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OPINION -- Traffic Stops and Race

By Darrell Goode and Michele Wittig

Are traffic stops in Santa Monica racially discriminatory? Thanks to the CA Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA), we now have data from SMPD to help answer this question.

The data will be presented at the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission’s July 11 meeting at City Hall, starting at 6pm. SMPD Chief Ramon Batista has invited the community to attend and participate.

RIPA requires California police officers to collect specific information on each stop they make, including elements of the stop circumstances and the perceived identity characteristics (e.g. race/ethnicity) of the individual(s) stopped.

Pretextual stops are a particularly concerning type of stop. Conducting such stops has been SMPD policy for decades. A pretextual stop occurs when an officer stops someone for a lawful traffic violation or minor infraction, intending to use the stop to investigate a hunch regarding a different crime that by itself would not amount to reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

Many community members have years of lived experience enduring frequent pretextual traffic stops. Too many other community members are unaware of how many people unlike themselves are more frequently subjected to these stops. At present, pretextual stops are legal. However, if passed, CA Senate Bill 50 – Pretextual Stops for Low-Level Violations — would limit them in California.

The RIPA Board supports SB 50 as well as CA Assembly Bill 93 – Criminal Procedure: Consensual Searches, which would prohibit warrantless searches of a vehicle, person, or their effects, based solely on a person’s consent. The California NAACP and over 50 other groups also support these two bills.

The Santa Monica-Venice NAACP unanimously approved a motion requesting Santa Monica to convene a Traffic Enforcement Safety and Reform Task Forcewith representatives from the NAACP, SMPD, the Santa Monica College Police Department and other relevant organizations to examine the 2022 RIPA data and determine what it tells us about how to make reforms in local traffic stops.

The motion specifies that the Task Force should:

1. Examine the 2022 SMPD and SMCPD data on traffic stops and searches mandated by RIPA,

2. Evaluate the utility of pretextual traffic stops, based on a reasonable balance between their actual crime prevention benefits, on the one hand, and their disparate burden on Black and Latino vehicle drivers, on the other,

3. Consider changes that would decrease racial disparities in traffic stops without compromising traffic safety, and

4. Evaluate the feasibility of training non-police government employees to conduct certain types of traffic stops, as specified by SB 50.

The Santa Monica Coalition for Police Reform supports a similar proposal. Together, these organizations urge the PSROC to initiate a robust community process for reforming traffic enforcement policy in Santa Monica. Please attend the July 11 PSROC meeting at 6pm to participate in the discussion or send your comments in advance to:

Darrell Goode is president of the Santa Monica-Venice NAACP; Michele Wittig is convener for the Santa Monica Coalition for Police Reform.

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