PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. (WDVM) — In 2016, Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken taillight. This is also referred to as “pretextual policing,” because the officer who pulled him over said Castile’s nose shape fit the description of a robbery suspect. He was shot and killed by the officer.
Many believed Castile was pulled over because he was African American, including public defender and Executive Director of Justice Forward Virginia Brad Haywood. “[Police] use all of these little pretexts – these tools in their toolbox – to stop people, pull them over, try to get consent to search them; try to find some other reason to search them, so they can investigate some crime they have no reason to believe has happened.”
In an effort to track traffic stop data, The Community Policing Act went into effect Wednesday in Virginia. The law requires local law enforcement agencies to collect and report a list of information during a traffic stop. The required data includes the race, ethnicity, age and gender of the motorist, the reason for and the location of the stop, and whether the vehicle or person was searched. That information will be reported to the state.
Sergeant Jonathan Perok, spokesperson for the Prince William County Police Department, says the police department was already reporting this data if the stops resulted in an arrest or court summons; however, the data was never formally reported out. Now, if officers don’t make a citation and only issue a warning, officers will also have to issue that warning on paper and record the required data.
“They’re basically there to hold jurisdictions accountable for who they’re stopping and for what purpose and things like that,” Perok said. Sergeant Perok says it’s hard to determine whether the motorist was stopped on the basis of race.
Perok says Prince William County is a majority minority community. “I just hope, in the future, data is looked at broadly instead of just the numbers because it’s very important, especially in policing, to go beyond the number. To look at the actual context of situations and things like that.”
Although the police department was already collecting demographic information, it’s not available for public viewing. Perok says the only information available to the public is what is included in the department’s Daily Incident Reports, which don’t include every arrest – only those that are “significant” and of “media interest.”
“The fact that a police officer or police department says, ‘Yes we keep all of this but you can’t get it,’ I think says it all,” Haywood said. “We need to be able to get it. Like, why should that be a secret? Why should whether a police officer is producing stark racial disparities – why should that be a secret?”
In a press release, the police department said it “remains committed to ensuring all community members are treated fairly and impartially.”
“I mean, it’s good to make that public statement,” Haywood said. “You know, ‘We formally disapprove of this. Put this in your policies and procedures. Be aware. We’re on the lookout,’ That helps, sure. But in terms of giving ordinary people who are affected by racist policing, in terms of giving them a remedy, it doesn’t make the situation any better for them.”
The full list of data includes:
- The race, ethnicity, age, and gender of the person stopped
- The reason for the stop
- The location of the stop
- Whether a warning, written citation, or summons was issued and whether any persons were arrested
- If a warning, written citation, or summons was issued or an arrest was made, the warning provided, violation charged, or crime charged
- Whether the vehicle or any person was searched