Anything But Routine

April 28, 1993

"We have thrown out the term, 'Routine traffic stop.' " So said a Maryland police spokesman last month in a Sun article on the growing danger law enforcement officers encounter when they stop suspects on roadways.

In that same story, a state trooper remarked, "I don't hesitate to call for a backup. Traffic stops have become one of the most unsafe jobs we face today, especially on an interstate."

The anxiety among cops is understandable, given that stopped motorists are increasingly hostile and that about 10 officers are killed in the United States each year during traffic stops. Police in many jurisdictions are taking more and more precautions when walking toward vehicles that they have pulled over. In Anne Arundel County, for example, officers will search and handcuff suspects who leave their automobiles as police approach.

Could this anxiety explain the tragedy that took place on Charles Street just south of the Beltway last Sunday morning?

A Towson man, Antonio Carlos Towns, had been speeding. When a two-man team of state troopers tried to pull his car over, he led them on a high-speed car chase. After stopping at last, Mr. Towns got out of his car but apparently resisted as the troopers, with guns drawn, tried to handcuff him. During the struggle, one trooper's gun fired -- supposedly by accident -- and killed Mr. Towns.

Among the hard questions raised by this case, these are foremost: Why did Mr. Towns, seemingly a model citizen, elude the police? Did the race of Mr. Towns, who was black, have anything to do with the troopers' initial decision to pursue him? How exactly did the trooper's gun go off? And if the trooper was holstering his gun when it fired, as the state police claim, why did the bullet travel through Mr. Towns' body on an upward trajectory?

State police are investigating the incident. However, a truly satisfying examination must come from outside, probably from Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor, who is waiting for a grand jury to determine whether the officer should face charges.

Meanwhile, a telling insight into the matter has been offered by a friend of Mr. Towns. Noting the mutual fear between police and some of the drivers they stop, the friend said, "They're afraid and you're afraid."

Fear. It's why traffic stops are no longer routine, and why, as happened last Sunday in Baltimore County, they sometimes end in tragedy.

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