Traffic stops: the good, the bad, the nightmare

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.

 

At the gun range, a cautionary tale

After hours of instruction, we file onto the gun range and prepare to shoot. Three officers have reviewed the standard-issue weapons of the Sarasota Police Department: a Glock 22 handgun, a Colt AR-15 rifle and a Remington 870 pump shotgun. Today we’re going to fire the Glock.

Dressed in our white shirts with the blue SPD Citizens Academy logo, about 15 of us line up at the gun range at Knight Trail Park in Nokomis to receive eye and ear protection and more instruction. Some classmates have permits to carry guns, although personal weapons are outlawed today. Some have worked as firearms instructors. I shot a rifle in high school but it was a bolt-action .22. I’ve never handled a handgun and, until today, never had the desire.

SPD Training Officer Kim Stroud instructs us in how to hold and aim the Glock. The strong hand wraps around the grip, index finger pointing forward, never on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. The supporting hand wraps around the fingers on the grip with the thumb pointing forward. “That’s 60 percent of your control.”

As I listen, I remember the warning SPD Training Officer Jeff Dunn gave as soon as we walked into his classroom, the most important of all of the safety rules: Even if the weapon is disassembled or unloaded, “We are never going to point a gun at anything we aren’t willing to destroy.”

Safety first
Stroud repeats the message as she leads us downrange. The range is built with concrete strips like football field markers starting 50 yards from the targets. Stroud stops at the 3-yard marker, in front of a paper silhouette of a head and torso backed by a sandy hill. Dunn, a member of the SPD SWAT team, flanks her on the right and maintains control of the magazine. Officer Ken Goebel, the former leader of the department’s sniper team, stands where he can see us and the shooter.

I step up. Stroud hands the Glock to me and positions my hands. At no time does she let go of the weapon. She places her other hand on my back so the weapon doesn’t come up into the 180-degree position after firing.

The target has a red circle in the center of the chest and a smaller one in the middle of the head. As I line up the front and rear sights on the larger circle, the target seems to waver. It’s the slight motion of the hands. Stroud says that’s normal. She steadies the gun and inserts the magazine. I grip harder, inhale, hold my breath and squeeze the trigger.

Time stands still
I experience everything at once. I hear an explosion, loud but not as loud as a cherry bomb, and the gun kicks up but not far. There’s little recoil into the palm. With the ear protection, I don’t even hear the clink of the shell on concrete.

The bullet rips through the target and scuffs the bank, kicking up a small plume of sand. I see a small bright hole in the red dot, not dead center but close, slightly below where I’ve aimed. We take turns, each firing a single bullet, then Dunn and Goebel give a brief demonstration of the rifle and shotgun. I’m reminded of the use-of-force simulator, where you have a nanosecond to decide whether to fire on a suspect. Safety training takes 2½ hours. Our one shot takes 30 seconds.

SPD officers receive far more instruction—mandatory training twice a year for all sworn officers with additional rifle training for patrol officers. These are real-world scenarios that stress shooting while moving while minimizing collateral damage. Officers also practice fixing and reloading their weapon during combat.

Range practice over, the class breaks for lunch. It’s Goebel’s day off and Dunn has enlisted his help as cook. He grills hamburgers and hotdogs and we sit on picnic tables under a lean-to roof and listen to stories we rarely hear from police, stories about triumphs and mistakes, about devotion and misspent youth.

It is the best part of the day.

Next: drug deals and traffic stops.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

The gun range at Knight Trail Park in Nokomis, Florida

The gun range at Knight Trail Park in Nokomis, Florida