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Pittsburgh City Council advances bill to prevent police from making minor traffic stops

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

In an effort to prevent police stops that could turn deadly for Black and brown people, Pittsburgh City Council appears poised to stop police from pulling over people for minor issues like a broken tail light or expired license plate. Council took a preliminary vote to pass the measure on Wednesday, and it received only one no vote from Councilor Anthony Coghill, and an abstention from Council President Theresa Kail-Smith.

Multiple councilors said the purpose of the bill is to address police reform, and to "re-imagine" policing in Pittsburgh. Public safety director Wendell Hissrich said that police have been under scrutiny the last two years, and officers are being trained to be more "sensitive" about stopping people.

Councilor Bruce Kraus said after a series of 2020 protests over police conduct , he spent weeks talking with Black leadership about the issue.

"The first topic of conversation was that we don't want to defund the police, it's not up for discussion, we will not have it," Kraus said. "The number two topic that came up in every one of those meetings is traffic stops, and how traffic stops could go awry. ... There was a clear desire to see the way we do traffic stops changed."

Kraus said he has "unshakeable" support for the bill.

Councilor Ricky Burgess modeled Pittsburgh's bill after a similar bill recently passed in Philadelphia.

Coghill said Philadelphia's bill hadn't take effect yet, and that it was too soon to say if its approach worked. And he said police statistics showed that in Pittsburgh, the current approach didn't need changing.

Coghill said that police engaged in over 52,000 vehicle stops between 2018 and 2020, and of those only 11 involved uses of force on the order of a firearm, Taser, or physical restraint. Those, he said, were "incredibly low numbers for our Pittsburgh Police. Of those 52,000, one was a firearm and it was a police officer returning fire. ... [T]he stats don't play out where this is necessary."

Coghill added that other police chiefs in surrounding areas had voiced concerns to him about the bill. He also questioned who would cite people for the secondary violations, and said it could potentially result in more dangerous vehicles being on the road. He also said there were concerns that fewer stops would make it easier to trafficking drugs through the city.

"We should not be putting this forward at this point," Coghill said. "Most importantly, why would we not wait for the next mayor, who ran on police reform, to come in and say 'good thing, bad thing'?"

But in an emailed statement to WESA, incoming mayor Ed Gainey said he supports the bill.

"Clearly, I have stated from the very beginning of my candidacy that I believe we have to find real solutions and ways to improve community and police relations and to make this City safe for all," the statement said. "Much of the research suggests that many of these minor traffic stops can and do turn deadly for our citizens, especially our Black and Brown citizens, and they don't necessarily lead to a safer outcome for our citizens or law enforcement. I would hope that Council will continue to explore systematic ways to address the issue of how we make this city the safest city in America for our law enforcement officers and our citizens."

The bill also met with approval from David Harris, a professor of law at University of Pittsburgh who has studied police-community relations. He said the measure is a "great first step along a much-needed path."

"Police officers use this kind of high-discretion traffic stop activity as a way to do other investigations in which there is no evidence," he said. "We see in our data that people of color are treated this way much more often than white drivers."

Harris said the reform could end up being embraced by police because it takes some of the work off their plates.

"In Philadelphia, the police department was behind it," he said. "It has very little public safety value. Nobody is saying don't stop reckless drivers — of course you do that. But these kind of low-public safety offenses don't give police any bang for the buck as far as traffic safety. They have angry citizens, eroding trust for the police, with no great return."

The bill is slated for a final vote next week.