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Pittsburgh Police resume secondary traffic stops despite city ordinance against them

  • Kiley Koscinski/WESA
Pittsburgh Police headquarters on the city's North Side.

 Kiley Koscinski / 90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Police headquarters on the city's North Side.

Pittsburgh Police officers have been instructed to resume enforcing minor traffic violations — like an expired registration sticker or a poorly secured license plate — despite a 2021 ordinance to prevent them from doing so in the absence of a larger infraction.

A spokesperson for the department said the memo came as a result of “recent changes in state law.” But some legal experts question whether there’s sufficient reason to compel a reversal of the policy.

The city ordinance prohibits Pittsburgh police officers from pulling over a motorist if the primary reason is one of eight minor traffic violations. (Officers could pull over a motorist for another reason and still issue a ticket for a secondary infraction.) Advocates argued that racial bias can lead to disproportionate enforcement against Black and Latino residents. The ordinance was an attempt to mitigate those disparities modeled on similar legislation in Philadelphia.

According to Pittsburgh Police data, Black residents make up only about 22% of the city’s population, but accounted for 42% of traffic stops in 2021.

The decision to reverse the enforcement ban was first reported last week by WPXI. A public information officer for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police told WESA that the procedure dictated by the ordinance “was pulled down by Acting Chief [Thomas] Stangrecki to be reviewed in light of recent changes in state law.”

The bureau’s statement did not provide a full account of those changes, though it cited as an example, “the relatively recent amendment to the section of the PA vehicle code regarding license plate obstruction.” Given the change, “rescinding the memo made sense at this time in order to provide clarity for officers in the field.”

Stangrecki told WESA another reason for the reversal was to boost morale among the city’s police ranks. He said he’s received steady feedback that the ordinance is “preventing them from doing their jobs.”

“The officers who are employed here come here for a reason, and that’s to enforce the law,” Stangrecki said. “I thought it was imperative that I send out some strong messaging to the officers that are still here on this police force that you can do your job, you can enforce the law.”

Pennsylvania lawmakers passed a measure last year to clarify rules around obstructed license plates after a state appeals court found that a Philadelphia police officer was justified in pulling over a vehicle with a license plate frame that only covered the state’s tourism website. Lawmakers feared that the ruling could criminalize thousands of drivers with custom plate frames and passed a bill to clarify that the obstruction rules only apply to identifying information on the plate.

But some legal experts question whether the new vehicle law obligates the department to go against the city ordinance.

“There’s nothing in that new state law that compels a reversal of that policy,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Sara Rose, deputy director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the department owes the public a full explanation about why it would move to reverse the policy.

“In order for the police department to say, ‘No we’re not going to follow what City Council has told us to do,’ I think they really need a strong justification and I have not seen that yet,” she said.

Harris and Rose also question why the department would use its resources to pull over drivers for such minor offenses. Pittsburgh’s Police Department has been steadily shrinking in recent years, causing some public officials to speak out about whether the city can effectively address a rise in violent crime.

Harris further contended that the ordinance does not affect public safety. “What’s the direct public safety impact for enforcing a law against failing to display a certificate of inspection?” he asked. “What this is about is not traffic safety. … They want the unfettered ability to use any traffic offense to stop a car and poke around.”

“These offenses, we know, are those most commonly used not because of traffic safety, but as pretexts for investigating when there is no evidence,” Harris said. For example, an officer may suspect a vehicle is involved in criminal activity and begin a traffic stop for a broken headlight to investigate further.

District 9 Councilor Ricky Burgess, who sponsored the city’s ordinance, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

When it was first introduced, the ordinance was met with criticism from police organizations, and last year The Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association threatened to withdraw its accreditation — a “seal of approval” for departments — over the policy. Ultimately, it decided against doing so.

According to Jim Adams, accreditation coordinator for the chiefs association, Pittsburgh was granted a waiver through 2025. He said that while following the ordinance runs afoul of the accreditation standards, “it was no fault of the police department or the police chief.”

On an episode of WESA’s The Confluence, Mayor Ed Gainey said he wanted to meet with Acting Chief Stangrecki to understand why police had reversed the policy. Gainey said the two plan to have “a conversation in the near future,” to help the mayor “get a better understanding” of the decision.

“We want to assure at the end of the day that there’s no profiling,” he said. “What I’ve seen in the past is where profiling has been a problem in building police-community relations.”

But Harris argued that bias will inevitably play a role in the enforcement of minor traffic stops – which will ultimately make police less effective.

“What you need is people to trust you, so they’ll tell you when they saw something” that could help solve or prevent a crime, he said. “This is not going to help that.”

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