Attorneys must continue to be on the forefront of conversations about what justice should look like

November 20, 2020
President’s Message By Elizabeth Hughes

On a night in the early fall of 2006, a man and his girlfriend were driving home from the downtown Pittsburgh Art Gallery Crawl, an event held by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust about four times per year. It was about 10:30 p.m. and they were driving north on Route 28 toward the 40th Street Bridge exit. At one point during the drive, they noticed a police car from a local nearby department driving alongside the vehicle. A few moments later, the police car slowed down so it could pull behind the vehicle and begin to follow. Just as the vehicle was turning onto the 40th Street Bridge, the police car turned on its lights and sirens. The man turned and commented to his girlfriend that he couldn’t imagine why they were being pulled over as he hadn’t done anything wrong. As there was no shoulder on the bridge, the driver put on his hazards and immediately pulled over at the first available location right at the end of the bridge. As he opened his glove compartment to grab his registration and proof of insurance, two police officers stepped up on either side of the vehicle, guns drawn, shouting, “Put your hands on your head! Roll down your windows! Are there any weapons in the car?! Are there any drugs in the car?!”

The couple was stunned and as they looked around, they saw a total of four police vehicles, each one from a different department. The couple was shocked and confused but did as they were instructed. The officer on the passenger side of the vehicle looked very young and was giving conflicting commands. He kept yelling at the passenger to put her “hands on her head and roll down the window.” The passenger was frightened because there was a gun pointed at her, and she clearly knew that she could not do both of these things at the same time. She very calmly told the police officer, “you are asking me to put my hands on my head and to roll down my window and I cannot do both at the same time, so can you please let me know what you want me to do first?” He yelled at her to roll down the window and she complied, then placed her hands on her head and looked straight ahead.

By this point, the driver had provided his license, registration and insurance card and also now had his hands on his head. His license was current, and the registration and insurance card all matched and showed that he was the owner of the vehicle. The driver asked the police why he had been stopped and the police replied that they had run the license plate number and the vehicle had come up as “stolen.” The driver clearly knew this was incorrect and had also provided several documents to support that this was indeed his vehicle. The driver calmly explained that they were wrong and that he had provided the information that showed otherwise. The officer on the driver’s side remained adamant that the vehicle had come up stolen and kept his gun pointed at the driver, despite having been provided with proof of ownership. Keep in mind that the driver had not been speeding, was not driving erratically, his registration was current, there was no taillight out, and the driver had not been drinking. It was still unclear why the license plate had been run in the first place.

At this point, there was an impasse. The other police vehicles had departed, apparently determining that the department that had initiated the stop had the situation in hand. The driver again repeated that the vehicle was not stolen and calmly suggested that the officer recheck his information. The officer refused and both officers kept their weapons trained on the occupants of the vehicle. The officer on the driver’s side kept repeating the same questions, and the driver kept calmly suggesting that the officer go back and check again. The passenger still had her hands on her head and a gun pointed at her and remained silent and looking straight ahead. She grew more fearful by the second that this situation was not going to end well and that either one or both of them might end up dead because the officers absolutely refused to confirm their information or to holster their weapons. At this point, the passenger knew she had to intervene and so she played the only card she had to attempt to diffuse this situation. Understand this – it is a card that most people in this situation would not have had available to them. She calmly stated, “I am an attorney and he is a State Trooper.” So, you might ask why I am telling you this story? I am telling you this story because that attorney was me and that Pennsylvania State Trooper was my then boyfriend. I am telling you this to illustrate several truths and to highlight why I believe that the ACBA’s Police Use of Force ad hoc committee is so important. I am telling you this so that when you ask, “well what did they do to get stopped?” that you consider that sometimes the only thing you have to do is to be Black coming home from an otherwise lovely evening at an art gallery.

It turned out that the officer’s insistence that the SUV was “stolen” was based upon his careless review of the information that came up when he ran the license plate, without cause. The police did not issue a citation because we had violated no laws. The plate was a vanity plate and someone in Alabama had a stolen plate with the same phrase. In the officers’ haste and determination to find support for their racial profiling of us, they were derelict in their duties, and it could have had deadly results.

Now if this had been my brother, my father, or any other of your Black friends who were not themselves a police officer, how does this end? Does it end like Philando Castile? Does it end like Sandra Bland?

That was 2006, yet this is still happening all over America, with all too often dire or deadly consequences. The Stanford Open Policing Project found that Black drivers are 20% more likely to get pulled over than white drivers, but less likely to be in possession of contraband in these instances. A 2019 study in Boston found that 70 percent of the stops by police were of Black people, while they comprise less than 25 percent of that city’s population. In Philadelphia, whose police department has been under a consent decree since 2011 for this very issue, Black drivers accounted for 74 percent of all stops by police and 80 percent of all searches in the first six months of 2019 yet Blacks constituted only 44 percent of the population. At the same time, findings of contraband during these searches declined to 12 percent. Here in Pittsburgh, the Tribune-Review reported that 41 percent of the traffic stops by the City of Pittsburgh Police Department in 2018 were Black drivers, while Black people make up only 24 percent of the city’s population.

There is non-standardized reporting across the United States regarding statistical information about race in traffic stops. How this information is gathered and defined varies widely and sometime is not tracked at all. Indeed, the Pennsylvania State Police do not collect racial data on traffic stops, nor does Pennsylvania law require them to do so.

The ACBA’s committee on Police Use of Force has brought a myriad of voices to the table to arrive at recommendations for best practices and legislative action to eliminate misconduct and mistrust. As lawyers, we have been and must continue to be on the forefront of crucial conversations about what justice should look like.

Every community deserves safe and positive interface with law enforcement. Under the stellar leadership of co-chairs, Tracey McCants Lewis, Timothy O’Brien, and Jalila Jefferson Bullock, the committee has gathered voices and perspectives from our membership, community organizations, city and county government, educators, law enforcement personnel, local legislators, and the courts and judiciary. Transformation is never easy, but by bringing all viewpoints to the table to have these difficult conversations, I am confident that we can identify real solutions.