After recent national events involving law enforcement, traffic stops are becoming an increasingly uneasy situation, both for the officer and the citizen.
Local law enforcement agencies are trying to communicate with the public and educate people about certain traffic stop behaviors that may cause tension on both sides of the car window.
Sgt. Bob Beres of the South Carolina Highway Patrol said state troopers made 600,000 contacts with citizens last year, and each of those traffic stops leaves law enforcement officials in a vulnerable situation where virtually anything could happen.
“There are a lot of unknowns when we do pull a vehicle over,” Beres said. “That’s why traffic stops are the most dangerous things for law enforcement.”
Officers acknowledge that traffic stops can also be highly stressful, not only for drivers but for the officers themselves. Sgt. Jerri James of the Florence Police Department has spent 25 years in the traffic division and is no stranger to conducting traffic stops. However, she said she still gets nervous when she approaches vehicles, and tells new officers in training that having that feeling helps keep you alert for potential dangers.
“You should feel some kind of nervousness, some kind of jitters,” James said. “You don’t know who you’re approaching, you don’t know who is in that car. If you’re not nervous when you’re approaching a situation then you need to get out.”
Capt. George Mack of the Florence Police Department reiterated James’ thoughts.
“You must always be cautious every time you step out of that car,” Mack said. “You never know what you’re walking into.”
To help them maintain their composure in these tense circumstances, officers receive training before they are allowed to go on patrol. The South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy’s basic law enforcement training program is 12 weeks long. After completing the academy, an officer could receive months of additional training at the officer's agency before conducting traffic stops alone.
Lt. Kim Nelson of the Darlington Police Department said the department trains officers to be as courteous as possible when they pull someone over, all while containing the adrenaline rush that ensues.
“Your heart’s beating 90 miles an hour but you got to treat that motorist with common courtesy and respect,” Nelson said. “We’re trained to be professional and talk to you in a professional manner. We just ask that you give us some common courtesy too.”
In her experiences, Nelson said, treating motorists politely and with respect usually yields good results. There are other instances, however, that require a little more effort in order to de-escalate the situation.
The motorist’s behavior is a major factor in determining the level of tension a traffic stop may have, for both the officer and the driver. Common themes for Nelson was having people, mostly elderly, get out of their vehicle and approach the patrol car during a traffic stop.
“A lot of older people like to get out of their car and come toward you to meet you,” Nelson said. “I would recommend that you stay inside your vehicle until the officer approaches your vehicle.”
Another Darlington police veteran, Lt. Michael Cooke, has spent 10 years as a traffic officer and has dealt with motorist who are upset about being pulled over and receiving a ticket. Cooke encourages motorists not to dispute a ticket or citation during the traffic stop.
“The time to plead your case is not on the side of the road,” Cooke said. “The wrong thing to do is when I walk up to a car, before I even say a word, you’re already on my case about why I’m stopping you. Arguing with an officer on the side of road is not the way to do it.”
Florence Police Chief Allen Heidler said that if people feel they were treated poorly or unfairly during a stop, they should call the department and ask for a supervisor following the stop.
“There are senior officers on each shift and available at any time,” Heidler said. “If it’s something the officer believes needs further review, they can make arrangements to have the officer’s body camera looked at immediately.”
If there is a disagreement about the reason for the citation, Heidler said, those problems should be discussed in a courtroom, not on the shoulder of the road.
“Getting into an argument on the street or trying to provoke and officer is not going to help you,” Heidler said. “If you think there’s been a discrepancy, that needs to go to court.”
Cooke said ultimately, applying the Golden Rule never fails in most situations, whether you are the officer or the motorist being stopped.
“If I stopped 100 cars, 95 out of 100 would not give me not one minute’s problem,” Cooke said. “Just be courteous. Treat the officer the way you would want to be treated.”
If a law enforcement official pulls you over…
WHAT TO DO?
▪ Slow down, move your vehicle toward the right side of the roadway and stop when it is safe to do so.
▪ Roll your window all the way down and turn down the radio.
▪ If at night, turn the interior light on in your vehicle.
▪ Put your hands in a position where they can be seen and empty them if possible.
▪ Verbalize to the officer your intentions before you make any movements, and get the officer’s permission.
▪ Tell the officer if you have a concealed weapons permit, if you have a weapon on your person or if the weapon is inside the vehicle.
▪ Holders of concealed weapons permits should provide their permit to officers along with their driver’s license and other documents.
▪ Make any sudden movements.
▪ Exit the vehicle, unless the officer tells you to do so.
▪ Argue with the officer about the citation.
TRAVELING ALONE AT NIGHT? PULLED OVER BY UNMARKED CAR?
▪ Turn on your hazards to acknowledge that you see the officer.
▪ Slow down and proceed to a well-lit area if it is at night.
▪ Call 9-1-1 and tell the dispatcher you have someone attempting to pull you over, give them your vehicle description and location, and the dispatcher can confirm if it is one of their officers is conducting the traffic stop.