Quality Policing Podcast Extra: Night Ride-Out

Nick Selby, Quality Policing, September 26, 2017

It’s 3:40 AM and you’re driving in the right lane, southbound on Broadway. You’re on patrol alone. This is what it is like.

It makes sense you’re patrolling alone: you work at one of the more than 93% of police agencies in America that employ fewer than 100 officers. About half employ fewer than 10. So, backup is at least a couple of minutes away.

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There have been lots of articles on how there’s no such thing as a “routine” traffic stop. But somehow, it’s hard to explain exactly why they’re not routine.

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So, let me take you there.

You see a car heading northbound, in the right lane, and it looks fast. The radar gun mounted on your dashboard reads 58 mph and you’re in a 40.

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The car is weaving. Not enough to be drunk, maybe, but enough to notice. Maybe they’re texting. You’re thinking about this abstractly, and it isn’t just how many cops get killed each year in traffic stops (33 cops have been killed by gunfire so far this year, and it’s only September), it’s also how many traffic stops turn deadly for the civilian.

In 2015, about one in four incidents in which a cop killed an unarmed person began as a traffic stop.

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I know the statistics because I ran a free and open data project called the StreetCred Police Killings in Context database.

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Dispatch comes back, and the car is clear of warrants. Your computer shows insurance unconfirmed.

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Two years ago in upstate New York, a 60-year-old guy named Almond Upton… intentionally hit a New York State Trooper. He died.

They stop, and you park, the nose of your squad car canted outward behind them, trying to angle your car enough to afford you some protection from drunk drivers who might get attracted to the lights and slam into your squad car from behind while you’re talking. You tell dispatch where you are, and you prepare to get out of the car. They’re standing on the brakes, and they haven’t put the car in park. Are they planning to run? You reposition the spot a bit, because you can’t see inside with the tint.

Justin Terney was shot to death earlier this year in Tecumseh, Oklahoma, after a traffic stop went bad, turned into a foot chase and a shootout.

A Lake city officer was dragged during a traffic stop.

37-year-old officer Gary Michael was fatally shot by a man he had stopped for an expired registration at around 10:45 p.m. on a Sunday.

All these happened this year.

There are more.

So, you check for traffic behind you, and slowly get out of the car.

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You walk up, maintaining a path that is tactically balanced — to avoid getting hit by a car, but not wanting to present too great a target should there be anyone in the car who wants to shoot.

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“Hey there, good morning,” you say, “Say, can you roll down the back window a bit?”

“Oh, sure,” says the driver, a black female, about 30. “I got a lot of stuff back there.”

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This one goes well — her vehicle and license check out, her insurance is current, she has no warrants.

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For officers around the country each night, the ‘routine’ traffic stop is a lot like that one. A lot of the considerations they take are to defend against things most people haven’t really given much thought to. And on the other side of this transaction, by the time the cop gets to a car window, the driver is put out, a little nervous, they’ve been stopped on their way to someplace, and just they might be mad about it. And the officer is thinking about a lot of dangerous scenarios.

Is the driver high? Nearly one-in-three incidents of unarmed drivers in a deadly encounter with a cop on a traffic stop in 2015 involved narcotics or alcohol. Almost one in four had convictions for violent crimes. If there is a warrant on the car, it’s hard to tell who’s driving, or whether the fugitive is there at all. The amount of information you don’t have always exceeds the amount you do.

And sometimes, the friendly woman with the dog might get so mad that you’ve delayed her, she might get out and yell at you. Maybe poke you in the chest.

And sometimes, thinking about all this…It gets the cops stressed out, and nervous, and well…

They act like an ass. Everybody has a bad day. Not an excuse. Just a fact.

But it makes you think about that stop, when the driver slammed on the brakes and then sped up…

With the other warning signs you got on the way to stopping her, you might have thought that maybe she was high…that maybe she was drunk…Or maybe that she’s mentally ill. In ten percent of traffic stops in 2015 that led to the death of a civilian, the decedent had a prior diagnosis of mental illness.

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And from the drivers’ perspective, maybe they’ve dealt with a jerk of a cop before, and they’re not gonna take it any more. Maybe they’re in a Facebook group of people determined to protect their constitutional rights, and they’ll only lower the window enough to hear.

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Both sides bring lots of baggage to each traffic stop. But I know one thing:

The data shows that the idea that cops are running amok, indiscriminately killing innocent people is definitively unfounded.

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