber’s peach baby food.

I tried again: “Will enforcement language be added by EO?”

No response. The Mayor’s spokeswoman and the police department’s spokesman may be sharing a bunker.

I don’t blame them. While Philly may not be defunding the police, it is deballing them. And no one wants to take the blame. Stu Bykofsky served the Philadelphia Daily News as an editor, reporter and columnist for nearly 50 years before retiring in 2019. He now publishes at the centrist stubykofsky.com. Follow him on Twitter @StuBykofsky.

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  • Stu Bykofsky served the Philadelphia Daily News as an editor, reporter and columnist for nearly 50 years before retiring in 2019. He now publishes at the centrist stubykofsky.com. 

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