Wissot: Let’s get rid of fear-based police training
I’m willing to throw caution to the wind, live on the wild side, journey into the danger zone.
Yes, yes, yes. I’m willing to take my chances living in a country where drivers who hang air fresheners from their rear view mirrors, don’t use their turn signals, toddle around town with a broken taillight, aren’t subject to being stopped and pulled over by the police. Let cops take down their license plate number and mail them a summons. But, please don’t ask them to make a meaningless stop that could end with a cop preemptively shooting an unarmed motorist.
Cops have more important tasks to perform in protecting and serving the public than stopping motorists for violations that do not pose an obvious threat to community safety. It makes as much sense to waste the time and talents of the police in enforcing Mickey Mouse misdemeanors as it does to place cops on street corner stakeouts waiting to arrest jaywalkers.
Sandra Bland would be alive today if a cop in Texas hadn’t stopped her in 2015 for a failure to use her turn signal. The stop ended with Bland being arrested after a verbal confrontation led to a physical struggle. She took her own life three days later while sitting in a jail cell.
Daunte Wright would also be alive today if a cop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, hadn’t pulled him over for expired tags. If the officer had simply taken down his plate number and mailed him a summons, the ensuing debacle where Wright attempted to flee and a female officer shot him with a gun she mistook for a taser would not have occurred. He wouldn’t be dead and she wouldn’t be facing a possible prison sentence.
Advocates for the value of pretextual traffic stops for minor violations, which may lead to the discovery of warrants for more serious crimes, point to Timothy McVeigh as evidence. The Oklahoma City bomber was caught in 1995 after being stopped for driving with no license tag. But such traffic stops leading to arrests on criminal charges are quite rare. A University of Arkansas law professor who has studied the success rates for those stops reported in a study published by the Michigan Law review that, “the overwhelming evidence is it doesn’t work. Hit rates are readily low.”
Shelving laws that allow police to stop motorists for petty driving violations begs the question of what to do about violations that do demand traffic stops? Broken taillights are low risk safety issues; speeding, drunk driving, running red lights, are not.
The potential for a bad outcome, one that leads to the preemptive use of deadly force in making a necessary traffic stop, is caused by fear-based police training. Police are trained to put their own personal safety above that of public safety. As one researcher of police training around the country put it, “It’s never stated that police life is more important than public life, but in practice officers learn that I actually can’t keep anybody safe if I’m dead. Ergo, keeping myself alive is the most important thing I can do in order for me to do my job.”
An 18-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Force revealed that as part of his annual qualification test for the use of service weapons, he was required to sit for hours in a windowless basement room “watching video after video of cops getting into shootouts after traffic stops.”
Another policeman with years of experience working for a large municipal police department writes of a misplaced hyper vigilance that cops are bred to adopt during their training.
This leads to the calculation that it is better to take your chances winding up in front of a jury than winding up in a funeral parlor. He wrote that a common phrase used by cops is: “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”
Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show” flipped on its head the standard defense offered by law enforcement for police misconduct that the bad apples are the exception and the good apples the rule. “We’re not dealing with bad apples,” he said. “We’re dealing with a rotten tree that happens to grow some good apples.”
Do you know what the odds are of a cop being killed or assaulted during a routine traffic stop? According to a 2019 study published in the Michigan Law Review, the odds of a cop being killed was 1 in every 6.5 million stops; of being assaulted leading to serious injury, 1 in every 361,111 stops. Or as columnist Radley Balko in the Washington Post after reading these statistics put it, “an officer is orders of magnitude more likely to die of a lightening strike or an insect sting.”
Training cops to be ready for a kill-or-be-killed scenario when stopping a motorist only makes it more likely that what didn’t need to happen will happen. They deserve better. The motorists they stop deserve better. The public deserves better.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.