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Los Angeles Latest City to Restrict Policing of Minor Traffic Infractions

Los Angeles is overhauling its traffic stop policy, aiming to restrict the policing of minor infractions—such as expired tags or broken tail lights—as a pretext to search cars, reports the New York Times. “We want to fish with a hook, not a net,” Police Chief Michel Moore said. Los Angeles is is the largest city to attempt such a change. Among others to take similar steps are Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Berkeley, Lansing, Brooklyn Center, Mn., and the entire state of Virginia. Elsewhere, a half-dozen prosecutors said they would not use evidence collected at these sorts of stops. Proponents cite data showing that minor infraction stops disproportionately target Black drivers while doing little to combat serious crime and placing officers and drivers in danger. A Times investigation found that over the previous five years, police officers engaged in pretextual stops had killed more than 400 people who were not armed or under pursuit for a violent crime.

Criminologists say the move is the first major reconsideration of traffic policing since the 1980s, when rising crime rates and a trend towards proactive policing led many cities to use pretextual stops as a matter of course. While many are happy with the change, some police unions are crying foul, arguing that the stops are an investigative tool against serious crime. In Philadelphia, the police union has sued to block an ordinance banning certain stops, saying it violates state laws. In Los Angeles, the police union is running ads warning that tying officers' hands could lead to guns and killers being allowed to remain at large. Joe Massie, a motorcycle officer and an official of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said anxiety about breaking the new rule “is going to disincentivize officers to make stops.” Many police reform observers are struck by the timing of the trend to reconsider traffic stops. With an uptick in crime, many criminal justice reforms have stalled. The move is coming “at the very moment that the pendulum feels like it’s moving back toward concern about increases in street crime,” said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum.

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