There Are No Routine Stops for Law Enforcement—and no Easy Way to Handle Safety

There Are No Routine Stops for Law Enforcement—and no Easy Way to Handle Safety

It is difficult to understand the dangers and stresses of a traffic stop from an officer’s point of view unless one has worn a badge and orchestrated the maneuver. In a field where immediate control and tactical viability are the average officer’s two greatest tools in staying safe, uncertainty and a lack of situational advantages reduce an officer’s already slim margin of error. Even best-case training and performance from the officer and courteous, safe behavior from the motorist are not always enough to mitigate the risk.

A lack of clear statistics on what constitutes a “traffic stop death” may complicate efforts to quantify just how dangerous the routine law enforcement activity truly is. Any officer inherently understands the danger of interacting with a motorist just feet away from moving vehicles — whose drivers may be intoxicated, distracted, or otherwise not mentally or legally fit to be behind the wheel. Yet, clarifying the point with hard data turns out to be more complex than anticipated. Officers killed by distracted drivers during routine stops obviously count as traffic stop fatalities, but what about the trend of violent motorists shooting officers during stops? How does one classify an officer who dies during a chase that began as a routine stop? Do crash investigations and other activities that take place next to routine roadways count as traffic stop fatalities for the purposes of statistical analysis?

Even without direct figures, however, one point regarding officer deaths during traffic stops is incontestable: whatever percentage of lives these deaths claim, it is undoubtedly too high. Consider the following statistics and insights:

  • Between crashes (while traveling) and hit-by-car incidents (while performing a traffic stop), The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate “vehicle related incidents” accounted for some 37 percent of all line-of-duty deaths between 2011 and 2017.
  • While deaths are the most tragic outcomes to stem from traffic stops, injuries also are of serious concern. In January 2019, Cincinnati Enquirer journalists quoted statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as saying that in 2014, 40 percent of all “fatal and non-fatal” injuries to officers “involved a vehicle.”
  • A list put forth by Fox News details the many ways traffic stops can be fatal for officers: the site records nine stop-related deaths for 2019, including one in which an officer died during surgery stemming from a stop-related accident sustained many years prior.
  • Thus far, none of these resources list the recent loss of Deputy Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal, who was shot and killed by a Texas motorist during a routine traffic stop in September 2019 — suggesting it may take some time for stop-related deaths to be fully reported by national news outlets.

The risks are just as real for civilians, who enjoy limited benefit from staying in their vehicle for the majority of stops, but still sit alongside an area designated for moving traffic. Almost every state has some variation of a “move-over” law, requiring drivers to reduce speed when approaching a stationary emergency vehicle, and, if safe to do so, to vacate the lane closest to the stopped vehicles. Nevertheless, waves of vehicles carrying possibly inattentive drivers mean even a friendly encounter with a well-trained officer can quickly turn tragic. Any driver passing a stopped police vehicle may be intoxicated, reaching back to straighten a child’s safety belt, chatting or texting on a mobile phone, or simply not paying attention.

In this regard, the notion that traffic-stop safety commands more resources or training time than statistically appropriate unquestionably misses the mark — recent analysis suggests the ongoing effort to remind officers is little more than a “narrative.” Few other routine police tasks come with so many unpleasant variables over such a sustained period. It is the reason catchphrases like “there is no such thing as a routine stop” are familiar in the law enforcement world. It is also a strong motivation for industry stakeholders to explore technological and procedural safety innovations. Law enforcement agencies wishing to make traffic stops safer for everyone may wish to consider the following steps as they weigh the need to perform a core function against the very real risks involved.

The challenge of getting the word out on better stop procedures

In Texas, recent legislation requiring “law enforcement interaction” classes drew a predictably divisive response. While area law enforcement had little to do with the decision outside the potential involvement of industry-focused lobbyists, and while every officer’s personal opinion is different from the next, the challenge at the core of the change is reflected in many other areas of law enforcement. In short, it is extremely difficult for any law enforcement agency to push a message to any sizeable percentage of the public, including drivers.

Consider the most common tips shared to make law enforcement encounters on the road easier for both parties. Often presented as guides to get on the officer’s good side, many articles on the internet offer the same ideas under two high-level tentpoles. On the procedural side, stopped drivers should try to find a safe area such as a parking lot or traffic investigation site to pull over, turning their hazard lights on to communicate to the officer that they see the lights in their rear-view and will stop when safe. They should then turn on their dome lights if stopped after sundown, place their keys on the dash or the roof of their car, and make sure to keep their hands visibly on the wheel at all times until otherwise instructed. On the personal-behavior side, the same resources advise motorists to stay calm, make eye contact, warn officers before reaching toward the glovebox or another concealed area, and proactively warn officers of any firearms held in the vehicle, among other tips that may seem like common sense.

The challenge inherent to instilling these changes is easy to understand, yet difficult to overcome: making sure the same “common sense” ideas reach across to the other side of the glass. Although officers do have some power in dictating where a stopped motorist should ultimately pull over, hand-signals and shouts only go so far. Likewise, by the time an officer reaches the motorist’s window to tell them to place their keys and hands in a certain way, the most dangerous aspects of the encounter are already at play.

Naturally, budget will play a predominant role in any efforts a law enforcement agency takes to spread awareness of the dangers of traffic stops. Ad campaigns and public service announcements (PSAs), while persuasive and useful in the right context, are generally the domain of industry interest groups instead of departments themselves, considering the substantial cost of strategizing and producing a single effective ad spot. Meanwhile, agencies with the budgetary heft to do local work in this vein may struggle to find a way to make the message carry enough weight, and smaller agencies may lack that option.

Fortunately, modern agencies have more power to extend their voices than ever before, via the internet. Social media platforms will naturally be at the forefront of the average budget-conscious agency’s efforts. The same Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts used to spread other public safety messages work just as well for traffic stop safety information, and the flexibility of the medium means an initiative’s message can be pushed via video recording, an image, or a simple text post. Because these platforms boast usage rates among the U.S. population as high as 88 percent, even a rudimentary campaign of a few posts, with or without paid placement and other premium features, can ensure an important message reaches a high percentage of the public.

Agencies wishing to spread the word more effectively without PSA levels of spending may wish to take their social media plans to the next step, hiring a public sector-experienced strategist to ensure their efforts achieve maximum impact. Web hosting provider Hootsuite has some excellent information on this topic for agencies with the budget to take on a new contractor.

Of course, law enforcement agencies managed to get the word out to their communities long before the advent of social media, and many of the traditional methods still hold plenty of present-day value. Long a staple of outreach efforts, community events can be useful in a direct sense (materials handed out to the community) and via promotional possibility (press releases before the event). This approach provides a comparably high impact for its low cost, and can be deployed without the need to solicit proposals or to seek approval from the overseeing organization.

Technology, training, and more

Returning to the difficulty of classifying “traffic stop deaths” vs. other types of on-the-job fatalities, there is one flaw inherent in all the community-information approaches mentioned in the previous section. Even at total outreach and 100 percent effectiveness, they are ultimately only designed to reach lawful drivers. Shootings, intentional hit-and-runs, and other violent criminal behavior add another dimension of unpredictability to every traffic stop, and one that is clearly more difficult for agencies to combat. Indeed, the deaths of Deputy Singh in September and of North Carolina officer Jordan Sheldon, who was fatally shot in May while examining a driver’s documents, further show how the traffic stop environment gives certain opportunistic criminals the upper hand, providing several blind spots in which officers can be killed while their focus is divided.

There is no easy answer to any of these issues, despite measures taken to try to address them. Some departments now mandate the passenger-side approach (also known as the “inside approach”), while others leave the option to the individual officer. Official data on the effectiveness of each technique is sparse, but a look at online industry forums reveals several officers recounting similar soft measures.

Departments and their employees may have to accept that traffic stops carry a higher degree of risk than other form of law enforcement activity. From this determination, the options become easier to count, if not to choose. An agency may choose to continue managing traffic stops as they always have, applying any best practices they acquire along the way; alternately, they may wish to intentionally reduce stops for certain minor traffic infractions, until such time that technology catches up to the need.

To the second point, innovations like a “stopless” speeding ticket program in Dayton, Ohio, offer an alternative to the contemporary stop. A handful of officers in the city now carry devices that work as combination speed guns and license plate readers, allowing them to snap a picture of the speeder’s car and send a ticket from where they stand. Alongside the obvious safety advantages, these devices also carry the human-witness factor unlike the fully automated technologies that are a favorite of traffic lawyers everywhere.

Technologies designed to improve other aspects of traffic stops may also serve to enhance safety. In Pennsylvania, for instance, a mobile app simply called “Traffic Stop” helps personnel query multiple relevant databases at one time, indirectly addressing several safety problems. First, less time spent on first and second contact means less time for ambushers to approach the stopped cruiser, a growing concern among agencies following similar attacks in the news, some of them fatal. Second, faster access to pertinent driver data gives the officer more time to respond, when needed.

Such field technology is extremely useful, but only if used correctly. Any major changes to procedure or policy should be accompanied by thorough training and recordkeeping. Likewise, it is important to address the possibility of complacency (itself widely known as a major danger for law enforcement agencies and their employees). Knowing exactly when officers had their last stop-related training can guide decision-making that keeps personnel safe, or as safe as possible, for years to come.

Social changes with potential safety benefits will also be a major factor in coming months and years. A groundswell of attention to various racial issues has resulted in agencies engaging in self-directed and federally-mandated changes that ultimately limit the number of traffic stops they make, via various mechanisms. Federal intervention in Maricopa County, Arizona, for instance, reduced traffic stops by more than half from 2015 to 2018.

If regions across the country see few adverse effects from such measures, and if the changes result in a reduction of injuries and deaths on the roadway, it is easy to foresee an eventual overall reduction in non-essential stops. The ability for technology to handle fix-it tickets and other minor issues could also improve officer safety.

It may seem frustrating to have relatively little control over something with so much potential for danger. But with the right combination of technology and training, departments can be optimistic that such social, procedural and technological changes could eventually work together to make traffic stops significantly safer for both motorists and police officers.

Posted on Dec 10, 2019