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Advocates urge Pittsburgh City Council to continue efforts to rein in police traffic stops

Pittsburgh City Council is now considering a bill to require officers to document why they stop pedestrians.
Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh City Council is now considering a bill to require officers to document why they stop pedestrians.

Pittsburgh City Council on Wednesday hosted a discussion about limiting the discretion police have to pull over drivers — a debate police themselves declined to join.

The afternoon hearing followed a vote by council late last year to stop officers from pulling motorists over for minor violations like driving with a lapsed inspection, broken tail light or obstructed view.

Speakers at the meeting included a number of activists, an ACLU staffer, and Philadelphia City Councilor Isaiah Thomas, whose city passed an ordinance that was a model for Pittsburgh's own.

Thomas said that he personally had been pulled over dozens of times as a driver and pedestrian, and that over 70% of stops involve Black people, who make up less than half the population.

Thomas said Philadelphia's bill was passed only after months of discussion.

"The bill was introduced prior to the summer of 2021, and we spent the entire summer engaging in dialogue [about the bill]," he said. "The bill was passed in the fall, but it hasn't been implemented yet because police asked for time for training."

He said within the next couple of weeks the bill will officially go into effect.

Pittsburgh's version of the bill passed less than two months after being introduced in November. Before its passage at the end of 2021, some activists urged delay to allow incoming Mayor Ed Gainey to play a part in shaping it.

City Councilor Anthony Coghill hosted the meeting and said that he invited law enforcement representatives to the meeting, but they declined the invitation. But he said they did share concern about whether they would be able to support other law enforcement agencies — like state troopers of University of Pittsburgh police — who might detain a driver on city streets but not be governed by the city ordinance.

"If a state police officer pulls somebody over on the state roads, will Pittsburgh police back them up on those calls?" Coghill asked.

Thomas acknowledged it was unclear how those partnerships would work in Philadelphia.

Councilor Deb Gross said limiting traffic stops would help address a wave of incarceration that "has destroyed our communities": The stops can lead to other criminal charges that would otherwise not have been pursued, and can also lead to violent confrontations with officers.

Among the activists who attended was Autumn Redcross of the Abolition Law Center. She urged council to continue down the road it started with the traffic bill.

"When my son was first driving ... he had a back brake light that was out and not only was he stopped, there were six police at his car," she said. "Many people who are parents of Black and brown children resort to telling them, 'This is how you have to behave when you're stopped.' ... Do you have to tell your children this?"