To train police officers how to conduct a traffic stop, academies across the country show recruits videos of officers being attacked and even murdered at traffic stops.
Like this one:
“Hi. Dave Smith of Police One, and I have a reality training segment from the Oregon State Police that’s going to really get us thinking about how sometimes initial appearances can be quite deceiving. And that’s why we always have our minds prepared no matter what’s going to happen.”
In the video, an officer pulls a car over for speeding. The driver jumps out of the car, opens fire on the officer, and speeds away.
“I have been doing this for 11 years, I’m two months away from 11 years, and every time I make a traffic stop, the hair on the back of my neck stands up.”
These videos are really hard to watch. They’re basically dash-cam snuff films.
According to data from the FBI, in 2014, 51 officers were killed in the line of duty, ten during a traffic stop.
“I have been doing this for 11 years,” says Julian Roberson, a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. “I’m two months away from 11 years, and every time I make a traffic stop the hair on the back of my neck stands up.”
Roberson patrols a rough neighborhood in the north part of the city. He’s forty-six and has a wife and six kids. Before becoming a cop, Roberson was in the Army and the Coast Guard. Some weekends he works security at one of the biggest clubs in the city. Some Sundays he preaches at a local church.
Imagine watching dozens of those videos and then trying to pull someone over. Roberson says the academy teaches officers to function somewhere between confident and paranoid.
“A traffic stop is the most dangerous thing we do,” explains Roberson. “The reason I say that is you never know who you are pulling over. We are trained to approach a vehicle like a crime is being committed.”
On this night, Roberson’s cruising the streets of North Birmingham. I’m sitting in the front seat. Roberson’s drinking a Red Bull. We’re listening to Luther Vandross’ cover of the Temptations, “Since I lost my baby,” on 98.7 KISS FM.
We’re stopped at an intersection, and there’s a black car across the street.
“This guy ain’t got no headlights on,” Roberson says under his breath as the car passes us.
Roberson pulls a quick U-turn and flips on his blue lights.
“Sometimes they get behind you, you tense up and clutch the steering wheel and this nervous feeling comes over you.”
Driving at night without headlines is against the law, and so are a lot of other things. “Once I became a police officer,” Roberson remembers, “I was amazed at what all you could write a ticket for.”
You can get stopped for pulling too far forward at a stop sign, no blinker, cracked taillight, low tire tread, worn out windshield wipers, excessive muffler noise.
Roberson explains that the police can pull you over for just about anything.
Ronald Rich knows this all too well. Rich is a big guy with sparkly studs in his ears and a straight-billed baseball cap. He has five kids and works at a power company in Birmingham.
“Sometimes [the police] get behind you, you tense up and clutch the steering wheel and this nervous feeling comes over you,” explains Rich.
The first time he was pulled over, Rich was 19 or 20. He lived with his mom in a bad neighborhood, and he was driving home in his first car, an ‘84 Cutlass Supreme.
“You know it had kinks and stuff to it. The police got behind me, and they pulled me over,” Rich remembers.
The officer asked Rich for his license and registration. Rich handed them over.
“And he asked me to step out of the car,” Rich says. He obeyed the officer’s order.
The officer didn’t immediately tell Rich why he was being pulled over. Legally, he didn’t have to explain himself. In fact, police say they like to run driver licenses to see if they have warrants before they debate a ticket.
So, Rich says, he stepped out of the car. He remembers the officer asked, “If there any drugs or things inside the vehicle. I said, ‘No sir, I don’t do any of that type of stuff. No sir, whatever whatever.’” Rich says the officer then told him, “ ‘I am going to put the handcuffs on you and put you in the back of the car for a minute.’ His words were, ‘just for his own safety.’”
This is also legal. Rich wasn’t being arrested, just detained until the officer could find out if there was reason to arrest him.
“He got in the car, searched and everything, which I never gave him permission to search my car,” Rich explains.
“You do have the right to not consent to a search,” Peter Moskos, a professor of criminology at John Jay College, says. Moskos also worked as a beat cop in East Baltimore for a year. Moskos explains that you can say no to a search, but if the officer has probable cause, like if he smells weed or sees an open can of beer, he can legally search your car.
“So yeah you have almost no rights in a traffic stop. The cops going to win. It’s not necessary the cops fault, but the game is rigged especially with traffic stops. If you are in a battle of wits with a smart traffic stop you are going to lose.”
“What the [Supreme] Court has said time and time again is that they don’t want to read the mind of police officers,” explains Moskos. He’s referring to a 1996 Supreme Court case called Whren v. the United States, where the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that pretextual stops are legal. This means that police officers can pull people over on the pretext of looking for something else, like a stolen car, drugs, or guns. As long as the officer follows the rules, the Supreme Court said, that’s fine.
“So, yeah. You have almost no rights in a traffic stop,” Moskos explains. “The cops going to win, and it’s not necessarily the cops fault. The game is rigged especially with traffic stops. If you are in a battle of wits with a smart traffic stop you are going to lose.”
Rich did lose. He got two tickets, one for a bad tail light and the other for no insurance. In the past decade, Rich has been pulled over 15 times, never for speeding or running a red light, but for small stuff, possibly pretextual stuff, and every time he’s gotten a ticket.
There’s no national data about how many traffic stops happen every year in America.
But, in Illinois for example, in 2013, officers made over 2 million stops. That’s about 5,500 traffic stops a day – in one state.
And sometimes these stops turn deadly.
Just this year, there was Samuel Dubose who was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Ohio. He was pulled over for not having a front license plate.
A few months later, a state trooper in Kentucky tried to pull someone over and was shot while sitting in his cruiser.
There’s a reason, the hair on Roberson’s neck stands up, and Rich’s palms get sweaty.
So, what if we just did away with some of the minor traffic stops.
“I guess I can’t say chicken shit on the radio,” jokes Professor Christopher Kutz. Kutz is a Professor of Law at the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Center at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.
“Pretextual stops, [like] not signaling before you pull out if there are no traffic coming or the Sandra Bland type stop, where she was stressed by the police car coming up behind her quickly and failed to signal,” explains Kutz.
In the editorial, Kutz argues that these traffic stops stops don’t make driving safer, and he backs it up. Kutz took data from the U.S. Justice Department and crunched the numbers. He says police in the U.S. make about three times more stops than officers in Spain, France, or England. And yet, the United States has almost double the number of fatal car crashes, meaning the roads in the U.S. aren’t any safer.
So, instead of traffic stops for speeding, Kutz suggests speed monitors like in Spain or Italy. Instead of being pulled over for a broken taillight, Kutz argues for routine vehicle inspections.
Kutz says this would be better for citizens; communities of color might not feel so harassed by the police. It’s also better for officers, he says, because their job would be safer.
I asked Roberson what he thought about this. He explained that some departments would lose a lot of revenue and smaller precincts need that money.
“People are nervous. Citizen are nervous, when they see the police, they don’t know what is going to happen. I don’t want to convey the boogeyman presence. We have a responsibility to mend relationships.”
Plus, Roberson thinks routine traffic stops give officers a chance to interact with the community, face to face, in a positive way.
“People are nervous. Citizens are nervous. When they see the police, they don’t know what is going to happen,” Roberson explains. “I don’t want to convey the boogeyman presence. We have a responsibility to mend relationships.”
Roberson is parked behind the car with no headlights. He gets out and goes up to the driver’s window. He stands a little to the side, in case the driver has a gun.
By now, three other cop cars have shown up; there are four sets of blue lights flashing.
“I kind of smell alcohol a little bit,” Roberson says, when he returns with the driver’s license.
Roberson says he didn’t see any open cans or bottles. But still, “I could pull him out the vehicle,” he explains.
Roberson says that would be legal.
“But,” he whispers to me, “It ain’t that deep.”
Roberson and another officer run a check on the driver: black male, born in 1988, no warrants. The driver does have a charge of first degree assault and attempted murder.
“Now if he has had an attempted murder charge on him, he probably don’t like the police,” Roberson says as we sit in his cruiser.
“Now he has four cops cars behind him,” I says as I look around at the flashing lights.
“Exactly,” Roberson nods, “his stress levels are to the roof, you know what I mean? But, I am going to do a little healing today, a little community relations. Maybe his next conversation about the police won’t be a bad one.”
Roberson opens the car door and says, “I’ll be back.”
Roberson walks back up to the car. They talk for a moment. It looks like Roberson laughs.
Then he starts to back away from the car. The driver puts his hand out of the window.
Roberson steps forward and shakes it.
The Stop was reported by Ashley Cleek and edited by Jim Gates with sound design and production by Jonathan Hirsch. Simone Seiver and Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle provided post-production support.
Life of the Law would like to thank the Birmingham Police Department and Officer James Harrington with the Anniston Police Department for allowing our reporter, Ashley Cleek, to ride along.
- U.S. Department of Justice – Office of Justice Programs – Bureau of Justice Statistics “Special Report: Police Behavior during Traffic and Street Stops, 2011” – September 2013.
- U.S. Department of Justice – STUDY FINDS SOME RACIAL DIFFERENCES IN PERCEPTIONS OF POLICE BEHAVIOR DURING CONTACT WITH THE PUBLIC – September 11, 2013.
This episode of Life of the Law was funded in part by grants from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Open Society Foundation, the Law and Society Association, the Proteus Fund and the National Science Foundation.
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