COVID-19 has stalled a controversial gift-giving tradition at two South Florida police departments.
Miami and Miami Gardens police have decided not to pull people over this year and surprise them with Thanksgiving turkeys or other gifts — a practice that has been criticized across the country as unconstitutional and potentially scary for drivers.
Two other departments — Fort Lauderdale and Coral Gables — also have a tradition of passing out gifts to stopped motorists. Fort Lauderdale said it is monitoring COVID-19 trends before deciding whether to continue the practice. Coral Gables has no plans to stop.
Across the country, police have distributed turkeys and other gifts as a way to spread holiday cheer and engage with the community. Officers pull over drivers and, instead of giving them a ticket, surprise them with a turkey for Thanksgiving or a video game or TV before Christmas. In some places, police pass out ice cream on hot summer days.
Critics contend the campaigns are often unconstitutional because they could lead to racial profiling.
“When you pull someone over, you’re taking a look at the inside of their car, you’re possibly profiling them and that leads into an unconstitutional encounter,” said Melba Pearson, director of policy and programs at the Center for the Administration of Justice at Florida International University in Miami.
“Why put that stress on people, especially in the holiday season when everyone is already in a heightened state of stress?” she said. “I would rather not get pulled over than get a free turkey.”
Seth Stoughton, a law professor and former cop in Tallahassee, said it’s easy for police to forget that a traffic stop can be a stressful, frightening experience. Pulling people over when they haven’t committed a traffic violation is unlawful and unconstitutional, he said.
There’s an “almost infinite array” of events departments can host that don’t involve traffic stops, Stoughton said. Agencies should announce the events ahead of time and avoid surprising the public or disguising events as police operations, he said.
“Particularly today, when there’s so much skepticism and public criticism of policing, it just would send a really bad message for an agency to say, ‘We’re going to deprive people of liberty by pulling them over as part of our PR campaign,’” Stoughton said. “That’s not a good look.”
Miami Police Assistant Chief Manuel Morales, who oversees the field operations division, said traffic stops are just one way his officers engage the community to give out turkeys or other gifts. Drivers are stopped only if officers have probable cause or observe them violating traffic laws, Morales said.
“There’s always a legality to our stops,” he said. “We felt there was a better to reach those that are stuck at home, doing the right thing and quarantining at home in an effort to beat COVID.”
Miami Gardens did similar events in 2017, 2018 and 2019. A department memo from last year said the giveaways would be an opportunity to shift the public’s perception of law