On October 30, 2021, the New York Times (NYT) published “Before the Final Frame: When Police Missteps Create Danger,” offering a deep dive into police traffic stops that turn into deadly force situations.
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The article is billed as a “visual investigation.” The authors suggest that the officers involved in these situations created hazards in a pattern they label “officer-created jeopardy.” The article all but ignores the actions of the suspects in these incidents, and definitely ignores the nature of police officers to enter voluntarily into potentially lethal situations.
However, articles such as this often prompt questions from elected officials and the public. Police personnel who make public presentations, and even the patrol officers who engage in conversations with citizens, ought to be prepared with responses to media coverage of police traffic stops. Below are a few suggestions.
[Complete the box below to download a checklist of these key questions.]
1. How does your community want your agency to handle traffic stops?
The NYT article opens with descriptions of the circumstances that led to the stops they analyzed: “An expired registration. A stolen bottle of vodka. A candy wrapper tossed out the window. A warrant for drug charges.” These are relatively trivial matters that do not, by themselves, come anywhere near to justifying use of deadly force. They are, however, the sort of things that cops see and act on because they know these minor crimes, gone ignored, disrupt the fabric of a peaceful, well-ordered society.
Some critics condemn the use of “pretext stops,” where an officer acts on his observation of a trivial offense, such as a burned-out license plate light or an expired registration sticker, to stop a vehicle and get a closer look at the driver and the interior of the car. Pretext stops are lawful, as was set down in the 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Whren v. United States. Opponents of the practice claim police use pretext stops as a way of harassing specific community demographics. At least one major city is forbidding its officers to make traffic stops for low-level offenses, calling the legislation “The Driving Equality Bill.”
Law enforcement agencies are ultimately accountable to the communities they serve. If there is a genuine concern that officers are focusing too much on minor traffic violations, it might be time to revise the criteria the agency endorses. Be careful to get a true mandate, and not cave under pressure from a vocal minority of activists.
2. Is your local government relying too heavily on revenues from traffic fines?
In most cities, traffic fines represent only a token contribution to revenue. Most of the money comes from property and sales taxes and license fees. A few cities, typically small populations without much business activity, get the lion’s share of their income from traffic fines. Some acquire a well-deserved reputation for draconian traffic enforcement on a short stretch of state or interstate highway that passes through their city limits. Most of the tickets go to people who don’t live in the city and who are unlikely to return to contest a traffic ticket in court.
Those situations are bad enough, but an even worse situation is created when citizens who are already living in poverty or close to it acquire even more debt in the form of traffic fines for expired registration and driving without insurance. They’re in fear every time they leave their homes because they know they have arrest warrants stemming from the traffic fines they haven’t been able to pay.
It might be possible to get citizens to be less reliant on their cars if there is adequate public transportation. Search for sources of funding to assist people with registration and insurance fees. Consider recalling arrest warrants that are old or duplicative or devise a community service option to discharge the fines stemming from the warrants. Stop relying on revenue coming from the portion of the population who are least able to pay it.
3. Are you providing adequate training and equipment for your officers to perform safe traffic stops?
The NYT article noted that many officers had no training in traffic stop tactics since they graduated from the police academy.
A Police1 survey on non-compliance at traffic stops found that 42% of respondents had not received any traffic stop-related training from their departments, with 50% only receiving yearly training.
Training is often the first budget category to get cut when money is tight. When there is a personnel shortage, as many agencies are experiencing now, training gets put on the back-burner because there aren’t enough cops to staff patrol slots while others train.
Training doesn’t have to take place in an all-day setting with officers reassigned from their normal duty. Daily briefings can include five-minute capsules on topics of your choice. The responsibility for preparing these can be distributed among other supervisors and the cops themselves, giving each officer the opportunity to share some special knowledge or expertise with their peers.
The “Today’s Tip” videos posted here on Police1, presented by Gordon Graham, can serve as springboards for discussion and sharing of new ideas. Instead of planning training as a separate, stand-alone session, see what you can do with the time you already have.
Another source of training material can be your own dash cam or bodycam video. Examples of good and bad procedures and citizens’ reactions to both immediately clear the “that can’t happen here” objection. If you don’t want to use your own video to avoid making a spectacle of one of your own cops, maybe you can arrange a cooperative exchange with another agency.
4. Are your traffic stop policies clear and up to date?
Department Standard Operations Procedures (SOPs) can go stale and out of date. The policy may conflict with what your recruits are learning at the police academy, especially if the academy is not run under the umbrella of your outfit. There may be no lesson plans used in the training so that instructors can “shoot from the hip” and introduce practices you don’t approve of.
Even if your SOPs are state of the art, it can’t hurt to remind everyone and reinforce the content now and then. You don’t want to have to testify under oath that your SOP was written 15 years ago and hasn’t been reviewed since then.
5. Do you work with your local media to communicate the complexities of traffic stops?
A perusal of discussion forums and Q&A websites like Quora demonstrate that the typical citizen believes they understand police work. After all, they have watched every episode of “Law and Order” and its spinoffs, not realizing that the processes and practices they see don’t exist in the world outside of their television set. If TV cop dramas educate the viewer with false premises, those viewers will have unrealistic expectations of the flesh-and-blood police.
Now and then, local news programs will take a news reporter or a vocal community activist and put them through some officer survival scenarios. They will perform mock traffic or pedestrian stops that start out looking routine but have the role player (usually another cop) offer violent resistance or act irrationally at some point. The results are nearly always the same. The reporter or activist either “gets killed” or shoots someone who shouldn’t have gotten shot. Live role-playing is the typical vehicle, but police training simulators can be even more impactful.
What are the conversations you are having in your community about traffic stops? While we can lament that the NYT didn’t report on the actions of the suspects, we also have the opportunity to correct spurious assertions about police traffic stops and control the conversation, if only for a moment, in the one-on-one dialogs we have throughout the day as we serve the citizens we are sworn to protect.
This article, originally published 11/04/2021, has been updated.
Complete the box below to download a checklist of these key questions.