License And Registration: Philadelphia Cops Caught In The Crossfire Over Traffic Stops

License And Registration: Philadelphia Cops Caught In The Crossfire Over Traffic Stops

On Tuesday, July 26, 2021, the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia Police departments nearly had their state accreditation revoked. This all came to a head because they enacted policies that attempted to push back on municipal ordinances and state laws to reduce traffic stops, which were characterized as “an effort to prevent police stops that could turn deadly for Black and brown people.” In Philadelphia, the “Driving Equality Bill” was passed in 2021, prompting Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw to comply with Mayor Jim Kennedy’s executive order 6-21, restricting officers from making traffic stops to enforce eight sections of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code.

In April, the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission (PLEAC) sent a letter to Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and then-Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert to notify them that their enacting of official department policies to comply with municipal ordinances that attempt to supersede the Pennsylvania vehicle code means that their departments “are no longer in full compliance with the state’s Accreditation Program and Standards.”

On July 26th, the board met and scheduled separate hearings for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh leading to votes on their accreditation status. 

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Outlaw and her legal advisor, Inspector Healy, made a case that slightly differed from PLEAC’s interpretation. Their municipal ordinance merely downgraded eight sections of the vehicle code from primary violations – where an officer can make a stop on observation – to secondary ones in which a citation can be issued once a stop for another offense was initiated (such as a seat belt violation). Commission members, who are all acting law enforcement chiefs throughout the state and casted a 10-8 vote, had originally considered a 90-day stay on the department’s status. However, several board members told local news outlet Broad + Liberty under a condition of anonymity that they were voting to allow the department a 90-day waiver, but they had voiced their belief that the City of Philadelphia was not in compliance.

According to board members, the Pittsburgh Police delegation did not show up at the meeting. Therefore, their accreditation status still remains in jeopardy.

In gaining PLEAC Accreditation, police agencies have to comply with standard 1.1.1, which requires:

“A written directive requiring all law enforcement personnel, prior to performing their sworn duties, to take and subsequently abide with an Oath of Office to support, obey and defend the constitution of the United States and the Pennsylvania Constitution and the laws of Pennsylvania and the governmental subdivision and that he/she will discharge the duties of the office with fidelity. 

Newly hired law enforcement officers, in a manner prescribed by the agency, shall also acknowledge that they will uphold, obey and enforce the law without consideration to a person’s race, color, sex, religious creed, sexual orientation, age, national origin, ancestry, handicap or disability.”

PLEAC Accreditation Program Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, James Adams, stated that the Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner and Accreditation Manager were sent the April letter advising them that “it came to the attention of the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission (PLEAC) that with the enactment of City Code § 12-1700, Driving Equality law, Executive Order 6-21 Philadelphia Police Department is no longer in full compliance with the Accreditation Program and Standards.”

This is due to the commission’s standards requiring the city to have “a written directive requiring all law enforcement personnel to support, obey and defend the constitution of the United States and the Pennsylvania Constitution and the laws of Pennsylvania.”

PLEAC Board member, Chief Patrick Molloy of the Abington Township Police Department said, “The ordinance itself is not in compliance with PLEAC standards. This prohibits police officers from the type of proactive policing that results in a reduction of crime and an improvement of quality of life.” 

“At a time when police reforms are requiring police departments to be more accountable and professional, this ordinance concedes that police officers are incapable of applying the law without consideration to race, which is why it’s not in compliance with our oath and with accreditation standards.” 

By passing these ordinances, James Adams argued that the Cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are trying to supersede constitutionally legislated state law with municipal ordinances, putting law enforcement officers at odds with their oath of office, by barring them from enforcing eight sections of the state’s vehicle code. 

Had the Pittsburgh Police Chief or Philadelphia Police Commissioner and their staff pushed back on these ordinances or come up with a creative solution – such as allowing officers to make stops but only issue written warnings as opposed to fines for these minor issues – these departments’ accreditations might not be in jeopardy.

“The PLEAC solicitor has verified that, by law, a first-class city [Philadelphia] or second-class city [Pittsburgh] does not have the authority to supersede state law.” said Adams. 

Max Weisman, communications director for Philadelphia City Council member Isaiah Thomas who sponsored Philadelphia’s Driving Equality Law, issued the following statement to Broad + Liberty: “Our bill simply reclassifies eight individual vehicle code violations as secondary violations.” Weisman continued, “It is the same method of enforcement of an officer noticing a driver without a seatbelt — it is a violation that can be enforced but cannot be the primary reason for a stop.”

To back up the data supporting Council member Thomas’s claims that these traffic stops targeted black and brown drivers, Weisman wrote that “there was a plethora of data that was included around this bill — data and lived experience is at the heart of Driving Equality.” Weisman reported that the Defenders Association of Philadelphia derived their analysis of data from the Philadelphia Police on traffic stops.

Weisman further remarked that “Driving Equality (and the Executive Order) passed with a complimentary data bill that will serve as an audit of Driving Equality. We believe in this model but are closely monitoring, alongside a Driving Equality Accountability Group, traffic stops to ensure this bill is in fact achieving its goal (of modifying the stops that promote discrimination while keeping the stops that promote public safety).”  When Weisman was requested to detail who is a part of this accountability group, how often they meet, and how members are recruited, Weisman provided a link to a local PBS story and reported that the group “will keep a watchful eye on regulations designed to prevent Philadelphia police from stopping people for minor traffic infractions in the city.” 

The group includes representatives from the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the Abolitionist Law Center, and the Community Bail Fund as well as a pastor, a Villanova professor, and local residents classified as “neighborhood advocates.” The board listed in Weisman’s link states that the law “needs to be carefully monitored to be sure racial equity occurs while also ensuring public safety.” Yet, at the time of this writing, there are apparently no members of the board from the Inspector General, Controller, Police Department, or any trained traffic safety experts from the state police or state Department of Transportation. 

Former Police Chief, James Adams, himself, acknowledged that officers “regularly use discretion when enforcing minor laws or conducting traffic stops” and noted that police agencies could have internally set those priorities  within the department. However, Adams remarked that “to craft an ordinance that prohibits officers from enforcing the law or being able to make lawful stops that can save lives is what puts Philadelphia and Pittsburgh out of compliance.”

For his part, Adams noted Council Member Thomas’ concerns, remarking that the “PLEAC wanted to review data proving that the Philadelphia police traffic enforcement policies target people of color for enforcement — and more specifically, how the Driving Equality ordinance would address such a problem while preserving public safety.”

“How does this bill actually correct the problem of bias as its proponents suggest?” Adams questioned. “How does prohibiting officers from enforcing these 8 sections of the vehicle code somehow solve the issue of racial disparity?”

Police Departments can operate without state or national accreditation – but at added cost to local taxpayers.

Broad + Liberty noted: “Independent law enforcement accreditation includes review of department policy, institution of best practices, annual reporting, and an independent external audit conducted every three years. One of the big drivers of this process is the reduction of operational risk and loss control, as comparative statistical reviews conducted over the last three decades show a positive correlation between accreditation and a reduction in liability and worker’s compensation claims.”

Further, by gaining accreditation, “agencies can improve their policies, training, and transparency to effectively defend themselves against lawsuits, reduce substantiated citizen complaints, equip command staff with a proven management system, and allow agencies an independent – externally vetted change management and self-audit system.”

Additionally, “in pushing the Philadelphia Police Department to comply with PLEAC standards a decade ago, [then-Commissioner] Ramsey negotiated a $1,500 bonus for each member of the department to meet accreditation standards” at a cost of nearly $10M in taxpayer revenue.

Moreover, “without an annual PLEAC accreditation audit due, what measures will the Philadelphia Police have to maintain compliance and show it is transparent in opening their policies, procedures, and operations to a valid third-party review?”

This is why law enforcement leaders and legal professionals need to be consulted in the drafting of any law or enforcement policies that may have implications to existing laws or public safety concerns. Had these departments delayed establishing policies that conflict with state standards, this issue would not have been up for a PLEAC vote. More importantly, given the record homicides recorded in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh last year, it may be irresponsible to consider greater restrictions on lawful law enforcement operations. To this, Adams said, “With the rise in crime throughout our nation, why would we prohibit our police from using the lawful tools at their disposal to address it?”

A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP served in both municipal and federal law enforcement, leading to his designation as a nationally recognized subject matter expert in security, public integrity, and criminal justice reform. He has served as a consultant and expert witness and as the Director, Office of Investigations for the American Board of Internal Medicine from 2008-2017. 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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