The Very Scary Traffic Stop

The thrust of Steven Chapman’s argument, that there are alternatives to cops conducting physical traffic stops that would go a long way in eliminating the potential for violence, whether to a cop or to the motorist, is certainly a worthy topic for discussion. The predicate for his argument, however, is a sham.

Too often, traffic stops lead to tragedy. Philando Castile was shot to death in his car by a police officer in Minnesota. Last week, a mistrial was declared for a University of Cincinnati officer prosecuted for killing 43-year-oldSamuel DuBose, whose car had a missing front license plate. Sandra Bland, yanked out of her car by a Texas state trooper after allegedly failing to signal a lane change, died in jail. All three victims were black.

Data is not the plural of anecdote. Three instances are three too many, and the vague words, “too often,” may be existentially accurate, but wholly uninformative. One instance could be “too often,” but it doesn’t validate the claim.

Cops are also at risk. In March, a police officer died in a shootout with a passenger who ran from a car that had been pulled over in Tecumseh, Okla. In June, a police lieutenant was fatally gunned down after a stop in Newport, Ark.

When an officer stops and approaches a vehicle, both the cop and the driver are vulnerable. Any wrong move or misjudgment can turn the encounter deadly.

It’s unclear how many traffic stops are conducted in the United States in a given year. Some result in tickets. Some result in arrests having nothing to do with the purpose, or purported purpose, of the stop. Some result in a warning. But to throw out a number, 26.4 million stops, the incidence of the encounter turning deadly is so utterly negligible as to be unworthy of a moment’s concern. Yet, we propagate the lie that traffic stops are particularly perilous.

“Traffic stops and domestic violence are the highest-risk calls — you have no idea what you’re walking into,” John Gnagey, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, told the Orlando Sentinel in 2010.

Even in routine encounters, the experience can be frightening, infuriating or humiliating for motorists. Stops breed fear and distrust of law enforcement, particularly among minorities.

Chapman raises two independent problems here. The first is that cops feel vulnerable in a traffic stop because they have no clue what they’re about to get into, whether the motorist is a threat, is armed, is about to do them harm. It’s the fear of the unknown. At the least, the motorist has a 2000 pound weapon at his disposal, and the cop can legitimately claim he has no idea whether the motorist will use it. But the numbers say that chances of any cop being harmed are infinitesimal.

So there’s fear based on the unknown, but it’s a statistically irrational fear. It can be explained by overlaying the basis for fear of the unknown, but it cannot be justified by outcomes. Traffic stops are extremely unlikely to end in harm to a cop, even though they can be very scary to a cop.

The other side is that cops, being afraid of the unknown, approach traffic stops in a defensive posture which manifests in behaviors ranging from inappropriate language to baseless assumptions about the intentions or actions of motorists. If you’re afraid going in, even if your fear is baseless, you react to otherwise innocuous actions inappropriately. Philando Castille was providing his license as demanded, and was killed because Jeronimo Yanez knew he was armed and was afraid. Castille did nothing wrong and died anyway. Yanez was acquitted because a jury found his fear to be reasonable.

Like it or not, there’s a racial and gender component to the imagined fear of traffic stops. Cops are more afraid of blacks and males. Regardless of whether there is any arguable basis for this fear, it’s irrelevant in the scheme of cops being harmed during a traffic stop. If the risk of harm is infinitesimal, regardless of the race or gender of the motorist, then it’s infinitesimal.

So what’s the big deal with Chapman’s predicate for his otherwise good ideas regarding alternatives to police engaging in physical stops? They’re not going away any time soon and, despite the availability of alternatives (which have some problems of their own), cops use stops as a pretense for other purposes, most notably searches and seizures. Got a BOLO? Stop the guy for a broken tail light. Need to make your numbers? Stop a guy for weaving. Think the guy’s a drug dealer? Stop him for failure to signal. Traffic stops are the all-purpose excuse to avoid the rigors of investigation and warrants, Thanks, Whren.

But if harm to cops is infinitesimal, isn’t the same true of harm to motorists as a result of police unwarranted fears? This is an inapt analogy. The motorist doesn’t choose when to be stopped. The motorist is neither in control of the stop nor the emotions of the police officer who behaves professionally or outrageously. The motorist hasn’t chosen a job where he gets to wear a shield and gun, stop people at will and order them to do things upon pain of death. And most importantly, a motorist has constitutional rights and no way to vindicate them as a stop is happening.

In other words, despite no intention to be other than compliant, there is nothing a motorist can do to make sure he makes it home for dinner that night should an irrationally fearful cop decide that the motorist poses a threat because the cop believes that his life is at risk. The First Rule of Policing overcomes statistics and innocuous actions by the motorist. For the motorist, life and death, not to mention everything in between, from humiliation to rape, is essentially a random event at the whim of the cop. Remember, the motorist doesn’t know what’s going through the cop’s head either.

We talk a lot about the need for de-escalation, but usually in terms of the actual use of force. De-escalation of unwarranted fear is the precursor to preventing unnecessary use of force and violence. Persisting in the lie that traffic stops are inherently perilous is counterproductive. Not every unknown justifies the immediate assumption of harm so as to then justify a trigger response. There is almost no risk to a cop that any particular traffic stop poses a threat, and we need to stop promoting the idea that justifies their fear and resort to force.

Motorists just want to go home to dinner too. Hyping fake fears doesn’t help. It may not be possible for cops to view a traffic stop as being benign, but the reality is that the fear of the unknown doesn’t translate into any likelihood of actual harm. Traffic stops are not “deadly perils,” and we need to stop repeating the lie.

5 comments on “The Very Scary Traffic Stop

  1. B. McLeod

    Domestic calls and calls to any crime in progress are dangerous, so those should be stopped as well. perhaps we could just have police check the crime scene the next day for everything. Giving the perp a little extra time to clear the area will make things a lot safer (for everybody who is still alive at that point).

  2. jay-w

    ” … De-escalation of unwarranted fear is the precursor to force and violence. …”

    I think you must have left some words out of that sentence. But in any case, my question is: Do police departments routinely subject job applicants to any kind of psychological or psychiatric screening to try to weed out the cowards? i.e., those individuals who have an instinctive tendency to see deadly perils lurking behind every tree?

    1. SHG Post author

      I did leave some words out, but now corrected. As for “police departments routinely,” the answer is yes and no. Glad to help.

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