In Defense of Investigatory Traffic Stops

In Defense of Investigatory Traffic Stops

Photo by Sam Hodgson

A San Diego Police Department officer pulls over a driver on University Avenue in City Heights.

Samuel Morales admits he applied to become a patrol officer in the San Diego Police Department after watching an episode of “Beach Patrol” on truTV.

“That’s the place I want to work,” Morales recalled saying in 2010, then a 20-year veteran of the New York City Police Department.

Three years later, Morales patrols the division that reminds him most of New York City’s diverse boroughs: Mid-City. It’s situated just south of Interstate 8 and stretches from North Park to La Mesa, meaning the only waves Morales sees on the job are those of immigrants – Vietnamese refugees who settled there in the ’70s, Mexican immigrants who came in the ’90s, then East Africans, Burmese and Cambodians.

And there’s another similarity. Some of the neighborhood’s predominantly minority residents say they believe Morales and his colleagues engage in racial profiling akin to New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy.

Morales, who’s Latino and spent most of his childhood living in Section 8 housing in South Queens, said the seemingly nebulous traffic stops at the center of the racial profiling claims are key to protecting public safety.

“My concern is: Are the people genuinely being profiled or are they upset because they were stopped and think law enforcement had more important things to do?” Morales said. “This is important.”

But there is genuine concern about discriminatory stops in the community. Abdihakim Afewerki, a 26-year-old student who often drives through City Heights and southeastern San Diego, told Voice of San Diego he was pulled over by police 10 times last year. None of the stops left a mark on his record – a fact he said suggests the officers based their investigations on the color of his skin and tattoos. A detective sergeant on the police force, a city councilman and the head of the local NAACP all echoed Afewerki’s concern.

Morales, however, said when he flips on his sirens, it has nothing to do with race. Traffic stops are one of the few forms of proactive policing he can do in a city where more people drive and in a department that’s stretched thin.

“Community policing is great but we don’t have the resources to get out there and walk. Vehicle stops are community policing,” Morales said. “That’s the tool the state has given me to do community policing.”

He said pulling people over for broken taillights or dark window tinting – as long as the infraction actually exists – allows him to run their information and potentially take dangerous people, drugs and guns off the street. And though prying into a person’s background could make him or her feel like they’re being profiled, Morales said it’s a necessary step.

“If he was America’s Most Wanted and I sent him away, I didn’t do my job,” Morales said. “If I have every legal right to find out who he is and all I do is write him a citation, that’s no good. No bueno.”

It’s the same reasoning he uses to defend stop and frisk in New York. “It turned the city around,” he said, adding that gun crime eked up in the month following a federal judge’s order to stop the practice. That ruling has since been stayed.

But The New York Times reports that crime trend was short-lived. By the end of 2013, New York City had achieved its lowest murder rate since 1963. Previous analyses showed most guns were found on people outside of stop-and-frisk zones and that the practice netted few serious criminals.

And criminal justice experts in San Diego and across the nation say addressing racial tensions between police and the community makes law enforcement easier. People in diverse communities are more likely to participate as witnesses and informants and voluntarily behave lawfully when they feel the law is applied equally.

Still, Mid-City Capt. Todd Jarvis said the routine stops are “how we catch murderers, dope dealers and all kinds of criminals.” He said he has made it clear to his officers that those stops shouldn’t violate a person’s Constitutional rights, and that they should complete forms mandated by the department to track the racial trends.

Morales said it’s common for him and other officers to skip the data form – it’s one of several required for each stop and officers often lack time between calls. But he said neglecting to fill it out isn’t an effort to hide something insidious.

“I don’t think we have racists in the Police Department. I don’t think a racist could be in the Police Department,” Morales said. “If they really hate people, they wouldn’t be able to do what we do because one way or another, you’re going to have to help one of these people.”

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Megan Burks

Megan Burks

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her directly at meburks@kpbs.org or 619.550.5665.

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7 comments
Patrick Flynn
Patrick Flynn subscriber

Wait a minute, vehicle stops are community policing because that is the tool the state has given him to do community policing? That is bull. If SDPD needs more resources to get more cops out of their cars and onto bikes and their feet, then they should say that. Saying that its the tool that the state has given him is an excuse and a comment that should not be tolerated.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

So when the cops pull over a minority, they need to go find a couple white guys to pull over next and everything is OK?

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

I am having a hard time understanding the article. Vehicle stops should only occur when a legitimate moving violation has occurred (e.g. speeding, running a red light or stop sign, broken tail light). If that were the case, then there couldn't be any racial profiling regardless of what the stats show.

Kristopher Trojans
Kristopher Trojans

Really Patrick, all cops should do is ask for the additional resources? That has to be the dumbest statement of all time. Have you not seen a news cast in the past ten years here is S.D.? Seems like there is always a story on how short staffed the department is and how there is no money to properly keep cops from leaving S.D. So if it were as easy as asking for the help, don't you think they would have done that?

Everyone always complains about being stopped and feels the need to tell the cops they should be stopping the real criminals. News flash, police work is like fishing. Ill break it down for you Patrick, but I am pretty sure you won't understand. Imagine the police car and the cop inside it are the fishing pole. The California Vehicle Code is their tackle box containing the bait. They use all the bait in that box in an attempt to catch a "Keeper". Prior to catching that monster "Keeper", they catch little fish along the way. Those little fish are not what they are after so they toss them back. Eventually, after enough fishing, that cop finally gets that monster "Keeper". They don't give a rats ass if you're white, black, yellow or brown. All they care is they caught that monster "Keeper".

Cops need to conduct as much proactive stops as possible. Proactive stops are those stops that prevent future crime. That parolee that was stopped by the police with a gun was possibly on his way over to one of your families house to kill, rape or steal something. That is something we can only guess. If proactive stops are taken away, that parolee makes it to your family. No bad guys get caught reacting to crimes that took place.

Last but not least, I encourage you to go on a ride along. I encourage everyone to go on a ride along. Instead of basing your cop hating ways on facts the media wants you to hear, judge for yourself. I imagine your opinion might change. Hell, Ill even help you find a place to do the ride along.

Kristopher Trojans
Kristopher Trojans

Really Patrick, all cops should do is ask for the additional resources? That has to be the dumbest statement of all time. Have you not seen a news cast in the past ten years here is S.D.? Seems like there is always a story on how short staffed the department is and how there is no money to properly keep cops from leaving S.D. So if it were as easy as asking for the help, don't you think they would have done that?

Everyone always complains about being stopped and feels the need to tell the cops they should be stopping the real criminals. News flash, police work is like fishing. Ill break it down for you Patrick, but I am pretty sure you won't understand. Imagine the police car and the cop inside it are the fishing pole. The California Vehicle Code is their tackle box containing the bait. They use all the bait in that box in an attempt to catch a "Keeper". Prior to catching that monster "Keeper", they catch little fish along the way. Those little fish are not what they are after so they toss them back. Eventually, after enough fishing, that cop finally gets that monster "Keeper". They don't give a rats ass if you're white, black, yellow or brown. All they care is they caught that monster "Keeper".

Cops need to conduct as much proactive stops as possible. Proactive stops are those stops that prevent future crime. That parolee that was stopped by the police with a gun was possibly on his way over to one of your families house to kill, rape or steal something. That is something we can only guess. If proactive stops are taken away, that parolee makes it to your family. No bad guys get caught reacting to crimes that took place.

Last but not least, I encourage you to go on a ride along. I encourage everyone to go on a ride along. Instead of basing your cop hating ways on facts the media wants you to hear, judge for yourself. I imagine your opinion might change. Hell, Ill even help you find a place to do the ride along.

Liam Dillon
Liam Dillon memberadministrator

Hi Shawn- Thanks for your comment. Here's a quote from an SD traffic attorney: “If you follow anyone around long enough, you’re going to find that person violating vehicle code.” Check out our piece for when police can/can't pull you over for more context on this. http://voiceofsandiego.org/2014/01/09/when-police-can-and-cant-pull-you-over/When Police Can - and Can't - Pull You Overhttp://voiceofsandiego.org/2014/01/09/when-police-can-and-cant-pull-you-over/It makes sense that traffic stops often become the focal point for allegations of racial profiling. The enforcement of some traffic laws can be nebulous and discretionary, and stops tend to be the most frequent contact between the public and police. ...