How to survive a traffic stop

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No one likes to be stopped by the police but it is likely to happen to most of us. Once in a great while, we hear of a traffic stop turning deadly with either the officer or the driver being shot and killed. How does a driver keep an unpleasant experience from turning into something worse?

To give my street creds on this matter, as a law enforcement chaplain, I spent 25 years, from 1989 to 2014, riding with the police of three Georgia jurisdictions. That doesn’t include being the chaplain for the police academy in Fulton County or service as a chaplain with the Atlanta Division of the FBI. In addition, I am a graduate of a police academy, a certified law enforcement officer with over 1600 hours of training, and was a sworn reserve officer for two agencies.

First of all, the police are not out looking for a specific demographic to pull over. What they are looking for are vehicles that break the traffic laws or appear suspicious. If it is nighttime, the officers will likely not know the sex or the race of drivers of cars that are targeted.

When I first moved to Georgia, I was visiting a hospital patient late one night in Atlanta. Not being accustomed either to an urban environment or all the one-way streets, I got lost. After about an hour of getting even more lost, I got pulled over. I still had Colorado license plates and I was 32, white, and dressed in a coat and tie driving around in a rough section of Atlanta. The officer who pulled me over was black.

After asking me questions, seeing my information, and hearing my story, he told me why he pulled me over. First of all, I was driving inordinately slow. That was true as I looked at every street sign trying to find something familiar. To him, it looked like I was looking for something. He also took note of the out-of-state license plates. As my windows were down, he could see that I was a young white man. You could say that he stopped me for DWW — driving while white. I was respectful and polite, he was suspicious.

He said that if a young white man was in this neighborhood at this late hour the odds were he was looking for drugs, prostitutes, or trouble. I assured him that was not my intention. When he found out that what I was looking for was access to I-85, he led me to where I needed to be and I got on the interstate and headed for home. I remember that incident as if it was last night, although it was 37 years ago.

Many years later, I was riding the late shift with an officer from one of the local police departments. A car committed some minor violation and he decided to pull it over. There are at least a couple of reasons why an officer might pull over a car for, say, a broken tail light early in the morning.

First, this is how the Oklahoma City bomber was caught. Lots of traffic stops lead to the arrest of wanted people. Second, sometimes an officer will pull over a car because it is late, he or she is tired, and activity — any activity — gets the blood flowing a bit, breaks up the boredom, and helps the officer stay awake. Those minor violations, in my experience, rarely result in a ticket.

Such was the traffic stop that dark night on a lonely road. We walked up to the car, the officer on the driver’s side, me on the passenger side, slightly behind the passenger. Inside were two men, both white, fairly young (perhaps early 30s), and both had their windows down. Everything was going smoothly.

The officer asked for the driver’s license and registration. As the driver was reaching for his wallet, he asked his friend to get the registration out of the glove compartment. The passenger opened the glove compartment and a pistol tumbled to the floor.

He reached for the pistol and I immediately reached inside, grabbed him by the shirt collar, jerked him backwards, and yelled. “Gun!” All motion stopped. The passenger froze and babbled that he was just going to pick it up, that he wasn’t thinking, and the driver had his hands raised.

I saw that the officer’s weapon was out and covering the interior of the car. I opened the door, secured the pistol and laid it on the roof of the car. Tense minutes followed.

As it happened, the gun was legal, the driver had a carry permit, the passenger had no idea there was a firearm in the car, and neither had an outstanding warrant.

Shortly, the driver went on his way, having had his weapon returned to him, and no tickets were issued. It could have ended otherwise but it didn’t. Everyone survived the traffic stop and left the scene grateful and wiser.

So, how does one get through a traffic stop with a minimum of danger and inconvience? Here are my suggestions:

• Pull over at the earliest safe time when you see the blue lights.

• Watch your attitude. A belligerent, disrespectful, combative attitude does not help the situation.

• Realize that the officer, especially if he or she is young, is likely more nervous than you are. They know cops get killed at these times.

• Before the officer even gets out of his/her vehicle, put the car in park, roll down the windows, turn off the car, take the keys out of the ignition and lay them on the passenger seat, and, if it is nighttime, turn on the interior lights. Then put both hands on the steering wheel and leave them there until you receive further instructions. Let the officer see that you are cooperative and that you pose no threat.

• It is fine to say something like, “Good evening officer/deputy.” You need not ask why they stopped you. You will be informed in due time.

• Realize that this whole thing is going to take from ten to twenty minutes. The officer has lots to do, including running your tag and seeing if there are outstanding warrants.

• If you are directed to go into the glove compartment and you have a weapon there, tell him about it before your hands ever leave the steering wheel. It is possible that he or she will choose to retrieve the weapon and secure it until the stop is over. Don’t sweat it. He may take it back to his patrol car and run the serial number to insure that it is not stolen.

• Be aware that, in all likelihood, this traffic stop is on tape, both video and audio. It your case goes to court, the tape will be seen, so don’t do as one intoxicated woman, a pillar of the community, once did — she offered the officer sex if he would forget the whole thing. Her husband decided to press the matter and took it to court. I do not know if their marriage survived the videotape that was played in open court.

• Remember the saying, “If you give respect, you will get respect.” You still may get the ticket but that’s your fault for violating the law, not the officer’s.

• If it turns out you do have an outstanding warrant, don’t fight and don’t run. All you will receive will be extra charges and, if it goes really bad, it might cost you your life. If an officer is killed in the process, your life, as you know it, is over.

I would urge all parents to teach these responses to your young drivers. Some of the most belligerent, foul-mouthed drivers I have seen were teenagers.

Almost every officer with whom I served acted like a professional and was respectful to drivers until the moment they had to be otherwise.

The police have an extremely difficult job. Traffic stops are never pleasant for drivers, especially if it will cost them money. But a good response on the part of the driver can’t hurt.

I have even known cops who, after a good, positive response, decided to give a warning ticket instead of a punitive one. But the best way to avoid a ticket, or a traffic stop, is simply to obey the law. It’s really not that hard. People do it every day.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

9 COMMENTS

  1. And everyone lived happily ever-after.

    Again, Rev. Epps who was born on third base (a white male) somehow believes he must give batting tips to everyone else and chide them for having so much trouble getting on base. It must be wonderful to live in never-never land and lecture everyone on how easy it is to get along in society when you are the privileged class. Everything is always sunshine and lollipops!

    Truth is so much stranger than fiction. You really can’t make this stuff up.

    • Yay! Everybody who is not a minority was born on third base. -) I just don’t understand. Because I went to a desegregated HS, spent 12 years working at a grocery store while getting a 4 year degree. Had black classmates, black co-workers, and black managers the whole time. I now work for a company that has a black CEO. Opportunity is there even if you are not white if you want it. It may take some assimilation on your part.

      • While everything you said is true, it misses the point that on average people of color in the US have fewer opportunities than white people. That doesn’t mean there are not successful people of color but the proportion of successful people who are not white is lower than the proportion of not white people in the US overall.

          • I would argue that since the vast majority of people of color grew up in the US they need not assimilate because they are already American. This is not an issue of assimilation or culture, it is an issue of equal opportunities. Kids in predominately black and poor neighborhoods do not get the same quality of education that kids in white suburbs get, which then affects their college opportunities and so on. Those same poor, black neighborhoods often have worse public transit connections than richer neighborhoods which makes getting to work harder/ take longer. Going back to my earlier point about how people of color are arrested and convicted more often for the same crime, being arrested makes it harder to get a job and being convicted of drug possession even if it’s just a bit of weed is a felony, which makes it practically impossible to get any decent job. This is not a simple problem and there is no good solution, I’m not going to pretend like I know how to fix the inherent inequalities of the US today. However we can acknowledge that they exist and not be so quick to blame people of color for “not assimilating” or “not working hard enough” when they have to clear extra hurdles to be on equal footing as white people.

  2. O Henry, come on. The police planting drugs during traffic stops? That’s your explanation I guess for the disproportionate statistic where young black men are incarcerated for drug crimes far in excess of any other demographic group and way above their actual % of the overall population. Something like young black men account for 7% of the entire population but young black men that are imprisioned for drug crimes is almost 50% of the total. Are you kidding me? The police planting drugs causes this?

    Time for an investigation, I guess.

    Do you seriously believe this?

    • That’s not what I said, cops know that young Black men are over-represented in the prison population and as a result spend more time watching them because that’s who is most likely to commit a crime. As a result young Black men get pull over for things that others wouldn’t, like failing to use a turn signal or rolling a stop sign. Leading to young Black men being over-represented in the prison population. It’s been shown that young people use drugs at about equal rates, but white kids aren’t pulled over as frequently. Cops planting drugs is a thing that happens, not frequently but not unheard of.

      Just a couple of headlines

      “Trial date set for former Jackson County deputy accused of planting drugs on innocent people”

      “NYPD Admits to Planting Drugs”

      We should move traffic enforcement to the DOT so that cops can focus on criminals and not on people committing minor traffic infractions. The DOT people would be like health inspectors, able to give out fines and nothing else. This would make traffic stops safer because criminals know that they are just getting a ticket and don’t have to worry about being arrested, as a result they would have no reason to attack the DOT person/agent/officer. DUIs are an issue, but the police can be in communication with the DOT people to arrest them, same with people with warrants. Another thing we can do is install speed cameras and red light cameras, because we know that they have no implicit bias, are much cheaper than paying someone to pullover people one at a time, and don’t put anyone in harms way.

    • It’s like the classic statistic error, in WWII bomber were getting shot down and they had a bit of weight they could use for armor the places that they got hit the most. That didn’t improve survival rates, because they were looking at the planes that made it back, not the planes that go shot down. Eventually someone figured out that they needed to armor the places that no planes had been shot, because if they got shot there they didn’t make it back to base assuming the Germans hits were randomly distributed across the aircraft. The
      race breakdown of prison populations isn’t a reflection of the rate that people commit crimes it’s a reflection of the rate that people are arrested for crimes.

  3. The police aren’t looking to pull over one demographic more than another, but they pay more attention to people of color and find reasons to pull them over. I can almost guarantee that everyone in PTC breaks a traffic law every time they drive, either not coming to a full stop at stop signs or not using a turn signal or speeding. Most of the time police let people get away with these infractions, but it has been shown that police do pull over people of color at a higher rate, this then give the police reason to search your car because they don’t need a warrant to do that. Police have planted drugs to give them a reason to arrest them or sometimes the only thing people have been charged with was resisting arrest. Your advice is good, but you have to recognize that even if someone follows it to the letter they can still end up getting beat up. Just look up police kick man with hands on head or police punch man in handcuffs. You can find news stories across the US going back years.