Columnist Sara Weinberger: City must ban police from conducting minor traffic stops

  • Sara Weinberger FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/21/2023 12:35:06 PM
Modified: 8/21/2023 12:34:55 PM

On Aug. 9, The Shoestring, an independent western Massachusetts online news publication, broke the story, including the redacted video, of a traffic stop that quickly escalated into a brutal display of force by a Northampton police officer.

Marisol Driouech, a Holyoke resident, was stopped on April 4, 2022, by Northampton police Officer John Sellew, who became increasingly agitated when Ms. Driouech, 60, a Spanish speaker, repeatedly indicated she didn’t understand why he had pulled her over. When she didn’t produce her driver’s license and registration, Officer Sellew repeatedly screamed at her using profanity, forcibly pulled her out of her car, wrestled her to the ground, restraining her face down on the cement, until the backup officer he had called for, Jonathan Bartlett, arrived to pepper spray her.

Two big cops with guns injured an approximately 5-foot, 120-pound woman enough to require her to be taken by ambulance to the hospital.

What was the “crime” that necessitated this violent response? A broken headlight.

Seeing that video of police brutality taking place so close to home was horrifying. On Sunday, Aug. 13, I showed up for a protest rally in front of Northampton City Hall, in support of Driouech and other vulnerable people whose experiences with policing in Northampton and beyond have given them the message that public safety will not keep them safe. Hearing speakers at the rally describe their traumatic experiences with law enforcement highlighted the reality that white privilege ensures a system of policing that protects people like me, while criminalizing people like Marisol Driouech.

Although I don’t consider myself to be a police abolitionist, I question the validity of a system of policing, born out of slavery, that disproportionately targets BIPOC and other marginalized groups as suspect.

Opinions vary. Some say Ms. Driouech shouldn’t have grabbed Officer Sellew’s police baton, yet I admit that, frightened and unable to flee, I might have done the same thing. Others are calling for the resignation of the police chief and the mayor. The more I reflect on this heinous act, the more questions I have about it:

Why didn’t Officer Sellew first call for a translator instead of raging against a woman who could not understand him?

Why is someone with apparent anger management issues allowed to continue in this position?

Why did the second officer pepper spray and scream profanity at a woman begging for help while being restrained on the ground?

Why is it permissible for a police officer to manhandle a petite older woman stopped for a civil motor vehicle violation to the point of needing to be taken to the hospital?

Why should the police chief be hiring outside investigators when the WatchGuard cruiser video provides ample evidence of police brutality?

If they needed an outside investigator, why didn’t the city hire an investigative firm that wasn’t made up of “former prosecutors and police officials?”

Why was the public informed about this newsworthy event four months after it took place?

What are the standards for police departments that would allow the investigation to conclude the officers’ “actions and the amount of force they used was reasonable and proportionate considering the totality of the circumstances that they faced that evening”?

How can Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra state she “strongly disagree(d) with how the officer handled it,” and Police Chief Jody Kasper say, the officer “could have and should have done a better job handling this matter,” while accepting the outside investigators’ conclusions?

In January, Northampton received a $450,000 multiyear Equitable Alternatives to Policing Strategies Grant from the state Department of Public Health in recognition of its work to develop the Division of Community Care (DCC) as a non-police resource for its innovative work at the intersections of public health and public safety. The DCC was conceived of by the Northampton Policing Review Committee.

Created in 2020, the Policing Review Committee was a “response to Northampton residents calling for their elected leaders to rethink the city’s approach to policing, rethink whether and what police services could be delivered by others, and rethink how we structure and fund community safety moving forward.”

Their final report, titled Reimagining Safety, contains recommendations to achieve “equitable public safety outcomes.” These recommendations include shifting “minor traffic law enforcement … to unarmed community peer-responders or co-responders or a civilian transportation department.”

Policing Review Committee member David Hoose points out that BIPOC people are disproportionately the targets of traffic stops, which can be used as a pretext for drug searches. “Social psychological research has demonstrated beyond dispute that when dealing with people of color police officers are quicker to shoot, more likely to interpret neutral behaviors as threatening, and more likely to use harsh or abusive language during the encounter,” he wrote in a guest column in the Gazette [April 20, 2021].

In 2022, 87 people were killed by police after being stopped for a traffic violation. Reading about Marisol Driouech’s encounter with Northampton police brought to mind Philando Castille, Daunte Wright, and Tyre Nichols, who died at the hands of police after being stopped for minor traffic offenses.

In 2022, Philadelphia became the first major city to ban police officers from pulling over people for seven low-level offenses, switching to sending citations by mail. This summer, Ann Arbor, Michigan passed a Driving Equality Ordinance prohibiting police from pulling over drivers for minor traffic violations that don’t pose an immediate danger. Lots of other cities have passed or are considering similar ordinances.

I want Marisol Driouech to be the last person brutalized by Northampton police for a violation that doesn’t warrant an armed police response. So far, there has been no mention of plans to ban police from conducting minor traffic stops. If you support the recommendations of the Police Review Commission to shift to a model of enforcing minor traffic laws without police intervention, contact Mayor Sciarra at

Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at


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