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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]