In the months after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, public defenders in Virginia saw an opportunity to overhaul policing in the state. Among their key priorities to address racial disparities: a ban on traffic stops for such infractions as broken taillights, tinted windows and the aroma of marijuana.
What happened next stunned police officials across Virginia.
In just three months, the ban the public defenders pitched to Democratic legislators sailed to the governor’s desk and was signed into law. With Covid-19 shutting down the state Capitol and forcing the legislative sessions to take place via Zoom, the law enforcement officials who objected to the bill had failed to galvanize the opposition.
In March, Virginia became the first state to prohibit the kind of low-level traffic stops that disproportionately affect people of color and are often used as pretexts to search for drugs and weapons. An NBC News analysis of the early data shows that the measure is having an impact on the percentage of Black motorists searched by police during traffic stops.
“As public defenders, we aren’t exactly used to winning, let alone winning big,” said Brad Haywood, the chief public defender for Arlington County and executive director of Justice Forward, a criminal justice reform organization made up of public defenders across the state. “This will dramatically reduce race-based policing and impact so many lives.”
Long a cornerstone of American law enforcement, the traffic stop has emerged as a flashpoint in the debate over police reform.
Over the last 20 months, district attorneys in California and Minnesota have ordered prosecutors to drop cases in which officers found guns or drugs during traffic stops for minor infractions. Other states, including Washington and Massachusetts, are considering restrictions similar to Virginia’s.
Proponents describe the measures as a long overdue step in banishing a tactic that targets mainly Black drivers and fails to improve public safety.
But many law enforcement officials argue that they’re being stripped of a crucial tool that they say helps to reduce vehicle deaths and remove criminals, guns and drugs from the streets, although the police chiefs and sheriffs interviewed for this article struggled to provide data backing up their case.
Maggie DeBoard, the chief of the Herndon Police Department in Virginia, said stripping police of the ability to make certain traffic stops will make the roads more susceptible to traffic accidents and create fewer opportunities for officers to encounter people who should be off the streets.
“We are eliminating more and more interactions with criminals by not allowing us to enforce the laws that are on the books,” said DeBoard, who was the president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police as the group fought the bill.
“A lot of times you stop a vehicle, you have no idea the race, color, creed, religion of the person you're stopping,” DeBoard said. “You see a violation, you stop the car. And at night, you definitely don’t know who you’re stopping. So it is not about targeting.”
Virginia started collecting detailed traffic stop statistics only in June 2020. The early data suggest that the law is having some effect on how the roads are policed.
In the first four months after the law was enacted — March to June — the number of overall traffic stops rose by 7 percent compared to the previous four months, which experts said isn’t surprising given that warmer weather tends to attract more drivers to the roads.
But the number of motorists subjected to searches after having been pulled over — the category that the reformers care about most — dropped sharply, according to an NBC News analysis of police data obtained in a public records request.
The number of Black drivers who were searched fell by 40 percent, and the number of white drivers dropped by 30 percent, the data show.
Black people still accounted for about 30 percent of all traffic stops — the same percentage as before the law was changed — even though they are about 20 percent of the population of Virginia. White people, who make up 65 percent of the population, accounted for slightly under 65 percent of the stops before and after the law was changed, the early data show.
Da’Quan Marcell Love, the executive director of the Virginia NAACP, said the decline in the number of searches of Black drivers shows that the reforms are broadly working. But he said advocates are waiting to see how the situation plays out in the long term.
“We have to give it time to work,” Love said. “We are not launching a celebration any time soon.”
Crisis of trust
Officers stop about 20 million drivers a year, according to federal estimates, for reasons from speeding to blowing through reds light to expired tags. The vast majority of the encounters last only a few minutes and result in tickets or warnings, research shows.
Police across the country have long been criticized for using minor infractions such as broken taillights as reasons to stop motorists and investigate them for possible crimes.
Criminologists and civil rights lawyers have panned the tactic as a fishing expedition rife with racial bias that yields few results.
Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, analyzed more than 24 million traffic stops across North Carolina from 2002 to 2020. He found that the encounters led to arrests about 2 percent of the time. Searches also rarely occurred, and when they did, weapons were discovered in one-tenth of 1 percent of incidents.
Black people were the subjects of nearly half the stops, Baumgartner found, even though they are only 21 percent of the state’s population. “For every one bad guy they catch, they alienate, like, 18 young Black men,” Baumgartner said. “That's where we get to the crisis of trust with the police.”
That type of traffic stop led to two of the highest-profile police killings in recent years: those of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Walter Scott in South Carolina. Both were Black men who were shot and killed by officers after having been pulled over for broken taillights.
Officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 sparked coast-to-coast calls for reform. Faced with overwhelming public pressure, elected officials are increasingly moving forward with measures to strip away police powers regardless of whether law enforcement leaders support them.
Last month, the top prosecutor in Ramsey County, Minnesota, where Castile was killed, announced that he would no longer prosecute most cases that stem from non-public-safety traffic stops, such as expired tags. He cited the disproportionate impact on people of color, especially Black people, among other reasons.
“The outcome of these stops is that it yields very, very little contraband,” said the prosecutor, County Attorney John Choi. “If I thought that this would lead to more problems from a public safety perspective, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Larger police departments in Choi’s county supported the move, but the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association described it as “insulting.”
More statewide bans may be on the horizon as politicians continue to openly shrug off opposition from police.
Inspired by the change in Virginia’s law, Joe Nguyen, a Democratic state senator in Washington, recently introduced legislation that would prohibit police from pulling motorists over for failing to stop, driving without licenses and other violations.
“We passed a few bills last year that didn’t have law enforcement support, so it wouldn’t be unheard of,” Nguyen said.
Some police chiefs across the country, in places like Oakland, California; Minneapolis; and Portland, Oregon, have retooled their traffic enforcement policies to avoid unnecessary confrontations with drivers.
The Oakland Police Department issued a directive five years ago discouraging officers from pulling people over for low-level offenses like equipment violations and expired registrations.
Since the policies were put in place, the percentage of Black drivers who were stopped fell from 62 percent in 2016 to 51 percent in 2019. The police department enlisted Stanford University to examine its data, which showed that under 3 percent of stops in 2013 and 2014 were linked to more serious crimes.
Deputy Police Chief Christopher Bolton urged Oakland police brass reluctant to reform to take a hard look at the statistics.
“Why are we continuing to do those stops when the data is showing that not only is it not effective and efficient, but it could very well be damaging public trust and confidence in what our strategies are?” Bolton asked.
But in San Francisco, District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s push to end “pretextual” traffic stops has met fierce resistance from the police.
During his second month in office, Boudin told staff members to refrain from prosecuting people who were stopped for minor infractions and found to have “contraband,” including drugs and guns. Union officials slammed Boudin for creating an environment in which criminals feel comfortable to break the law without fear of punishment.
“If they want to continue to handcuff the police in doing their jobs, the unintended consequences are going to be more crime victims,” said Tony Montoya, the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
Union officials blame Boudin’s new traffic policy for the release of a man who was accused of fatally shooting two people weeks after he was pulled over and found with an assault-style rifle without a serial number.
The district attorney’s office said its decision not to pursue charges against the suspect, Robert Newt, had nothing to do with the circumstances of the stop. The investigators didn’t provide DNA or fingerprints that could tie Newt to the gun, Boudin’s office said.
Rachel Marshall, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said the policy “offers room for exceptions.” The district attorney’s office said it has rejected about one to two cases a month because of Boudin’s rules, for a total of 11 this year.
“Racial profiling undermines the legitimacy of law enforcement and fosters distrust in communities of color — all of which decreases public safety,” Marshall said.
Controversy in Virginia
Police chiefs and sheriffs in Virginia say that the state’s ban went too far and that it is putting lives at risk at a time when murders and fatal accidents are already soaring.
The original bill, in fact, would have gone even further by blocking police from stopping vehicles with no front lights. The governor’s office cut the measure after Chesterfield County Police Chief Jeffrey Katz blasted it in a viral Facebook post.
The new law permits a driver to have one broken headlight.
“Lawmakers were making decisions based on the loudest voices in the room, but not necessarily the most informed voices in the room,” Katz said in an interview. “And all you have to do is look at the crime rate in the last year and a half.”
As in many other states, the number of murders in Virginia has risen sharply since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to data from the Virginia State Police.
Even though officers can still cite people for speeding and erratic driving, rural county sheriffs said the ban creates an atmosphere in which reckless motorists feel safe to break the law, and they warned that traffic deaths will rise.
Fatal traffic accidents in the six months after the law was changed hit a 10-year high, according to an NBC News analysis that compared them to the same period going back to 2011.
Jessica Cowardin, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said the rise in traffic deaths mirrors national figures, which are also up.
Federal officials blame the increase on speeding, drunk drivers and people who don’t wear seat belts — violations that police in Virginia can still enforce.
For some Virginia police chiefs, the concerns go beyond traffic accidents. In Petersburg, about 20 miles south of Richmond, officers confiscated more than 1,000 guns in the three years leading up to the ban, often in vehicle stops, Police Chief Travis Christian said. But his office was unable to provide data backing up the claim.
The analysis of arrest data found that weapons were discovered in about 7 percent of traffic stops in Petersburg from 2018 to 2020.
As a chief who is Black, Christian said he is “torn” over the new law. He acknowledged that Black Virginians feel targeted by police when they are behind the wheel, but he said he still wants the ban reversed.
“It has given us the ability to use it as an investigative tool to get to other crimes that have been committed,” Christian said. “That tool has been eliminated for us.”
David Weisburd, a criminology professor and the executive director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, said he wasn’t aware of any data that support the claim that low-level traffic stops help to reduce crime.
“It is time, in my view, for the police to bring evidence to their arguments,” Weisburd said. “That evidence could help in deciding what is reasonable or unreasonable or what is good policing from what is awful policing.”
The new law hasn’t put an end to controversial stops in Virginia.
Five days after the ban went into effect, state troopers pulled over Juanisha Brooks, 35, a Black woman who is a senior video producer for the Defense Department, as she was driving along a highway in Northern Virginia.
A trooper ordered her to get out of the vehicle several times, saying he wanted to show her what was wrong with her car. Brooks refused, saying she didn’t understand why he couldn’t tell her while she remained in the vehicle.
Dashcam video appears to show the trooper dragging Brooks out of the seat and pushing her up against her car. Officers charged her with reckless driving, eluding, obstruction of justice and failing to have her headlights on. Prosecutors dropped the case, noting that the stop was illegal because of the reforms.
Corinne Geller, a spokesperson for the Virginia State Police, insisted that the arrest was fair because Brooks refused to comply with the trooper’s commands. State Police conducted an internal investigation; Geller said she couldn’t share whether the trooper was disciplined because of privacy rules.
“I was afraid for my life,” Brooks said. “I didn’t want to be another hashtag.”