Police pulling back on traffic stops impairs authorities' ability to limit 'gun violence': Experts

About 80% of illegal guns were taken off Philadelphia streets during traffic stops

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Recent reforms to police departments policies have led to less traffic stops, something experts are warning has led to more gun trafficking in major cities.

"In Philadelphia at one point… 80% of the illegal guns they took off the street were the result of car stops," Former Philadelphia Deputy Commissioner Joseph Sullivan told Fox News. " Legal vehicle investigations are a critical part of any gun violence strategy."

But traffic stops have become less common in Philadelphia after the city council passed legislation aimed at limiting stops for minor violations, including expired vehicle registrations, a single brake or headlight that is broken, minor bumper damage, or using a car without an official certificate of inspection.

But Sullivan argues the new rules have taken a tool out of the police toolbox, with traffic stops sometimes leading to police discovering other criminal activity. He noted that while a person may have been pulled over for a minor violation, oftentimes officers discover drivers that have a warrant for their arrest, are driving under the influence, or are in possession of illegal items such as drugs or weapons. Pulling back on stops has led to more criminals on the streets.

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The Philadelphia Police Department.

The Philadelphia Police Department. (iStock)

"In a city that has experienced a record number of homicides… in a city that's on pace to do that again this year… I really think that is ill-advised," Sullivan said.

The reforms to Philadelphia's policing policies came amid a wave of protests and anti-police sentiment amid the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, with many calling for less active forms of policing and even for the defunding of major police departments in many cities across the country.

Philadelphia City Council Member Isaiah Thomas was among those who championed the reforms in that city, with a spokesperson telling Fox News last month that the new rules would address issues that have been "plaguing Black communities."

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"Representatives from the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the Mayor's Office, the Philadelphia Police Department and residents across the city have joined these conversations and been valued partners in creating this historic legislation, being replicated in municipalities across the country," the spokesperson said.

Sullivan argued issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and protests and reforms following George Floyd have all combined to make policing less proactive.

"Certainly the pullback of the police as a result of first COVID, then George Floyd, then to the defund the police movement and the actions of far progressive prosecutors has definitely contributed to the increase in violence that we see on the streets of our major cities right now," he said. 

Philadelphia is not alone, with many major cities making similar reforms.

A George Floyd mural in Minneapolis, Minn. 

A George Floyd mural in Minneapolis, Minn.  (AP)

Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant and current professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Fox News that cities such as New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have experienced similar issues.

"I'd like to ask these politicians that put these rules in effect, ‘how do you think the cops are going to stop gun trafficking?" he said. "They think the guns are being brought in by carrier pigeon, but they’re coming in by car."

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Violent crime has surged in major cities since 2020, with murders increasing 30% in 2020 compared to 2019 numbers. Those numbers continued to rise in 2021, rising another 5% over 2020 historic numbers. Other violent crimes have been on the rise as well and show no signs of slowing down in 2022, with many major cities on pace to have worse years in 2022 than they did in 2021.

At least some of that violence has been aided by increased gun trafficking with Giacalone arguing criminals no longer have to fear being stopped when smuggling weapons.

"If the bad guys are driving with these guns into places like New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, if there's no fear of getting stopped, then you take more guns," he said, adding that the lack of traffic stops has made criminals more brazen because the chances of them getting pulled over are "zero."

Both Democratic lawmakers and members of the media have pushed the movement to defund police.

Both Democratic lawmakers and members of the media have pushed the movement to defund police. ((Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images))

Heritage Foundation legal fellow Zack Smith told Fox News last month that not only are traffic stops a good way to catch people engaged in criminal activity, but they are also a good way for officers to engage with their communities.

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"Not only are these good opportunities for officers to interact with the public, these are also very important law enforcement and investigative tools," he said. "And what starts as what may be a minor offense, often leads to the discovery of much more serious crimes and the enforcement of laws dealing with much more serious crimes."

Former NYPD chief Louis Anemone told Fox News that he understands some of the concerns that have been raised by those looking to reform police tactics, but argued some of those reforms have made it too difficult on police agencies.

Sullivan told Fox News that he understands the concerns raised by some of those that have pushed for reforms to police tactics, but argued many have gone too far in limiting how officers can do their jobs and the department's ability to recruit new officers.

"We want to make sure that we're policing in a constitutionally correct way, but we do need to return to proactive policing," he said. "We can't continue on a path where we ignore all minor crimes because when you do that it just creates an atmosphere of chaos and disorder that does lead to more serious offenses."