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Black drivers are stopped by police at higher rates in Virginia

Police vehicle
A Virginia State Police officer drives outside of the Science Museum of Virginia. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The state reported this week on the demographics of traffic stops in the commonwealth. A significant takeaway is that Black and brown drivers are disproportionately stopped by state and local law enforcement.

The Community Policing Act of 2020 required all law enforcement agencies in Virginia to start collecting data on traffic stops starting July 1, 2020.

Under that act, the Department of State Police must create a database of every officer traffic stop, with  the Department of Criminal Justice Services analyzing the data for an annual report.

The data show Black drivers accounted for 31% of stops during the nine-month period, but make up about 20% of Virginia’s driving-age population. Hispanic drivers made up about 10% of stops, yet make up roughly 9% of driving-age Virginians.

City and county level agencies report that Black and brown people are overrepresented in traffic stops by as much as 50%.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Luke Torian said “the legislation would resolve the issue of scant data, a result of agencies not being required to collect it.  

As well as deter biased policing and unnecessary use of force.

Dana Schrad, with the Association of Chiefs of Police said while Black and brown people are overrepresented in the number of police stops, they’re also overrepresented in other categories, like vehicle crashes and being victims of violent crime.

“All of this is working on the assumption that people of all races commit traffic offenses at a rate equitable to how they’re represented in society,” Schrad said.

Schrad suggested the state needs to dig deeper.

“Certainly, we want to be sensitive to whether or not this data indicates some kind of bias, but does it indicate something else that we are not analyzing,” Schrad said.

Torian disagrees. 

“Should there be additional research or work to be done, I’m sure there will be,” he said. “But you cannot deny or dismiss the data that is before us.”

A new law passed in 2021 is aimed at addressing what’s long been assumed -- that Black and brown drivers are stopped more often than white. It bans police from pulling over Virginia drivers solely for minor offenses to reduce police interactions 

While the infractions are still illegal, they can no longer be the primary reason for a traffic stop. This includes infractions like objects dangling from a rearview mirror, tinted windows and the scent of marijuana.

Expired state inspections or registration can only be the primary reason for a stop if it’s more than four months past due.

It also bans law enforcement from stopping people for jaywalking.