It was supposed to be a routine traffic stop. Two Middlefield, Ohio police officers pull over a Saturn sedan for running a stop sign in March of 2013. In the video, the sky’s a typical washed-out winter blue. Cars keep rolling down the street as if nothing’s happening in this town of 2,700, located 45 miles due east of Cleveland.
Suddenly the driver opens his door and unleashes 37 rounds from an AK-47. The patrol car’s windshield splinters. Smoke drifts across the dash-cam as the officers return fire. “Kill me!” the man shouts and collapses in the street.
Police had pulled the driver over for a simple moving violation. The stop turned into an armed attack that resulted in the death of the driver and the injury of both officers.
Most traffic stops don’t end like that one but the danger exists–witness the killing of two officers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on May 9. So does the legal hazard of police violating a citizen’s Fourth Amendment right to protection from illegal search and seizure. For the Sarasota Police Department, where three officers face investigation after a man pulled over for a moving violation died, traffic stops are anything but routine.
Officers Helios Blanco and John Vanik show the Middlefield video to members of the SPD Citizens Academy to make a point: that when it comes to traffic stops, the operative word is safety. Police must protect themselves when approaching a vehicle. Drivers should keep that in mind when evaluating an officer’s behavior . . . and their own.
Danger all around
There are three types of traffic stops: routine; redirect, where the stop becomes a criminal investigation; and pretext, where police use a legitimate traffic violation for a closer look at the suspect. Call them the good, the bad and the really ugly, the Middlefield shooter the poster child for the latter.
“Every traffic stop is different—the person, the weather, the location,” says Vanik, a patrol division officer who specializes in DUI checks. “When I stop a car, I don’t know who’s in the car, their race, their nationality, even after I run the tag and make contact. Everybody has tinted windows and when it’s two in the morning and it’s a dark street, I can’t even tell if there’s a person in the car.”
An officer’s first step is to determine the number of occupants and whether they are moving in an effort to hide guns or conceal drugs. After that, police look for signs of trouble. “Bumper stickers are a giveaway. NRA stickers tell me there’s a gun in car. Stickers like ‘I hate government’ and ‘I hate police’ . . . tell me how they feel.
“Most of the time,” Vanik says, “people are polite to us.” Still, he and other officers park so they can shine headlights on the suspect’s car and use theirs as a shield. They will order suspects out of the vehicle and have them walk backwards. They will stand where a shooter would not expect to find them.
“Always, keep eyes on,” says Blanco, a gang officer and Spanish-speaking translator. “Those few seconds can make the difference between me going home or going to the morgue.”
Proceed with caution
Since 52% of all encounters with police occur during traffic stops, SPD offers this advice:
- When you notice lights behind you, pull your vehicle to the curb and stay stopped.
- Keep both hands on the steering wheel until the officer approaches.
- Provide your license, registration and proof of insurance.
- The officer will tell you the reason for the stop.
- Back in the patrol car, the officer will check DMV records to determine if the vehicle is stolen or if the driver is on inmate release.
- The officer will say whether you will receive a citation or a warning.
If the officer smells something coming from the car, he or she may have probable cause to search the vehicle. “The window is down,” Blanco says. “I get an odor. It’s not Febreze. If it’s marijuana, we have probable cause to search.”
Not so with alcohol. Vanik says police need at least two behavioral cues to conduct a field sobriety test, such as the smell of alcohol and slurred speech.
Regardless of whether the stop results in a warning or something more serious, the encounter is usually stressful for everyone.
“I never say ‘have a nice day,’” Blanco says. “I say, ‘take care.’”
Good advice . . . for all concerned.
Next: marine patrol and drug awareness.
Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.