Oct 12, 2022 - News

Virginia's traffic stops decline, but disparities persist

Illustration of police lights shown through the shape of a police hat.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Traffic stops are down slightly since state lawmakers passed legislation blocking police from pulling over drivers for minor infractions like a broken tail light.

Yes, but: The racial disparities that those restrictions were intended to address continue.

  • Black drivers in Virginia are still being pulled over at higher rates than white drivers, per the second annual analysis of traffic stops under the state’s Community Policing Act.

Background: Virginia lawmakers voted in 2020 to downgrade a range of petty offenses to secondary infractions, arguing that police too often used them as a pretext to stop and search minorities.

  • Among the offenses that no longer merit a traffic stop as of March 2021 when the law took effect: driving with a broken tail or brake light, darkly tinted windows and expired inspection.
  • Police are also now barred from initiating searches based on the smell of marijuana.

By the numbers: Statewide traffic stops dropped by 7.5% to 567,000 from 2020 to 2021, per the most recent analysis.

  • And just 2.4% of the stops resulted in a search, down from 3.8% in 2020.

Racial disparities in who is being pulled over, however, remained virtually identical, with Black drivers representing 19% of the driving age population but accounting for 31% of the stops.

  • One area of improvement: The percentage of Black drivers stopped and then searched decreased from 5.2% to 2.8%, per the report.

Worth noting: The Youngkin administration delayed the release of the report until last week, even though it was due to the General Assembly by July 1.

Before the document was published, T. March Bell, a senior adviser to the state’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, had requested that a reference to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor be struck, according to internal correspondence provided to Axios in response to a FOIA request.

  • The inaugural 2020 report, released by the Northam administration, had noted that Floyd’s and Taylor’s deaths “dramatically highlighted the need to examine and improve relationships between law enforcement and minority communities.”

Bell also requested the insertion of language “about the benefits of traffic stops,” per the emails.

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