Equipment stops: Good policing or pretense for profiling?
Sisters Doris Dedrick and Tara Elliott were puzzled about why the vehicle traveling behind them had its high beams shining into their car.
It was about 1 a.m. July 27. Dedrick, 48, had picked up her sister from a janitorial job and was taking her to her home in Waterloo.
When the car behind them began flashing its lights, they realized it was the police, so Dedrick pulled over.
"The officer comes over to the passenger side of the car," said Elliott, 50, a minister at Faith Temple American Baptist Church in Waterloo. "That made me scared. It made me feel like it wasn't a regular stop."
The sisters said the officer began questioning Dedrick, then told them they looked irritated and asked them to get out of the vehicle so he could show them why he stopped them — for burned-out bulbs on a taillight and a license plate.
"He didn't ask for my ID or insurance or registration," Dedrick said. "He asked where we were coming from and where we were going. ... I think he thought we were doing something illegal."
No warning or citation was issued.
BLACK IOWANS SERIES:
- Conversations: Black parents teach children to act with caution
- Black Iowans feel profiled by police
- Iowa profiling policies fall short of standards
- Black Iowans tell of their encounters with police
- Iowa studies show blacks stopped more often than whites
Dedrick said she replaced the two burned-out bulbs the next day.
Getting pulled over for equipment violations was the most frequent complaint voiced by black Iowans during interviews with The Des Moines Register about the issue of racial profiling.
Out of 23 interviews, 10 people said they had been stopped at least once for minor infractions such as tinted windows or a burned-out license plate bulb or taillight. Most said they did not receive a warning or citation.
In 2014 in Davenport, black drivers were more likely than whites to be cited for an equipment violation, although the disparity was slight. Davenport is one of the few Iowa police departments that tracks race, gender or age of drivers stopped by officers.
Police say when they make equipment violation stops, they are enforcing Iowa laws and ensuring that vehicles traveling public roadways are safe.
But the practice raises questions of bias.
The Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends that departments prohibit the use of "race-motivated pretext stops," defined as stopping vehicles for minor traffic violations when the actual reason is the driver's race.
Yet a Register review of 17 Iowa law enforcement agencies' racial profiling policies showed that none clearly prohibits race-motivated pretext stops.
Waterloo collects data on traffic stops but did not provide it to the Register.
Daniel Trelka, Waterloo's director of safety services, said that in the past the department had "a heavy emphasis on what I consider petty little equipment violations."
Still, he defends making stops for equipment violations as a tool to ensure other criminal activity isn't occurring.
"Suppose a citizen comes to you and says (a certain person) is carrying a gun under his seat, and you know that person is a felon," Trelka said. "The next time you see him, he might have a burned-out license plate light, and you'll stop him.
"A good police officer will ask him if he has any weapons in the car — 'You don't mind if I search, do you?' That's good police work."
Trelka emphasized, however, that he doesn't want officers making a dozen stops a night for burned-out license-plate lights.
"That's baloney," he said.