It’s not that the Virginia lege isn’t trying. The problems it’s addressing are undoubtedly real and serious, even if they also happen to be unduly popular at the moment. Cops profile. Cops use traffic stops as pretexts for searches. Sometimes, they just make up reasons to stop people, because they can. This happens disproportionately to black people, and minor problems, a headlamp out for example, end with serious problems. Something must be done.
The legislation bars police from stopping drivers for a wide range of vehicle equipment infractions — from tinted windows and faulty brake lights to loud mufflers and objects dangling from rear view mirrors.
The measure says cops can’t pull drivers over for having expired vehicle safety inspection stickers — unless the stickers are at least three months past due — or for outdated state registration tags.
The legislation also says police can’t stop cars for driving without headlights at night — though the bill’s sponsor told the Daily Press Friday that he wasn’t aware of that aspect of the measure until a reporter asked about it.
Officers would be banned from stopping or searching anyone based upon the odor of marijuana, and would no longer be able to stop jaywalkers or pedestrians who are “carelessly or maliciously interfering with the orderly passage of vehicles,” the Daily Press reported.
The problem it’s explicitly directed at is police targeting black people.
“This might be the most significant reform of the state’s criminal justice system in decades,” Justice Forward Virginia Executive Director Brad Haywood, an Arlington-based public defender, told the Daily Press. “This is a big step forward for racial justice in Virginia.”
And, indeed, eliminating the authority of police to make traffic stops for these offense will, in all likelihood, have a significant impact on the problem of cops profiling and pretextually stopping black people. But then, it also means the conduct prohibited will happen without recourse. There is an inexplicable disconnect between one problem, cops targeting black people, and another problem, driving without head lights or brake lights. There are reasons why this conduct is unlawful. It causes crashes. It costs lives.
A driver who forgets to turn on his headlamps is a major indicator of being severely drunk. Drunk drivers tend to be reckless, and that could mean you or your loved one doesn’t make it home tonight. There is much to argue about each of these offenses, each being compelled by law for a reason. Some reasons are better than others, and some are insignificant under some circumstances and critical under others. Revisiting the merits of any law is always a worthy cause, as many are enacted with either little thought or in the aftermath of a panic, when the syllogism works the other way.
But the rationale here isn’t that it’s cool to drive without working brake lights. There is one problem, racial profiling, “solved” by the elimination of a fix for another problem, driving without headlights.
“Do they not care about public safety at all?” Sheriff Diggs asked the Daily Press. “It’s gone beyond being anti-police now. Now they’re anti-public safety and the safety of the citizens.”
Whether this will result in an epidemic of crashes, of death, on the road is unclear. Most of us don’t violate traffic laws because we care for our own, and other’s, safety. We want to get home alive, so we don’t drive without working brake lights. Then again, laws aren’t created for the mass of people whose behavior comports with safe norms, but for the few whose conduct doesn’t.
By eliminating the ability of the police to address dangerous conduct, we trade off the risks on the road with the concern for racial profiling. Is this a fair trade? The answer is likely a matter of where you are on the social justice spectrum and whether it’s your child who dies in a car crash.
Then again, one might have hoped that the outrage expressed across the nation over racism in policing might have had some impact in the minds of police, a grudging recognition that the white public was finally getting the message that the black public had always known. Cops tend to believe that black people are more prone to crime and violence. Black people are treated like dirt, like some lesser species. Cop culture remains racist, and it somehow has to stop.
York-Poquoson Sheriff J.D. “Danny” Diggs vehemently disputed Haywood’s assertion that police target black people.
“That’s one of the biggest lies out there,” Sheriff Diggs told the Daily Press. “When you ride around at night in your car, see if you can determine the race of the person in front of you.”
On the one hand, there’s the gross exaggeration that police are slaughtering black people in the streets daily. On the other hand, there’s Danny Diggs, saying that cops targeting black people is “one of the biggest lies out there.” His point about determining the race of a driver at night might have some merit, but that’s one small detail of a vastly larger problem, and not even Sheriff Diggs can make the videos showing exactly what he calls a lie disappear.
What’s clear is that Diggs isn’t getting the message. What’s clear is that Diggs isn’t part of the solution of doing everything he can to end the pervasive racial prejudice within cop culture. Denying that the problem exists is not merely nuts, but exactly why effort to go directly at the problem, to address why police profile blacks, use pretextual stops to harass blacks, target blacks, isn’t working. If cops deny there’s a deep core of racism within policing, they can’t possibly do anything to end it.
Virginia is trying to make an end run around police denial of a problem that’s obvious to anyone who doesn’t wear a shield by stripping the cops of authority to engage in the conduct that enables them to put racist tendencies into action. The problem is that it also means that the dangerous conduct the laws were enacted to avoid also won’t be addressed, and Diggs is right about one thing. It means public safety is at risk.
These are both real problems. These are both about to crash. Not everyone will survive. Must this be done?