Traffic stops can be scary and risky for both driver and police officer.
And in recent days several traffic stops making local and national headlines have ended violently and prompted discussion over why ordinary stops go so horribly wrong.
On Saturday, police officer Sean Bolton in Memphis was shot and killed during a traffic stop; his killer is still at large.
A traffic stop in Lenexa last week videotaped by a bystander made headlines over the weekend because the incident involved a scuffle between police and the driver.
Lenexa police posted video from body cameras worn by officers and the in-dash camera to show “our officers conducting themselves in a respectful and calm manner, and the suspect punching one of the officers without provocation.”
Both incidents come on the heels of the high-profile deaths of Sandra Bland in Texas and Sam DuBose in Cincinnati. In both cases, videos revealed the roadside drama erupting from routine traffic stops:
▪ On July 10, a Texas state trooper tried to pull 28-year-old Bland out of her car and threatened her with his stun gun when she refused to follow his orders. The trooper said in an affidavit that Bland continued to fight with him after he handcuffed her for being combative. She was found dead in a jail cell days later; authorities said she hung herself with a plastic garbage bag, a claim her family disputes.
▪ On July 19, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing fatally shot 43-year-old DuBose in the head during a traffic stop that lasted less than two minutes. Tensing, who pulled DuBose over for driving without a front license plate, has been charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter. The prosecutor called the shooting “the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make, totally unwarranted.” Tensing has pleaded not guilty.
During a traffic stop, both motorist and officer can do things to keep the situation from escalating out of control, says Richard Rosenfeld, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
For the driver, that means behaving in a courteous and calm way when interacting with police, he says.
“But there’s an enormous imbalance of force, power and authority in that situation, so the primary responsibility remains with the police,” says Rosenfeld.
“They have to be prepared for persons who may be in a bad mood, may be mentally incompetent, may be intoxicated, may be angry, may have had a bad day. The police have to be prepared to deal with people who are in an agitated state.”
In the case of Sandra Bland, who was clearly agitated with the officer because she “didn’t think she should have been screamed at,” says Rosenfeld, he believes the confrontation might have been avoided.
“She was clearly unarmed. She did not pose an imminent threat to the officer or anyone else on the scene,” he says. “Why didn’t the officer simply retreat to his own vehicle and wait? Let her cool out? Call for back up? He had not stopped a violent felon.”
So what can a motorist do to help keep a routine traffic stop from going sideways?
Stay calm. To write a ticket or not is totally up to the discretion of the police. Not only will they consider the traffic violation and your driving history, but also your attitude, according to the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association. Some experts believe that being cooperative is a motorist’s most important responsibility during a traffic stop.
“The officer in most instances will key his own behavior on the citizen’s behavior,” says Rosenfeld. The agitation some people might experience just from being pulled over might be seen as aggression by the officer, he says. Should you wind up in court as a result of the stop, your behavior as well as the officer’s could come under scrutiny.
If you’re pulled over at night, turn on your dome light. This lets the officer know you have nothing to hide and are willing to cooperate. Know that at night they will likely shine a flashlight in your car to see what’s inside.
Turn off the car and don’t get out unless the officer asks you to get out. Your passengers need to stay put, too. Police know that criminals will often try to get out of their car to keep the police from seeing what they have inside.
Keep your hands on the steering wheel or dash. The officer needs to see your hands so he knows you don’t have a weapon. Avoid any sudden movements, particularly toward the floorboard, passenger side or rear seat.
Don’t reach for anything until you’re asked to produce it. You might think you’re being helpful reaching into the glove box for your vehicle registration, but the officer doesn’t know if you’re reaching for a piece of paper or a weapon. If you have to reach into the glove box or someplace else in the car to get the requested documents, tell the officer where they are before you reach.
Don’t argue with the officer. It won’t change the officer’s mind. And tell your passengers to stay quiet and cooperate, too. If you don’t understand why you were stopped you can ask the officer for details. But if you disagree, now is not the time to argue.
If you are asked to get out of the car, get out. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in at least one case that if a vehicle is lawfully detained for a traffic violation, the police officers may, without violating the search and seizure limits of the Fourth Amendment, order the driver to get out of the car.
You have the right to deny a request to search your car. However, if an officer has probable case he has the right to search your vehicle without your permission. Police can search your car without a warrant, for instance, if something in “plain view” — a bag of marijuana on the seat — gives them cause.
You have the right to remain silent. If you want to exercise that right, say so out loud, recommends the American Civil Liberties Union.
Do not interfere or obstruct the officer’s work. Do not lie or hand over false documents, says the ACLU.
Sign the ticket. If you are issued a citation, sign the citation whether you agree with it or not. Accepting it or signing it is not an admission of guilt and you can always contest it later in court.
“People don't appreciate the danger of escalating a situation with law enforcement,” Charles “Sid” Heal, a former L.A. County sheriff's commander and force expert, told the L.A. Times after Bland was detained.
“If a person believes they have a case, wait until after jail and sue. You don't want to escalate the situation to the point the officer feels threatened.”