In the year after Pittsburgh City Council passed a bill meant to reduce certain minor traffic stops that disproportionately affect minorities, the number of people being pulled over decreased, but not much changed in the racial breakdown of those stopped.

The city’s Equitable and Fair Enforcement of Motor Vehicle Laws ordinance, passed in late 2021 and effective April 2022, was meant to reduce the risk of harm from secondary traffic stops, which are based on violations like recently expired registration tags or burnt-out tail lights.

However, in January, then-acting Chief of Police Thomas Stangrecki reversed the policy. New Chief Larry Scirotto recently told Rtvsrece the ordinance could cost the city police force its accreditation for not enforcing parts of the state’s vehicle code.

The ordinance suggested that Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely than whites to be stopped for such infractions, and aimed to address that disparity.

Data provided by the city to the Police Data Accessibility Project [PDAP] and shared with Rtvsrece, however, suggests that Black motorists remained 2.4 times more likely than whites to be stopped for traffic violations of all kinds in 2022.

Scirotto did not dispute that finding, but maintained that traffic stop disparities are based not on bias, but on police deployments.

“Our resources will go where violence dictates, and that oftentimes in this city is in our Black communities,” he said. “And if that’s where our patrol operations and our strategic initiatives are, then our engagement is often going to be higher in that population as well.”

Police accountability leaders, however, say secondary traffic stops continue to unfairly burden minority communities, and they’re preparing new legislation on the subject.

“These stops become a barrier that forces people into criminal behavior because they're stopped by police so much that they're not able to maintain their jobs, go to school on time and be able to be with their family and friends,” said Miracle Jones, director of advocacy and policy at 1Hood Media. “They get bogged down with so many fees and fines that they’re risking incarceration.”

Data provided by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police show that stops initiated for secondary violations made up 5% of 6,883 traffic stops in 2022 and 11% of the 3,727 stops in the first half of 2023. (Other stops were driven by primary violations, which include speeding, failing to signal and running red lights.) So far this year, two-thirds of stops for secondary violations have ended in warnings.

While Pittsburgh’s population is around 64% white, Black motorists got almost exactly as many warnings as white motorists in 2022, and more warnings than whites in the first half of this year.

Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said law enforcement continues the “unnecessary work” of secondary traffic stops to maintain a culture of power over communities.

“Traffic stops are dangerous for both the people getting pulled over and the people doing the pulling over. Why would we not want to limit those interactions?” Fisher said.

She noted the intrusive nature and embarrassment that comes with being pulled over and searched on the side of the street. “For certain communities, when that's happening every day, that becomes harassment.”

Fisher added: “Nobody should have to live with that type of harassment. Nobody should be humiliated like that on the side of the road,” she said.

According to the most recent census data, 23 of the 90 Pittsburgh neighborhoods are predominantly Black, and Black residents make up around a quarter of the city’s population.

In 20 of the city’s 67 predominantly white neighborhoods, a majority of traffic stops from 2020 through March of this year involved Black motorists.

Last year:

  • Brighton Heights, where 25% of residents are Black and 66% are white, saw 28% of stops involving white drivers and 68% involving Black drivers.
  • In Brookline, in which 6% of residents are Black and 83% are white, 70% of people pulled over were white, while 18% were Black.
  • In Squirrel Hill South, with a population that is 3% Black and 72% white, 38% of traffic stops involved Black motorists compared to 49% involving whites.

Alternatives to traffic stops

Fisher said that to combat disparities, the city needs to understand why motorists are stopped. Officers aren’t currently required to record the reasons for stops.

While stopping short of promising detailed logs of the reasons for stops, Scirotto said he expects better data analysis in the near future. IAPro BlueTeam, an officer evaluation tool, should be online within the next few months, he said. He said the software tracks personnel performance and produces data that can be used to determine whether an officer is participating in bias-based policing, or rather if the officer’s engagement patterns match the demographics in the area to which they are assigned.

If the bureau has “an officer that is using low-level primary violations such as an expired registration tag, such as window tinting, and the demographic of the motorist he’s stopping 20 out of 20 times is a Black male from the age of 20 to 28, now it gives us data to determine whether that single officer is participating in bias-based policing,” or is just assigned to an area in which demographics and violent crime patterns would explain such a finding, Scirotto said.

IAPro BlueTeam has been used to track police interactions with an eye to race in cities including Dallas and San Bernardino, Calif.

“It will give us the measurables that I think are important to ensure that our officers are acting in a fair and equitable way, consistently across the board in all interactions,” he said.

Jones added that another key is emphasizing alternatives to enforcement.

“We believe there are more innovative ways to address some of these traffic citations outside of having police stop people and give them hefty fees, and then having them get hefty fees and fines through traffic court,” she said.

She pointed to low-cost initiatives by organizations to fix problems that lead to secondary violations, like AAA hosting events to replace illegible license plates.

Jones said that after the ordinance was passed, she saw people getting their vehicle issues fixed to become compliant with the law, without having to worry about being pulled over on the way to the repair shop. “We understand that people are literally just trying to survive, they're not really trying to cause harm through traffic.”

Amid potential repercussions, advocates move forward

Fisher, Jones and Scirotto agree on the need for more clarity regarding the city’s traffic stop practices.

While Scirotto is not opposed to the ordinance in principle, he said it has caused confusion — even within the bureau — about what will or won’t result in a traffic stop.

“It may be that the messaging seems to be confusing, both publicly and internally,” he said. “We probably need to work on that messaging again, so if we're going to reenact this ordinance, we have a messaging plan to support it.”

Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto, wearing a police uniform, stands for a portrait at Pittsburgh Police Headquarters on the North Side in front of boxes and filing cabinets on Monday, July 15, 2023.
Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto stands for a portrait at Pittsburgh Police Headquarters on the North Side on Monday, July 15, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

Scirotto said he’s also concerned about the potential effects of any ordinance that bars enforcement of some sections of the state’s vehicle code.

In April 2022, the month the legislation was put into effect, the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission [PLEAC] sent city officials a letter warning of the repercussions of not fully complying with the state’s accreditation program and standards.

The commission is expected to hold a hearing later this month that will then lead to a vote on whether to provide a waiver for the bill or revoke the bureau’s accreditation. PLEAC will also rule on Philadelphia’s similar ordinance on which Pittsburgh’s is based.

“The ordinance would be in direct conflict with the police bureau’s accreditation status,” said the chief. “And so that is a decision that now our community, City Council and the mayor's office must determine which one is more important” — the ordinance or accreditation.

While accreditation is voluntary, it serves to increase the department's legitimacy among the public by setting standards for it to maintain.

Community advocates are pushing ahead with a draft of new traffic stop legislation. Fisher said the 2021 bill didn’t go far enough.

She and Jones, working alongside the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Hear Foundation, are proposing a new version of the legislation to City Council. PDAP, which shared data with Rtvsrece for this story, provided some feedback to the group regarding traffic stop data collection.

The original bill listed offenses for which officers couldn’t stop drivers, creating confusion over what truly counted as a secondary stop. A new bill may instead specify violations for which motorists can be pulled over, leaving out minor offenses that do not pose a direct threat to public safety, according to Fisher.

“There are so many things that have to be reformed, and this is really just a first step and a series of steps that people are working on,” Jones said. “It's creating a better way to represent and advocate for people and to build a community so people are able to feel safe and secure when they're traveling.”

Elizabeth Szeto is a data storytelling intern at Rtvsrece and can be reached at elizabeth@rtvsrece.com.

Rich Lord contributed.

This story was fact-checked by Sean Lord.

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Elizabeth Szeto is a junior at Carnegie Mellon University majoring in statistics and machine learning and minoring in human-computer interaction. Originally from the Bay Area, Elizabeth is excited to learn...