Pa. Black Caucus pushes for universal collection of racial data from traffic stops

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Black lawmakers could hold the deciding votes on two long-sought changes to state driving laws, giving them the rare leverage to ask that an expansion of police oversight be accompanied by protections for Black drivers.

The bills, one expanding the state’s laws on distracted driving and the other, which allows local police to use radar guns, have befuddled lawmakers for years.

Despite pressure from local police departments and road safety advocates, state legislators, propelled by a combination of stubborn inaction and fears of being responsible for increased traffic stops, haven’t addressed either issue.

The latter, however, is more than a political nuisance for Harrisburg’s Black lawmakers. Research has shown that Black drivers are more likely to be stopped and searched by police.

And those stops can escalate quickly. In the past month, two stops of Black drivers made national news when police shot and killed one driver, and pepper sprayed another as he complied, once again showing the disparate police outcomes for Black people that have  motivated the Black Lives Matter movement.

Even Black lawmakers aren’t immune to fears that they could endure similar treatment, said state Rep. Donna Bullock, a Philadelphia Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

“We don’t feel safe. There are members in the Black caucus who have shared with me how unsafe they feel every time they drive to Harrisburg — how they drive during the day because they don’t want to get pulled over at night,” Bullock told the Capital-Star. “You don’t know what may happen in the pitch dark of night.”

Securing the backing of the Black caucus’s 26 House members for the two bills would simplify the legislative math for either proposal to pass amid divisions within the Republican caucus.

So, in the past weeks, Bullock, law enforcement stakeholders, and majority House Republicans have been meeting to negotiate a small edit to the distracted driving bill. It would require state and local police departments to collect demographic data — including race and ethnicity — from every traffic stop.

That data would then be made public. Bullock hopes studying it could point to new laws to keep drivers and police safe, institute training for specific law enforcement agencies, or even dispel the concerns of Black and Brown drivers.

These negotiations include the GOP sponsors of the two driving proposals, Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, and Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland.

Rothman, who’s sponsoring the legislation to let local police departments use radar guns to catch speeders, said it needs Democratic support, of any kind, to be implemented.

“If it’s going to become law and [Gov. Tom Wolf] is going to sign it, he’s going to want to see that Democratic House members supported it,” Rothman told the Capital-Star.

But Brown’s bill strengthening distracted driving laws, in particular, may face the biggest hurdles. 

She has pushed the proposal for the better part of a decade. She says her northeastern Pennsylvania constituents see it as common sense. Just over the state line in New Jersey, they could be hit with a minimum $200 fine if they used their phone behind the wheel.

But that’s not so in Pennsylvania. State law specifically bans drivers from texting while driving, with a $50 fine plus fees. But it has an exemption for dialing a phone number. That means an officer must be able to tell exactly what a driver was doing on their phone before they can pull them over. 

Brown’s proposal would allow police to pull over and ticket drivers who touch their cellphones for any purpose behind the wheel. — except to pick up or hang up a call. Use of hands free devices still would be allowed. 

A driver who can’t put down their phone would be subject to a $100 fine. But, as under current law, they would not get any points on their license.

Brown’s colleagues, asked to expand traffic stops for the ubiquitous multitasking of the digital age, have frequently balked, citing what she calls the “Superman syndrome.”

“It’s not gonna happen to me,” Brown said of her colleagues’ arguments. “I can do it. I can talk on the phone, I can drink a cup of coffee at the same time and drive, and I’m not distracted.”

In fact, in January 2020, when her bill received its first floor vote, those skeptics were the majority.

The House voted 117-79 to water down Brown’s bill. The change meant that police could not pull a driver over just for cellphone use, but they could increase the penalty for a ticket if a motorist was using their phone while committing a different driving infraction, such as speeding.

That change was offered by Brown’s Poconos colleague, Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, who’s a former manager in the trucking industry. He told the Capital-Star he planned to offer the edit again. 

Heffley’s change does prevent police from gaining yet another pretext to pull over Black drivers, which was enough to garner support from 16 members of the Black caucus, Bullock among them.

“The truth of the matter is, there are many times when folks are pulled over in Pennsylvania for nefarious reasons,” then-House Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, said at the time. He voted to weaken the bill as well.

Bullock said that, without the collection of traffic stop data, she’d support Heffley’s effort to soften Brown’s bill again.

“If we are taking the steps to address racial profiling and police abuse in the Commonwealth, then I can support making distracted driving a primary offense,” she said in an email. “If we are not putting forth a good faith effort to reduce police harassment and abuse of Black drivers during traffic stops, then I cannot support it as a primary offense.”

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Brown told the Capital-Star that she was supportive of Bullock’s data collection requirement, and wanted to see the details worked out. But she added  that allowing police to stop a driver for phone use, and only phone use, was critical.

“We need to be proactive in preventing crashes,” Brown said. 

In 2016, the Marshall Project, a criminal justice focused nonprofit news outlet, reported that 31 states collected demographic data from traffic stops. But how it was processed, and whether it was studied or released to the public, varied greatly between states.

“In general it’s still quite onerous — and often too difficult in practice — to get sufficient data on traffic stop records to facilitate the kinds of statistical analyses that are most informative for studying discrimination in stop practices,” Ravi Shroff, a New York University statistics professor who has studied police stop data, told the Capital-Star.

Pennsylvania State Police just began collecting demographic data again after quietly pausing it for almost a decade, according to Spotlight PA, an online nonprofit news outlet. The state police has partnered with the University of Cincinnati to analyze the data.

Such an impromptu pause could not begin again under Bullock’s proposed language.

In an email, State Police spokesperson Ryan Tarkowski said that  the department planned to continue to collect data, regardless of whether it was required or not.

State Police Commissioner “Colonel [Robert] Evanchick believes that collection and independent analysis of this type of data is important not only to identify potential patterns of disparities in policing, but also to build trust and legitimacy with the communities law enforcement serves,” Tarkowski wrote.

Bullock’s proposal also would mandate that local police departments collect the same information. Such a requirement could be tricky to implement, said Scott Bohn, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. But the group doesn’t have an objection to it.

With more than 1,000 police departments in the commonwealth, Bohn said that implementation will run the gamut between departments already collecting such data and releasing it, to some that haven’t ever tried to gather it.

The association’s main ask was to link such demographic data to driver’s licenses, so officers in the middle of a traffic stop wouldn’t have to ask for, or assume, a motorist’s race, and could instead pull it from the state Department of Transportation.

Other states have required police officers to collect this data. California began collecting the data in 2018. That state’s most recent report found that while police stopped more than twice as many white drivers as Black, Black drivers were more likely to have their car searched or be detained. 

Preliminary results from similar police data collection in Massachusetts found disproportionate arrests of Black people.

Details remain to be hammered out, including the potential cost of collecting and processing the data. 

The Pennsylvania State Police’s Tarkowski said agency leadership has met with lawmakers to “share lessons learned from the implementation of the department’s own program.”

The House is in session this week, and could take action on either Rothman or Brown’s bill at any time.