Traffic Stops, Law Enforcement, Politeness and Courtesy – an Opinion

Its an almost everyday news item here in the United States — a police officer is (a) killed during a “routine” traffic stop, or (b) a civilian is killed or injured during a “routine” traffic stop.Occasionally, we get a look at those moments through dash-cam, or (now) body-cam video. And the result is somewhat frightening – from both perspectives.

Most “routine” traffic stops result from a minor violation of traffic laws. The officer will ask for your driver’s license and insurance, check those on his onboard computer system to see if there are any warrants for your arrest, and then typically returns with either a ticket for the offense, or a verbal warning. But the videos that have been provided in many of these instances (taken either by the aforementioned dash-cam and body-cam videos or in other cases, individuals videotaping the officers from a distance), show an escalating issue which seems to start with someone bristling from being “inconvenienced” with the traffic stop. This provides an “air of attitude” towards the officer, who perceives someone challenging his/her authority as law enforcement. The officer then escalates the incident by attempting to assert his/her authority, which incenses the individual more – and the spiraling cycle between the two results in what we have seen on the news.

But let’s set the entire spiral of the incident to the side. That merely sets the entire perspective for what is the real pair of issues:  a sense of attitude versus a misperception of authority and power. In my estimation, this is where the true problem is.

Before I continue any further – let me set a few disclaimers down. I am not, nor have I ever served in any capacity as law enforcement. What I am going to set forth here is merely my opinion based solely on my perspective as an individual observing these incidents as a far-removed third party. Nor am I a Psychologist or Sociologist of any stripe. Again, these are merely my opinions based on my own opinions. Furthermore, if you dislike or agree with my opinion, you are more than welcome to comment – just realize I am not seeking a debate. If you want that, you would be better served opining within the bounds of Reddit or some place similar.

Attitude v. Overuse of Authority

I am sure many officers have heard this on a traffic enforcement stop. “Have you not got anything better to do?  Remember, my taxes pay your salary!” I am not sure how you, the reader, may respond to a statement like that, but it certainly gets my dander up. Plus, the attitude sets the tone for everything else that is likely to happen. But, the officer is trained to not take this kind of bait – and to be honest, that is precisely what it is. In this day and age, people seem to believe that everything can be debated and argued. That seems to have arisen out of the early time frame of President Bill Clinton’s first term. The rhetoric was ratcheted way up by such political shock jocks as Rush Limbaugh. Now, before you think I am blaming Rush Limbaugh for what happens in traffic stops these days – hear me out a bit.

The ramping up of rhetoric started there within the over-amped criticism of the President elect and his attempt towards governing the United States government for the citizenry. Over time, that amped up rhetoric became accepted, and wormed its way into other aspects of life. Until we have reached today’s levels – where debate and argument rule the day in every conversation. Critical, anger-filled statements are common-place. Its only logical that a society fed on this style of discussion would bring it to incidents such as traffic stops.

But police officers are trained not to take the bait in these exchanges. But let’s realize, they are human beings too. They lose their tempers, they have bad days, they respond to certain triggers words. Sometimes, their training fails them – and we see the consequences of that in these incidents.  And no, that does not absolve the officer of his responsibilities. Its merely a factor that plays into everything. We place officers in the position of trying to maintain the professional integrity of the incident and to try and resolve some of the rhetoric being thrown in their faces by the individuals that they have stopped for a simple traffic infraction.

There’s also the flip side of the issue as well. Where police officers see their authority as something to smash into the individuals – barking commands like a drill sergeant, and expecting civilians to quickly obey nd without question. And to be honest, when someone is yelling at you to do something, and you have no ability to question why — it can be frustrating. And if you are slow to comply, the officer may then resort to physical manipulation to get you to obey their commands. And some officers don’t even wait for you to follow through on their initial request (and that’s sometimes putting that lightly). This is where abuse of authority and perceived power comes from.

To be completely honest, most officers are not like that. But the actions of those who are, is typically blown out of proportion by the media. After all, abuse of police authority and power is a very heavy click-generating. People will share those news stories far and wide, and those that they share these stories with will click on them and come to the website to read about this “travesty of justice”. But that’s a whole different direction to think about — the role of the media in all of these stories.

Here’s the simple takeaway from all of this:  even when you are having a bad day, its best to follow the commands given to you by a police officer. Once you have complied with their orders – then ask the question of why. Remember, politeness may not be the over-arching thought of the moment — but if the officer is not willing to ramp-down the situation (as their training dictates they should), a bit of politeness coupled with a calm, reasonable voice and tone can go a long way to diffusing the entire incident. The smart-ass responses do nothing for you, except make the situation worse. If you feel your civil rights have been violated, arguing with the officer will do nothing for you either. Ask for their badge number, and then report them to the ACLU. If they refuse to give you their badge number, write down their patrol vehicle’s number, and call the police station later in the day. Ask to speak to their shift supervisor and get the officer’s badge number that way. They are obligated to provide you with that.

The key is to keep the situation as calm and reasonable as possible. Record the conversation on your cell phone. Above all, be polite. The police officer is a person too, and can have a bad day as well. Sometimes, a touch of politeness on your part can cut through the tension far quicker than firing back a smart-ass comment or attempting to engage a debate with the officer over whether their time is better spent pulling you over for a traffic violation or chasing down a murder suspect. Inflammatory statements are made to invoke a response — it may not be the response you want.

Yes, I do believe that the United States has a wide-ranging issue with local law enforcement. The abuse of power and authority is something that American society has dealt with for a very, very long time. Escalating each incident that you have with the police, merely to showcase the problem, certainly is the wrong way to help them solve the issue. And honestly, the repercussions of escalating those incidents may place you in a far worse spot with them. Politeness, and courtesy go a long way – even when its not extended to you initially.

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