By Isaiah Thomas
Philadelphia has led the nation by passing Driving Equality. We reclassified certain motor vehicle code violations to remove police from minor traffic stops. As a Black man in Philadelphia, I’ve been stopped more times than I can count – traffic stops that have resulted in trauma, humiliation without making my neighborhood any safer. A traffic stop is often the first interaction a person of color has with law enforcement, starting a relationship characterized by mistrust and discontent. I am hopeful that my sons and other Black children will not have these negative interactions.
Now that Driving Equality is law, thanks to the Driving Equality executive order signed by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, police will have 120 days for training and education before it is enforced. This also leaves plenty of time to answer drivers’ questions and clear up any confusion.
Over this 120-day period, I also intend on advocating for more reforms to promote equality for all Philadelphians. Driving Equality is a model that can be replicated by municipalities across America, but it can’t just be on local governments.
After the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, proposals were introduced at every level of government to stop this type of abuse from happening again.
Divisiveness and partisanship stalled many of those efforts and many legislators moved on from the issue of police accountability and community models of public safety.
However, my colleagues on City Council, several Pennsylvania legislators, civil rights activists and communities of color have not moved on. There are proposals in both chambers of the legislative branch in Harrisburg that can be voted on; I encourage those of us who have not moved on to research and advocate for more action at every level of government.
I urge Pennsylvanians to contact their state representatives and ask them to support state Rep. Donna Bullock’s, D-Philadelphia, proposal to reform Pennsylvania’s police arbitration law to allow officers to be disciplined in cases of misconduct as well as her proposal which mirrors my driving equality legislation on the state level.
I also urge Pennsylvanians to contact their state senators and ask them to support the Pennsylvania Democrats’ police reform package; this package includes a proposal for a special prosecutor in instances of police misconduct, a proposal for public databases regarding officer training and education and a proposal to strengthen municipal civilian police oversight.
While the George Floyd Act — championed by U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. — did not pass into law, we cannot give up the fight on the national stage.
Limiting qualified immunity and granting the Department of Justice subpoena power in officer-related instances of abuse are necessary steps to improving police-community relations. While there is not an active bill being considered, I urge Pennsylvanians to contact their local members of Congress and remind them that issues of police accountability may not be front page news, but there are still critically important to constituents.
I first introduced the Driving Equality bill because my lived experience, and those of my family and friends, reinforced an issue. Data from the public defenders reinforced that this issue affects many Philadelphians and we need to make a change.
Once we began speaking publicly about the need to change how we enforced the motor vehicle code – Black Americans in cities across America began sharing their stories that felt too similar to mine.
I thank every person who bravely shared their story, change comes when we all raise our voice and demand it. I am proud of Philadelphia’s ability to lead, leadership that was possible with collaboration from the Kenny administration and Philadelphia Police Department.
To elected officials in state capitols and Washington, D.C.: Please continue to listen and work to make our country one that works for all of us. We’ve started something big, but we need to continue to listen to constituents and pass bold, innovative solutions.
Isaiah Thomas is serving his first term as at-large member of Philadelphia City Council.
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