- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 1999

With each traffic stop I make as a police officer, a stream of thoughts runs through my mind in the seconds it takes to walk from my patrol car to the person waiting behind the wheel. The driver may be in the act of committing a more serious crime at the time of the stop, or could be coming from the commission of some other crime. While I may be stopping this car for nothing more than the red light violation I observed, the driver may believe the stop is about a more serious offense. The driver might be wanted in connection with other previous crimes, with no intention of surrendering.

What if the driver just had a fight with a spouse, or is leaving the scene of some other disturbance that left him highly agitated and looking for a way to displace his anger? Is there evidence of a crime inside the vehicle, or contraband that the occupants don't want me to discover? Is the driver under the influence of alcohol or drugs? Could the driver be mentally challenged or emotionally disturbed? Can I keep an eye on the other occupants of the vehicle when speaking to the driver? The possibilities are many, while the certainties are few. All I know for certain is what I saw that gave me reason to stop this car.

The advantage is clearly with the person behind the wheel. I must react to the situation as it develops, relying on my observations and training to respond appropriately. My assessment had better be accurate, as well as timely. In 1998, 14 percent of U.S. peace officers who died in the line of duty were killed during routine traffic stops. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, only disturbances and ambush situations accounted for more police officer deaths during that time. So far in 1999, the number of officers killed during traffic stops has matched those killed during disturbances, and is higher than any other circumstance, representing 17 percent of all line-of-duty deaths this year.

When compared with the 12 percent that was the nine year average of the same statistic from 1988 through 1997, it doesn't take an expert to recognize a disturbing trend. So, you can see why officers are trained in the mindset that there is no such thing as a "routine" traffic stop.

Many of us have been stopped by a police officer while driving at some time in our lives, and all too often we judge the officer's demeanor harshly. If the officer is less than congenial we are quick to comment on his or her "bad attitude," but we seldom consider how our own conduct during the traffic stop may have influenced the outcome. While the traffic stop may be an inconvenience to us, given our hectic daily schedules, it represents one of the highest risks to the safety of the patrol officer today. A little understanding and a few common courtesies can go a long way to put the officer at ease, and ensure the encounter is as stress-free as possible for all involved.

When the police car in your rear view mirror activates its red and blue flashing lights, signal your intentions and pull over to the right-hand side of the road as soon as it is safe to do so. If the vehicle behind you is unmarked and you are unsure whether it really is a police officer, it is OK to proceed to the nearest well-lighted, safe location to stop. Just do so at a reduced speed, and be prepared to explain your reason for not stopping sooner.

Unless directed to a safer location, do not move your vehicle once stopped. Put it in park, and wait for the officer to approach you. Do not get out and attempt to walk back to the patrol car. Keep your hands in a visible position, such as on the steering wheel. Do not reach into your glovebox or anywhere else inside your vehicle until the officer asks you for the required paperwork. Remember, the officer doesn't know you. The people out there who engage in illegal activities, and would hurt a police officer rather than risk being detained, carry weapons in the same place you carry your registration and insurance card. The majority of police officers will show you the same respect you show them, so resist the temptation to argue. You may feel you haven't violated any traffic laws, but that is why you will be afforded the opportunity to request a hearing in front of the local magistrate. It is highly unlikely that anything positive will come from arguing with the officer at the side of the road.

Do not try to impress the officer by name-dropping. Even if your father or brother-in-law is a high ranking official in a neighboring jurisdiction, keep it to yourself. There will be time to call that person for advice when you get home, and it has probably been too long since they heard from you, anyway.

More people die in this country each year in traffic accidents than as a result of violent crimes. The officer who approaches your car during a traffic stop is familiar with a darker side of society that most of us are fortunate to know only from headlines and pictures on the television. Above all, the officer is a human being, with the same emotional responses as you and I, and with a family waiting for him or her to come home at the end of the shift. Let's consider the all-important first impression we made with the officer before we mistake the seriousness with which he or she approaches the job we entrust to them as just a bad attitude.

Gregory Pirnik is a freelance writer living in the township of Whitehall, just north of Allentown,Pa.

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