October 3rd, 2005

Shag - Luncheon on the Grass

(no subject)

Happy Birthday, mztish103! It was great seeing you Saturday. Maybe now that things are looking up, I'll be able to get out to places you go more often, that'd be good news.
Brad @ Burning Man

How to Not Get Killed: The Routine Traffic Stop

Speaking of our national fear of black males ... I didn't write the other day's essay with this story in mind, but it is in my "news stories I wanted to say something about" list, and now that I think of it, it's sort of related to the subject. Although it's less so than you might think at first. The news story with the full details: a column by Sylvester Brown, "Memories of savage night still haunt family," St. Louis Post Dispatch, 9/25/05. For those of you who don't want to read the whole column, or don't want to read the whole column first, a capsule summary:

About a year and a half ago, a black family of five got pulled over for a more-or-less routine traffic stop in the city of St. Louis. What happened next is subject to dispute, but what happened after that is perfectly clear from the physical evidence: the black male driver tried to escape the traffic stop. At one point during the escape attempt, two police officers fired 28 shots into the car. The driver was grazed once, in the arm; due to quick thinking by his wife, who saw this coming just barely in time to pull the kids out of their safety seats and shove them down to the floorboards then ducked herself, neither she nor the children were harmed. Had she not been as quick as she was, she absolutely would have been killed: at least one round went through the headrest of her seat. As soon as the gunfire stopped, the driver managed to escape yet again and drove to the adjacent small city of Pagedale's police station, where he surrendered. There was enough weirdness in this story that it stuck in my mind, but it has taken until now to find out anything else, because neither the driver nor the cops were talking.

What the column reports is that since then, the police internal investigation has completed. Of the two cops who shot up the car, the veteran officer was placed on "indefinite suspension" and the rookie with him was fired. The veteran officer's lawsuit demanding reinstatement, which was another thing holding up the various parties' talking to a reporter, has also concluded, unsuccessfully for the officer. In all likelihood, he'll never work as a police officer again, either. Now, the black family are suing the police department. You see, the reason the two officers gave for why they shot up the car was that when they attempted to box him in so he couldn't escape, he rammed their car at high speed, and they were afraid for their lives. What we were not told at the time is that there are no dents in his bumper, no dents in their door, and not even so much as a paint scrape on either vehicle. Although it was aggravating to the rest of us that we didn't know most of this until now, both sides did the right thing by choosing not to risk inflaming further racial hatred and further tension between police and the black community by arguing this out in the press or in public; both sides gave time to let the process work, first.

Now, let me analyze this from my perspective, as someone who comes from a family with multiple police and ex-police, and who has fought with those family members on the exact subject of excessive violence by police. You see, while I will generally go out of my way not to blame the victim, there's plenty of blame to go around. This nightmarish scenario could have been prevented by either side. Both the police and the driver were seriously in the wrong, and if the lawsuit goes to a jury, I hope somebody tells the jury this.

My late father, who among his many past jobs was a police officer in a St. Louis City district that was then (and still is, although less so) famous for the brutality of its cops, took me aside one day when I was still young, probably because of a story like this in the news, and told me, "Brad, I'm going to give you an important safety tip, and I hope this time you listen to me. If a police officer pulls you over and he says get out of the car, get out of the car. If he says stay in the car, stay in the car. If he says stop, stop. If he says go, go. If he says stand on one foot and cluck like a chicken, do whatever he says. He's got a gun, fool, he'll shoot you if you don't. No matter what happens, remember that you can't call Internal Affairs if you're dead." Later, in driver's ed, my particular instructor made us rehearse a traffic stop. His instructions were to pull over in the first lighted place that was as much out of traffic as possible. If it's night, turn the dome light on. Roll the driver's side window, only, down. Then place your hands on the steering wheel in the prescribed "10:00 and 2:00" positions, where they will be plainly visible to the officer, and wait patiently. Then do whatever you're told to do.

When I was taking my annual rent-a-cop license training, one year they showed us a film to demonstrate exactly why. You see, while the average American police officer retires without ever facing a life-threatening situation or drawing his or her firearm in the line of duty, there is one thing that every police officer knows, and that most of you, I'm afraid, don't realize. There is absolutely nothing, ever, in the course of his career, that a police officer will ever do that is as dangerous as a routine traffic stop. You think not? Let's take a worse-case scenario you might be thinking of, a raid on a crack house. In that case, all of the officers are fully armored, probably even including helmets and an extra layer over the body. Their weapons are not strapped into a holster, but already drawn. They know that this one situation is dangerous, and are mentally prepared for it. But in a routine traffic stop, until they run your driver's license for wants and warrants, they do not know if this one time, they've got someone who is, say, a prison escapee, or a murder suspect, or a repeat-offender drug dealer, or anybody else who might be motivated to kill the officer rather than let their license be run or rather than risk a search. This is a pretty rare event. Even in a largish city like St. Louis, it only happens maybe once every 5 or so years, and how many traffic stops are there in that time? Tens of thousands at least, I'm thinking. But that's part of why they're so dangerous; you can't prepare for a murderous assault every time you make a routine traffic stop.

What's more, if this one does turn into an attempted murder of a police officer, the cop is in a terrible position to defend himself or herself. (That's not political correctness speaking, by the way. The last officer so murdered in this area was a young woman up in north county.) In the video they showed us, they gamed it out. Police officer, simulated suspect on foot. Lock-bladed flick-knife in the suspect's pocket. Rules of engagement: officer may not unsnap his holster unless the suspect's hand is out of sight, and may not draw the gun until he sees a knife or the suspect begins running towards him. And what they showed us was that at any starting range of less than twenty feet, the officer's chances of clearing his weapon from the holster, releasing the safety, bringing it into line between himself and the suspect, and firing it before taking a stab wound to the abdomen, are zero. Even with practice, even knowing mentally that this was going to be the murder attempt, even with him looking straight at the subject when the weapon is drawn, from any range of less than 20 feet the officer is dead or dying. (They showed us this to make it clear to us why we, as rent-a-cops, were being instructed to never stand closer to someone that we're questioning than 6 feet away, and to back up slowly but steadily to 20 feet as soon as there is the slightest sign of trouble.)

This is why this guy and his family nearly died: he got out of the car. Worse, he got out of the car and started shouting at the cops. (Somebody obviously didn't like being accused of being a drug dealer with his wife and kid in the car. Wait, when did this get to be about drugs? Simple. When multiple cops pull over a car with a black male driver for the trivial traffic offense of briefly crossing the yellow line, they're not looking to write a ticket. They're looking for any excuse to search the car. This is something that any black man who doesn't know it, finds out very soon after he starts driving.) Then he made it even worse. When the cops tried to move him, he refused to move ... and they found out he was strong enough that they actually couldn't move him. (Weight lifter.) Bad, bad mistake, that was; it played right into the same urban legend that almost got Rodney King killed. You see, what almost every cop "knows," and for that matter what most of you "know," is that the hallucinogen PCP is a temporary super-soldier serum that renders you immune to pain and grants temporary super-strength. (Not true.) So when cops, in particular when they've pulled over a black man while trying to find random drug dealers, run up against a resisting suspect who's stronger than them, they automatically assume that he's under the influence of a drug that makes him stronger than any 10 cops put together, almost bullet-proof, and easily enraged. So, thinking that they're trying to arrest a black version of The Incredible Hulk, massive violence ensues almost every time.

Somehow, he didn't know that the cops were afraid of him. He was a married man with kids, who had friends on the Pagedale police force who knew that he was a harmless guy, a family man; why didn't these guys see that he was harmless? (And they should have, arguably. What are the odds that a random drug dealer has a wife and kids in the car?) Maybe he thought they wanted him back in the car so that they could humiliate him in front of his kids; maybe he got out of the car so he could handle all of this out of their earshot. Whatever his motivation, as soon as he got out of that car without being ordered to do so, any properly trained police officer would have gone onto high alert and started mentally preparing himself or herself for incoming violence, because the situation just became several orders of magnitude more dangerous. But he still could have avoided a lot of gunfire if he had obeyed the lawful order to get back in the car. Don't make his mistake.

This is not a defense of the cop who pulled over a random car for driving while black, thinking that random searches of cars with black drivers are a good way to fight drugs. That's both wrong and stupid. This is especially not a defense of the cops who fired their weapons into a moving vehicle (something they're not supposed to do) full of kids (which is morally reprehensible under any circumstance) without a clearly acquired target (which is illegal) and then emptied their clips, at least one of them reloading or drawing an improperly-carried second weapon and resuming fire. This, by the way, is at the top of the the list of reasons why I vehemently opposed it when local police departments traded in their 5-shot .38 revolvers for 10-shot clip-loaded 9mm automatic pistols. They train them and train them and train them to acquire a target, aim, fire once, and then go back to step one. This training does absolutely no good. Nearly every police officer who pulls that trigger once then proceeds to empty the clip as fast as he or she can pull the trigger. Nor is this the first time that panicky St. Louis City cops emptied their 9mm's in what turned out to be the direction of a small child and narrowly missed the child. 9mm rounds don't stop when they hit the first obstacle. But, you know, it's a penis envy thing. If the bad guys are carrying guns that are bigger than the cops' guns, it makes the cops feel inadequate in bed or something like that, so they have to carry big guns, too. And I consider that morally and legally indefensible.

But you know, if you remember nothing else, remember this: when the cop pulls you over and asks for your driver's license, he or she is scared of you. For the mutual safety of yourself, your passengers, and the officer, if you want to live through every traffic stop you will have in the course of a lifetime, always follow these steps:
  1. Pull over as soon as you can. If it is night and you can do so without making the cop angry or nervous, pull over in a lighted place and out of traffic.
  2. If it is dark, turn on the dome light. If it is up, roll down the driver's-side window only.
  3. If and only if you, the driver can reach your driver's license and have it ready in no more than a few seconds, you may do so if you like, but you're not winning any points by doing so. Under no circumstance be fumbling around in your pocket or purse when the cop gets to the door, which will make him or her have to worry whether or not you're going for a weapon.
  4. The driver should place his hands on the upper half of the steering wheel. All passengers should place their hands in their laps, on their knees or somewhere where a police officer with a flashlight can tell that their hands are empty. Once this has been done, nobody move until this is over, unless ordered otherwise.
  5. From that point on, speak only when spoken to, as little and as calmly as possible. Comply with all orders. Avoid all sudden or startling moves. Period. (Yes, codeb6, this does mean that you are at an inescapably elevated risk of getting shot during routine police stops. I don't know what to tell you about that.)
  6. If for any reason the officer gives you an order that you physically can not comply with, say politely, "I'm sorry, officer, but I can't." Then freeze, and from then on be extra, extra careful because you just raised the alert level.
Never, ever, ever, ever forget that you are dealing with someone who has a gun, and permission to shoot you, who is far more terrified of you than you are of them.