LJWorld.com weblogs Dispatches from the Academy
Day 8: The other side of the ticket
Journal-World reporters Shaun Hittle and Ian Cummings have attended the Lawrence Police Department's 2013 Citizens' Academy twice per week for the past month. On Wednesdays and Fridays, they highlight a few things they learned from the night before. This week's post recounts the eighth and final night of the course.
On patrol: the traffic stop
I saw a minivan weaving, swerving, speeding, and I decided to pull it over and check it out.
I followed the steps in order, as I'd been trained. I pulled my patrol car up within about a car-length of the van and unfastened my seat belt, so I could get out fast. When I hit the blue and red lights, the van hit the gas, so I had to race to keep up. We swerved around a curve before the driver of the van gave in and pulled over to the side of the road.
Officer Guile, riding shotgun, reminded me to park at an angle behind the van and "power it up" with our spotlight. Guile lives and breathes this kind of police work, and even after more than 10 years on the force, he says patrol is where he wants to be. As I stepped out of the car, I remembered his advice: keep your flashlight in your left hand; leave your dominant right hand free to reach for your gun.
Now, I didn't have a gun, because this was Citizens' Academy. We practiced traffic stops Tuesday night, driving Lawrence Police Department patrol cars at Clinton Lake Adult Sports Complex. Officers pretended to be drunk and disorderly drivers, and we tried pulling them over after some coaching from Officers Josh Guile and David Ernst.
If you've been following our "dispatches" from Citizens' Academy, you'll note a familiar theme: it's not as easy as it looks. As I learned by doing the exercise myself and following my classmates as they went through it, there are a lot of hazards to keep in mind at once.
Hazards of the job
In December, two Topeka police officers were shot and killed while approaching a suspect in a car, and in the Academy we had just heard the story of a former Lawrence police officer whose career was ended by an auto accident during a traffic stop.
In 2011,126 police officers nationwide were killed by gunfire, auto accidents, and intentional vehicular assault. As I saw when I caught up to the minivan, there is just no way of knowing what you are dealing with when you pull over a vehicle, especially on a dark night.
Parking the patrol car at an angle behind the van, I left the nose sticking out into the road to push traffic away from us. This also put the patrol car's engine block between me and the van, in case someone in there decided to take a shot at me as I stepped out. With the patrol car's spotlight on the van's rear windows, I could see there were at least two people inside.
I needed to watch that van. But I also needed to watch the traffic going by behind me, especially as I stepped into the road and around the nose of my car. As I walked up alongside the van, I used the flashlight to check out the interior. When I reached the window, I remembered to keep my face back from the door, so it didn't hit me in the face if the driver pushed it open.
Watch the hands and keep them talking
"Good evening; I'm Officer Cummings," I said. "You want to turn the radio down, please, and let me see your license and registration?"
The driver was acting drunk and gave me a fake ID first before handing me the real one. His buddy in the passenger seat was busy throwing up out the window. I asked the driver where he was coming from, and he said the name of a local strip club.
"Excellent," I said. "That's great."
It made no difference to me what these guys did for fun; my concern was keeping them occupied with answering questions and keeping their hands where I could see them. The patter keeps us all busy, and I didn't notice anything suspicious in the car, apart from the fact that these guys had been drinking.
The passenger still had his hand in the pocket of his sweatshirt, though, and I didn't like that. I told him to put his hands where I could see them, which he did, but he also lurched toward me through the window as if to throw up on my shoes.
Officer Guile and I decided to let them go, in the interest of time, even though each time we pulled these guys over their behavior seemed to get worse. Drunk is one thing, but other times they got rowdy and filmed us with their phones, or put on phony Russian accents and claimed they were terrified of being arrested and made to disappear. It got to the point where I thought of asking Guile to let me borrow his Taser for a minute.
No excuses in Citizens' Academy
At the end of the exercise, the play-acting officers in the van told me I did a pretty good job of talking my way through the stop, but also that I missed a few things.
For instance, I was so busy chatting with the driver about strip clubs and checking his license, watching two pairs hands and looking for traffic behind me that I didn't see the pistol the driver had tucked in the corner of the dashboard and the bags of cocaine sitting plainly in the passenger's cup holder.
On the other hand, the passenger said, it's a good thing I told him to get his hands out of his pockets, because he had a pistol in there, too.
I kicked myself over the missed guns and dope as I climbed back into the patrol car. It was disappointing. There are just so many unpredictable variables in any given traffic stop, and a lot happens quickly in real time.
I once fantasized about leaving my reporter's notebook behind and becoming a homicide detective. But on my last night of Citizens' Academy, I decided I'd be very lucky if they let me drive a squad car.
To see Shaun Hittle's Day 7 post "Raylan Givens would be embarrassed," click here.