In recent weeks, the city of Antioch in the Bay Area has been rocked by the revelation that nearly half of its police force has exchanged racist, sexist, and homophobic text messages. These texts included bragging about making racially biased traffic stops—a painful reminder of the dangers that discriminatory policing practices pose to our communities.
As law enforcement leaders, we know that these discriminatory practices betray fundamental values of policing, including courtesy, respect, and authentic service. They undermine public trust in policing as an institution, making us all less safe. Yet Antioch is not an outlier.
And that is why it is critically important that California pass Senate Bill 50, a bill that will ban discriminatory traffic stops that fail to make California roads safer. If passed, officers will not be allowed to conduct certain stops that drive racial disparities, including pretext stops and stops for specific minor traffic offenses, such as having a brake light out or expired registrationtinted windows. Instead, tickets would be issued through license plate numbers when deemed necessary. Passing it is a critical first step to root out the racially discriminatory practices the Antioch texts so explicitly revealed, and make our roads safer.
After all, some officers stop drivers not because they are driving unsafely but to randomly search their car. Pretext stops, for example, are used by officers to justify pulling drivers over for traffic violations when they are actually motivated by a hunch or bias. Frequently, officers conduct these non-safety related traffic stops using things like a broken tail light as pretext, allowing officers to question the driver and try to obtain probable cause or consent to search the vehicle. This practice drives racial disparities; in San Francisco police were 10.5 times more likely to use a pretext stop to pull over Black drivers than white drivers.
As a recent report by Center by Policing Equity shows, it is a dangerous and ineffective practice that not only fuels racial bias but also ensnares innocent drivers and diverts traffic enforcement resources away from effective public safety strategies.
In California, traffic stops are a key driver of racial disparities in both the likelihood of someone being stopped and the likelihood of a search and or use of force during that stop. A 2021 study uncovered another alarming pattern: During stops, officers spoke to Black men in a less respectful and less friendly tone than they did to white men. At the same time, officers do not find guns, drugs, or any evidence that a crime has been committed in an overwhelming majority of these pretext stops. Additionally, Black drivers are more likely to be subjected to intrusive searches, despite the fact that contraband discovery rates are higher among white drivers. These frightening and humiliating experiences poison the well of police-community trust that many of us in law enforcement have spent years trying to protect.
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Jurisdictions across the country including Virginia, Oregon, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Memphis and Pittsburgh have all successfully limited their use of unnecessary traffic stops. In fact, some localities that have limited the use of low-level stops have experienced improved public safety outcomes: DUI arrests have gone up and crime has decreased. It makes sense. The time and resources spent making low-level traffic stops are much better spent focusing on safety-related violations, investigating serious crimes, and working with residents to address their safety concerns.
Rooting out the racism exposed by police officers’ texts in Antioch will not come easily, but we as law enforcement leaders can start by unequivocally condemning bigotry and taking concrete steps to protect the public from discrimination.
SB 50 offers an opportunity to build trust, conserve police resources, and enact policies and training that are based on empirical research. Moreover, it strikes a careful balance between the use of sound enforcement tools and respect for Californians’ constitutional and civil rights.
Diane Goldstein is a 21-year veteran of law enforcement who served as the first female lieutenant for the Redondo Beach (CA) Police Department. She is the Executive Director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of criminal justice professionals that work advancing justice and public safety solutions.
Chris Burbank was with the Salt Lake City Police Department for 25 years, spending nine years as Chief of Police. He served as Vice President of the Major Cities Chiefs, and President of the FBI National Executive Institute Associates. He is currently at the Center for Policing Equity.