March 15, 2023 | View as webpage | Too many emails? Update Subscription Preferences

March has been a busy month so far for the Police1 editorial team, resulting in lots of new content and several action items for you as a leader: Stay safe,

— Nancy Perry
Editor-in-Chief, Police1
Should law enforcement keep enforcing traffic laws?
By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. 

Traffic stops have been a bread-and-butter activity of police officers since the nation’s first traffic laws passed by the state of Connecticut in 1901 limiting vehicle speeds to 12 miles per hour in cities and 15 mph on rural roads.

New York prohibited drunk driving in 1910. The red, yellow and green traffic lights first appeared in 1930. Seatbelts first appeared in American automobiles in 1950. The U.S. Department of Transportation was born in 1966.

Over the years a plethora of laws and regulations have resulted in safer automobile travel that we all take for granted. Are we ready to turn back the clock? A recent survey, that showed mixed results from the public on enforcement of traffic laws by police officers, may indicate a public movement in that direction. 

The violations the public want police to enforce

There is wide support for police officers to intercede in suspected drunk driving, reckless driving and speeding over 20 mph over the limit. Far fewer respondents supported armed police officers as the best option for stopping drivers in vehicles with cracked windshields, a single burned-out light, lesser speeding violations, or noisy mufflers, excessive window tint, or something hanging from the rearview mirror.

A significant majority of voters (including respondents citing affiliation with either major political party) would support revising laws to remove the authority of police officers over minor violations that now are grounds for a vehicle stop.

These opinions, as well as some legislation already reflects, seem to have been unaffected by arguments that with the current increase in crime the opportunity for police to make contact with drivers who may be involved in a violent crime such as possession of weapons, drugs, or driving with warrants or invalid license.

Impressions need to be informed by facts

Opinion surveys are just that – opinions. There is no requirement that the opinions are based on facts, and the feelings underlying the opinions can be powerful. The survey report makes mention of the post-George Floyd era, whose arrest and death were completely unrelated to a traffic stop but galvanized a narrative of fearing the police. But if the impression of the public is that a traffic stop is an opportunity for law enforcement to engage in deadly force or to profile minority community members, that is a feeling that needs to be informed by facts.

The dialog that police leaders must have with the public should note that the decision on law enforcement powers comes from legislators, with an inherent danger to public safety when individual police agencies decide what laws they will or will not enforce. Setting priorities is good management, undermining legislative intent is another. Any movement for non-enforcement must come from duly elected lawmakers.

A criminal interdiction tool

The major argument that we see for traffic stops is that they are an important tool for criminal interdiction.

The Supreme Court in Whren v. United States affirmed that if a car stop is based on a traffic violation, the contact is legal even if the officer really wanted to contact the driver or passengers for an investigative purpose. Much criminal interdiction results from traffic stops for relatively minor violations. From a legal standpoint, this makes sense. From a crime control standpoint, this makes sense. From a liberty standpoint, the debate is in shades of gray.

Public safety from dangerous vehicle conditions must have a prominent place in advocating for the status quo in traffic stops. Lack of turn signal use, broken tail lights, windshield vision obstruction and improper vehicle registration are probably not accurately reflected in crash statistics as a primary or secondary factor in collisions. The impact of driving 10 mph over the speed limit is determined by physics, not demographics. The likelihood of the presence of an equipment or licensing violation being an indicator of other unsafe driving deserves documentation, especially if there is a statistical correlation with criminality.

Police leaders may gain little traction if their sole argument is that they want to see inside more people’s cars to see if anything bad is going on. Gathering good data justifying one side of the argument over the other is an essential part of this important discussion.

NEXT: State your case: Do we need traffic cops?

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Why every police department should invite community members to participate in training simulations

By Carol Brzozowski

“Don’t depend on the enemy not coming; depend rather on being ready for him” is a Sun Tzu quote in the email signature of Sgt. Robert Cherry, a Coral Springs Police Department (CSPD) training sergeant and SWAT Sniper Team Leader in Florida.  

The quote articulates why I participated in CSPD’s training simulation for members of the Community Ambassador Program (CAP). I’ve previously taken CSPD’s situational awareness and self-defense training. I now wanted to get a first-hand feel for situations law enforcement officers face.

Training simulations

CAP members recently gathered at the CSPD training center where Officer Ashley Amalfitano equipped us with standard road patrol ballistic vests, an exterior carrier equipped with a gun belt, holster, a Sig Sauer P320 pistol modified to fire Simunition cartridges and a TASER 7 for less lethal capabilities.

I am an experienced journalist who has won national awards for writing about first responders, such as the 9/11 response. While it’s not necessary that I extensively know the subject I cover, it is my job to get information from the most reliable sources and include all sides of the story to the fullest extent possible.

I joined CAP because it is indeed beneficial to broaden my knowledge base about important law enforcement topics and ask deeper questions that help better inform my readers. 

Scenario 1: Mental health response

Sgt. Cherry oversaw a mental health scenario involving a highly-agitated woman. I have written about mental health and the increasing number of calls to which law enforcement officers are dispatched.   

I’m familiar with the U.S. Department of Justice Programs Police-Mental Health toolkit.

I’ve written about the Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team (RIGHT) Care, a multidisciplinary model bringing together teams of mental health professionals, paramedics and specialized law enforcement officers who can better direct people in distress to community-based services and work to decriminalize mental illness.

While such programs have shown success in decreasing the numbers of hospital and jail admissions, arrests must still be made in situations leaving no other option.

In the mental health situation training scenario, I lost control of the situation by trying to talk the subject down while her intent was to use the large knife she was wielding to harm me. I didn’t even think to shield myself behind the wall, as Sgt. Cherry pointed out.

Scenario 2: Traffic stop

Officer Frank Marinez oversaw a traffic stop scenario in which I approached the vehicle from the passenger’s side while the driver exited his side of the vehicle, brandishing a gun that ultimately would be used against me.

I learned the importance of looking at a person’s hands.

Scenario 3: Mistaken identity

In the third scenario supervised by Officer Amalfitano, someone had called in to report a man breaking into a house – which turned out to be his house.  

Helping community members to form their own opinions

Coral Springs Chief of Police Bradley McKeone – who was at the training and hosts monthly CAP meetings – notes Coral Springs has been conducting scenario training for more than a decade for elected officials, the media, community stakeholders and citizens.

“It is invaluable for both the police department and those who participate in the scenarios,” he said. “This first-hand experience is intended to give the participants information so they can formulate an opinion of law enforcement action based on their own opinion and not the perception or beliefs of others.”

“To be a law enforcement officer, you have to have a mindset geared towards safety – yours and others,” Coral Springs City Commissioner Joy Carter told me when I asked her about the training she took in 2014 when running for office.

“There are required quick decisions that have to be made without warning. Clearly, I am not that person,” she notes. “When I pulled a man over and was good at getting him to comply, his daughter stepped out of the truck with a shotgun. I can’t shoot a kid! Well, the kid shot me.”

She says she’s grateful CSPD takes training seriously.

“As a commission, we understand their need for reliable equipment so that after their duties, they too can go home to their families,” she adds.

“What hit home for me is that this is a job that isn't pretty,” notes Coral Springs City Commissioner Joshua Simmons of training scenario participation. “It is tough and can be nerve-wracking, but it is a profession where continuous training – which CSPD does – is necessary to be the best officer you can be.

“As far as budgeting requests, we mostly get requests for items that make it safe for officers to perform their duties as well as making sure our department is outfitted with the latest technologies to keep our department efficient and high performing.”

Bringing clarity to a department's needs

Coral Springs City Commissioner Nancy Metayer Bowen notes that having the opportunity to participate in the simulation training as well as being a member of the commission brought clarity to the police department’s needs and recommends other elected officials participate in similar activities.

McKeone notes one consistent key training outcome is participant comments regarding “how fast things happen and the little time you have to make a decision.”

Law enforcement officers – like all humans – make mistakes, he notes.

“It is not intended to justify every situation, but rather to remind you to pause and gather all the facts and consider how you felt during the scenarios before you pass judgment on a 10-second video clip,” McKeone says.

McKeone advises other agencies considering similar scenario training to seek out a diverse crowd to participate. My group was multi-racial and included men and women spanning several generations.

“Do not focus on just those who support law enforcement but those who either have questions or are even skeptical,” he adds. “You do not need to make every scenario one where someone will be shooting, but challenges what people think officers can and should do in an environment requiring quick thinking.”

About the CAP program

Chuck James had attended the training as part of CAP. He explained the program is the brainchild of Commissioner Simmons and former Coral Springs Police Chief Clyde Parry in response to some challenges between minority communities and their police departments.

As citizen distrust in law enforcement increased throughout 2020 and 2021, the CSPD developed CAP as a way to engage with citizens to build a stronger foundation, develop greater understanding, and improve transparency.

The program addresses misunderstandings or lack of knowledge about how the public perceives policing and what police actually do. Citizen ambassadors learn more about the police department, engage in timely and controversial topics through interactions with police, review good police work, and examine use-of-force incidents.

“The training simulation was one of a series of training events we have had to understand the issues a police officer has when confronting a potentially dangerous situation with a citizen involved,” James notes. “I wanted to better understand the pressure a police officer faces and the decisions they have to make in the brief time they have to respond. I also wanted to gauge my unconscious biases when in that type of situation.”

As a result of his participation, James says he highly recommends citizens have an opportunity to participate in similar exercises.

“I am now much more aware of the dangers police officers have, plus what I need to look for when making a judgment regarding an arrest,” he points out.

NEXT: Taking a back to basics approach to community engagement

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