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Philadelphia councilmember on new city law banning minor driving infractions


Five years ago, Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light. That interaction with the police eventually led to Castile's death After an officer shot him seven times. These kinds of traffic stops for minor violations have targeted Black drivers at disproportionately higher rates. And now Philadelphia has banned low-level traffic stops, making it the first major city in the country to do so. That law goes into effect early next year, and Philadelphia Councilmember Isaiah Thomas spearheaded that legislation. He says his motivation came in part from his own experience as a Black man born and raised in Philadelphia.

ISAIAH THOMAS: I've been driving in this city all my life, and so it starts with my foundational experiences as it relates to being pulled over for situations that didn't necessarily warrant a pull-over. Then it also moves to my position as a member of City Council when it comes to analyzing the data, as well as listening to the testimony of constituents from all across the city of Philadelphia.

CHANG: I want to get into the details of this law. I mean, what kinds of offenses are considered low-level infractions?

THOMAS: If you put your license plate in a position where as though it's not where the license plate are traditionally supposed to be, but it's still visible, now you will not be pulled over. A single broken tail light, similar to what you talked about as far as the incident a few years back, having a single broken tail light is definitely not a public safety hazard. Minor obstruction to the mirror windshield, so think about that air freshener hanging in a car. If you're a coach like me, that might be a whistle hanging from your mirror, so that will not get you pulled over. And there are several other examples as well, too. But these are low-level motor vehicle code violations that we know do not have a negative impact on public safety.

CHANG: And we should note that drivers can still be penalized for some of those things that you've just listed. They'll just get ticketed, but those won't be the primary reason they would get stopped in their car by a police officer.

THOMAS: You're exactly right. We have a number of means of enforcement as it relates to Philadelphia Parking Authority staffers. We also have traffic officers that we're hiring in the city of Philadelphia. And we also have beat patrol offices. All of these authorities, as well as mailing tickets, are options for enforcement as it relates to these low-level motor vehicle code violations.

CHANG: So I'm looking at a statement here from the Philadelphia Police Department, and they have said that they believe this is a fair and balanced approach to addressing racial disparity without compromising public safety. I'm curious, though, when you were writing this law, did you consult with the Philadelphia Police Department to get to some common ground?

THOMAS: We absolutely consulted with the Philadelphia Police Department. The police department was a part of a coalition that worked together for over a year to come up with legislation that we all felt like makes sense and we all felt like we could be comfortable implementing as it relates to trying to improve relationships between communities of color and law enforcement while simultaneously not having a negative impact on public safety.

CHANG: Just to step back for a moment, in a larger sense, how do you think this law could help redefine the role police officers play in the community in Philadelphia?

THOMAS: We think that this legislation is the beginning of what we're hoping will be a conversation, but also action items. That puts us in a position where communities of color can begin to establish a different level of trust between law enforcement and those neighborhoods. We know that there is a lot of tension there. We know that there's a history of oppression and institutional racism that has plagued communities of color as it relates to the relationship we've had with law enforcement here in the city of Philadelphia.

And so this is hopefully a step in the right direction to be able to rectify some of those ills. And we're excited about what we are possibly able to do as it relates to not just reducing traffic stops and minimizing negative interactions between communities of color and law enforcement, but just overall changing the narrative as it relates to the relationship between the two.

CHANG: That is Isaiah Thomas. He's a Philadelphia councilmember who wrote the bills that became the Driving Equality Act. Thank you very much for being with us.

THOMAS: Thank you for having me. I appreciate you covering this important topic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Michael Levitt