These past few weeks or so of events has passed us at light speed. First with the deaths, justified or unjustified, of two men at the hands of police, added to by the ambush and deaths of five officers, wounding of seven and two civilians in Dallas (short of 9/11 the largest loss of police lives in a single incident). Climaxed by the ambush deaths of three more officers, another critical and two injured, all happened because a person with a demented mind found a target-rich environment accompanying a group of law abiding citizens, all with their guard down.
It’s time we talked about a rounded insight to the anatomy of a police encounter. Understand that most contacts with police are adversarial in nature. Law Enforcement (LE) is the one agency tasked with telling the public “No, you can’t to that” at least 80 percent or so of the time. Laws just by their nature are negative and restrictive. I don’t recall ever seeing a law that gave permission to violate good order.
At every encounter, the officer must be in charge (a fact whether you like it or not), tasked with establishing order and maintaining control — adjusting to circumstances, but maintaining control, under the authority of the state and nation.
The most common encounter is most likely the routine vehicle stop — one of the most hazard-generating events in police work.
The officer in normal activities observes a traffic violation. He/she is not on call or at a major event, decides to stop your vehicle for a traffic infraction. Because it is a new occurrence, they are on an elevated level of awareness. (The next 30 seconds of the encounter is going to decide the direction the encounter unfolds). Going through the officer’s mind is: How many people in the auto, where are they, what are they doing, make note of a quick description, jot the plate number, is that person reaching for something and why is the one reaching, look at the exhaust is he ready to gun the engine, how far forward can I go, what is the physical demeanor of the passengers, what are the conditions around me? He will normally take a stance of advantage to the left and slightly to the rear of the driver, at the same time hoping that any passengers are not a problem. To the passenger, stay still.
The citizen, to avoid any problems, should follow any instruction the officer gives by voice or gesture. Shut the vehicle off. Put both hands on the steering wheel and wait. They are supposed to be on the wheel anyway so what’s the problem? All passengers should put their hands on their knees. There is no need for any other movement at this time. Don’t reach under the seat, in the glove compartment, back pocket, shirt pocket; DO NOTHING. The officer will give instructions when he approaches. That’s your 30 seconds or so. Believe it or not, at this point the tension level will usually remain low. He will normally approach on the left rear (sometimes not) giving him the safety/defensive advantages. He will most likely by this time get a glimpse of a weapon if there is one. The reason you don’t do anything without permission is that the caution level has risen considerably and dangerously. It will spark his memory back to what was taught to them in academy, training, crime accounts, stories and personal encounters. Besides, I don’t need to see your wallet at this time, anyway. Yours and the officer’s lives hang on the those few seconds and they are calling the shots. No pun intended.
Let’s talk about the right way for you to act. If everything is going well, no problems; the officer will first secure your identification, and then explain what the problem is. They might be friendly or curt, but should never be abusive. The tone of their voice may not be to your liking, but that is the human factor. You will normally have the chance to explain, sometimes not. Your rights are to accept the summons, make sure the officer’s name is on it (don’t worry about badge numbers; we all don’t have them; I didn’t). Pleaded not guilty in court where a person known as a judge will listen to the happenings, decide and render a verdict. If you want more, go to the station house and request a supervisor. Supervisors don’t want problems so in most cases will work with you. Under no circumstances do you have the right to physically confront or touch the officer in the proper performance of his duties — not unless you want three hots and a cot
Let’s change the encounter. (None of the above counts anymore.) You don’t like being stopped, you’re being picked on, singled out; nothing is going your way. And you don’t like cops. You step out of your vehicle contrary to instructions, arms flailing in all directions and menacing. Your voice is raised because you’re going to show this cop what’s what. I can guarantee the tension level is high or super high. We might have used 10 seconds of that 30 seconds or less before tensions are lowered or we are on to the next phase, which will more than likely be physical. You exit the vehicle with your voice threatening, arms flailing and coming strait at me (please don’t have anything in your hands). Nothing says I have to let you get in my face.
Let me tell you right now, we do not get paid to be killed or maimed or even hurt. We get paid to enforce the law and maintain safety.
People seem to think that the weapons we use have to match theirs, like, if they use a stick I have to use a stick. If they want to a fist fight it’s not going to happen. Nowhere in law does it say equal force has to be used. Justifiable force is the criteria. We have to stay within the law. If the officer getting his butt kicked to the point that he is incapacitated or loses control of his weapon, someone is going down.
Many times the offender (he’s not a perp yet) will feel they have the advantage, because of size, sex, numbers etc. I will tell you right now that unless ordered, we will stand our ground, I will not retreat, take cover maybe but not retreat. If you think you will take my weapon, I will fight you to the death. It’s known by us all that the vast majority of officers who give up or have their weapons taken, will die by that weapon. And remember, everything from here on is DEADLY PHYSICAL FORCE. There is really only two outcomes.
Let’s adjust circumstances and say that after all of the above, you decide to take the car and run. That is why we check out the exhaust — to see if you are ready to gun it. The high-speed chase is now in progress. First we should already have your ID, etc. Do you really think you’re going to outrun us? We have your ID, we have fast vehicle, lots of vehicles, radios, telephones, eyes in the sky. Let’s not forget the member of the force, the drone. It can lock on you and stay. Lots of departments have them; they just don’t want to say. I can remember a crew trying to get away by boat. They laughed at the officers as they pulled away. The crew went 80 or so miles away, two counties, only to be met by local police, two helicopters, and a fast mover (very fast boats). And a note, the Coast Guard will and has helped in the past.
Take the summons/ticket, plead not guilty, and see each other in court.
People question, “If it is only a traffic infraction why do you want to chase them?” There is a large possibility that others can be hurt. An officer will say about the same thing. “Why are they running? It’s only an infraction.” History has proven that the bad guys who commit major crimes, including warrant violations, have little regard for lesser infractions; they bring attention to themselves. If you see a vehicle speed through a red light, stop sign and such, think to yourself, “Why did they do that?” then look for another vehicle behind them. You might be the one passing the light.
To the parents, this is your time to help your children. Take every one of them 14 years or older, give them a slap back side of he head and read them their rights. Show them they need a change of their attitude, because if they don’t, there is going to be problems. So many people believe the cops can’t catch them. Then why are the prisons so full? As for those who commit larger crimes, think about this: Why do you think so many of you get caught? It’s because you aren’t really that good, you make mistakes, and your friends give you up in a heart beat. If there is a reward, you are gone in less time than that. If there is a bounty on you, why not make a couple of grand by just making an anonymous phone call?
The events displayed above are multi-directional. It traverses gender, religion, color or beliefs. A ticket should never be used as revenue; it is a training tool. To the driver: Remember, the officer has entered into an event they know little about what will unfold. It could end in tragedy for all involved and your families — or — with a fist bump and a goodbye. To the officer: Not all citizens are bad guys; dump the us-against-them attitude. Sometimes a broken light is just a broken light.
Tony Michalek of Harlowe is a retired lieutenant who served 25 years with the New York Police. An an Army military policeman, he was awarded a Bronze Star medal.