Whose heart doesn't skip a beat when you look in your rearview mirror and see something like this following you? Then the lights turn on and the siren spits out a short burst of noise and the officer points for you to pull over. I don't care who you are, your first reaction is panic and that's okay. It's natural. We are all humans. Even cops panic when they are off-duty and get pulled over by another agency. As long as you're not a felon on the run or an activist looking to stir up controversy, the traffic stop should be a temporary interruption in your day, and sometimes, you might get off with just a warning.
Since everyone is always talking about how the police behave during traffic stops, let's consider the event from their perspective. In other words, let's put on their shoes and make that walk and see what we see. Shall we begin? I think we can all agree that pulling a violator over at night is more difficult than pulling someone over during the middle of the day because of visibility, but this isn't to say that pulling a violator over right after church on a Sunday morning isn't dangerous too. Let's pretend we are working the evening shift and our first traffic stop of the day occurs at 3:30 o'clock pm and involves a red minivan with an unknown number of occupants on a residential street that disregarded a stop sign and is speeding.
You observed both offenses and pull up behind the vehicle to run the plates and observe the driver for signs of impeded or erratic driving. Almost immediately the vehicle slows down and the driver begins obeying all traffic laws. The driver is now operating the vehicle at 10 mph under the posted speed limit and from what you can tell, is obeying all traffic laws. You decide to stop the vehicle and warn them about running the stop sign and speeding, so you turn on your emergency lights and radio the traffic stop in to dispatch.
"Dispatch, Traffic in the 1600 block of Rosemary Lane. It's a red minivan occupied unknown times with Texas license plates."
The driver pulls the minivan over immediately and comes to a complete stop. You pull over behind the minivan and stop two car lengths away. You offset your vehicle to the minivan by about 3 feet and turn your wheels hard to the left before putting your patrol car in park. You do this for your safety. The reason you turn your wheels hard left is if someone accidentally runs into your car from behind, the impact will likely force your car out and away from where you are standing. The offset forces cars to drive further away from you while you are conducting the traffic stop. If the traffic stop escalated and occupants from the minivan started shooting at you, turning the wheels to the left protects you from ricochets if their bullets strike the pavement in front of the patrol car. Don't laugh! It's happened!
Assuming this is just a normal traffic stop, you exit your vehicle and make the walk toward the minivan. When you get to the rear, you pause for a second and look over your left shoulder to check for oncoming traffic. You also use your right hand to make sure the rear hatch of the minivan is securely closed. Again, there are several reasons for this. The first is to make sure the hatch isn't just held closed with bad guys waiting to spring out and attack you or flee. Another reason is you want to leave your hand and fingerprints on the vehicle in the event you're killed while conducting the stop and the vehicle leaves. Those prints will confirm you made contact with that vehicle should it be discovered later. Again, this is a practice that every officer does on every traffic stop because over time, we have seen cases where had the officer performed these actions, the outcome might have been different.
Finally, you make contact with the driver. You greet the driver in a friendly, professional manner unless the driver interrupts you, becomes argumentative, or otherwise causes you to break decorum. If that happens, you will probably have to be firmer with your requests. You ask the driver for their driver's license and maybe ask for proof of insurance and registration. You inform the driver of their violations and ask if there was a reason for the violations. While they're fumbling around for their documents and thinking of plausible excuses, you scan the driver and occupants for anything that might jeopardize your safety. Obviously, your shortlist will include weapons such as guns, knives, brass knuckles, and clubs. But there are other things you're looking for too. Nervous behavior, furtive movements made by the driver or passengers also make the list. What's a furtive move you ask? Well, reaching beneath the seat is considered a furtive move. Doing anything outside the norm could be considered dangerous by you, but like most officers, you can recognize the difference between nervous and dangerous behavior.
Anyways, assuming the driver produces a driver's license and no one pull's a gun on you, the traffic stop will be over in just a few minutes from this point forward. You were taught to either sternly warn offenders or cite them, not both. What that means is if you chew out the driver for going too fast in a neighborhood where kids are playing, the driver most likely isn't getting cited. You might give them a written warning, but typically you'll give them a stern talking to and release them with a finger wag, and "don't let it happen again" warning. If you continue to be polite and professional and ask the driver questions about their valid address, telephone number, physical identifiers, etc., they're getting the citation. Again, it's not the end of the world. The point is to reinforce good driving behavior.
You release the driver and they leave. They may spin out and kick rocks up or the driver or one of the occupants may flip you off, but they're gone. You walk back to your patrol car, get in and take a deep breath. It's the first deep breath you've taken since you stepped out of your vehicle to begin the traffic stop. You tell yourself everything went fine, but you still make notes in case the driver calls the Chief to complain. Since you didn't issue a citation, you don't have to worry about a court appearance in 6 months, so that's a relief. Having to go to court on your day off always sucks. You were taught to never drive off in the same direction as the violator you just stopped because you don't want them to complain that you were following them, so you pull away from the curb and make the first right you come to and continue your patrol. Hopefully, the remainder of your shift will be uneventful, but it's early and if a hot call comes in, you'll be ready to respond. You remember to check back into service so you advise dispatch that you are 10-8 with a verbal warning. Almost immediately she acknowledges you and in the same transmission sends you to an accident call.
This scene is repeated thousands of times every day in departments all across the United States. They aren't newsworthy events because nothing exciting ever happens. Except for the patrol officers who perform these mundane tasks every day are always on guard because they never know when that one traffic stop will become newsworthy. They never know when those 10-15 steps they make to contact a violator will be their last steps.
Psychologists and medical doctors have studied the effects that cumulative stress can have on police officer's health for decades. Sadly, it's not looking good for patrol officers. It doesn't matter how healthy officers are when first hired, stress has a way of making them sick and in some cases killing them. Most officers are hired young, in their physical prime, ready to go out and fight crime and find bad guys. By the time they're halfway through their careers, many are overweight and have bad hearts. For those that make it to retirement, very few live long enough to enjoy it. They have heart attacks. Cancer rips them apart because of unhealthy living habits while fighting bad guys. Some allow the stress to overwhelm them and they commit suicide. Others succumb to alcoholism, divorce, and many of the other myriad things that make career law officers miserable.
You are different though. You exercise. You don't drink alcohol or smoke and you don't ever intend to take up those nasty habits. You're single so you don't have to worry about divorce either. You watch what you eat, and you meditate every day. Heck, you probably take yoga lessons a couple of times a week, and let's not forget your blue belt in jiu-jitsu. That takes a lot of practice. Yeah, you and roughly 30% of the entire American police force are different. In other words, even though you take care of your physical and mental health, you and roughly 30 out of every 100 officers, nationwide, will continue to have physical and mental health problems long after you leave public service.
Yet, the data shows that around your fifth year of service, you and your fellow officers do something incredibly stupid that almost always costs you your badge. You have a meltdown. You lose it on a suspect and assault them because you've been to his house thirty times over the past year and the courts aren't taking care of business, so you have to. Yep, stress has a way of thinning the ranks one or the other. When you factor in the activist movements to defund the police, stress levels can reach all-time highs. But wait a moment. You signed up for this, sort of, right?
What's the solution? No one in their right mind would take a job, much less make a career out of it if they knew their chances of making it to retirement were less than 25% and less than 10% without any serious health issues. The job isn't glamorous. It's dangerous and the liability is incredible. So why bother? I'll save those questions and answers for another article. Instead, I want to focus on the bigger picture, the system that creates that wall between law enforcers and citizens. We've all heard it expressed as the "thin blue line". Some have even called it the "us vs. them" scenario.
There's not enough space here to fully capture everything that has caused this to occur. Whatever the reasons, too many cops and robbers on television or unfair court systems, the bottom line is that somewhere along the way, empathy was lost. Not all empathy. Just a large majority of it. Let me express it a little differently. People are exposed to a lot of different influences in their life. Some are good influences and some are bad. The majority of these influences used to come from television, the movies, church, school, friends, etc. Now, the majority of influence comes from social media. We can have entire social movements literally spring up overnight, with many people who belong to these groups never having met, and then disappear just as quickly.
My point is people tend to categorize others into groups they may or may not belong to. Empathy goes a long way towards understanding each other, especially when you're trying to understand who the police are. Right now, it's very popular to blame the police for everything wrong in society and to shout the mantra "Defund the Police". That would be a huge mistake. I'm not saying the police are perfect and I'm certainly not suggesting they don't need oversight. But before you cast that first stone, saddle up and go for a ride-along. Get to know who the officers are assigned to your district. They're humans too. If you really want to understand what officers go through, sign up for one of the many citizen's police academies. You'll even get the chance to experience a traffic stop firsthand.
For most of America, the police will be the only contact they ever have with the government. For other Americans, they will deal with the police on a daily basis. It doesn't matter what camp you fall in, never forget the police are human beings also. They are subject to the same stressors, same pitfalls, same frailties everyone else is subject to. The purpose of this article isn't to persuade you to change your mind about any political topic. Instead, I hope you will read this, then decide there is to that uniform standing beside your car or standing in front of you. There's a Father, Son, Mother, Daughter, a person, just trying to do a job. They may not always get it right, but they try. For more articles, please check out my author's page here and my blog here.