Police at risk during stops

Experts say tension is high when officers pull over vehicles

`An inherent danger'

March 10, 2002|By Gail Gibson and Laura Barnhardt | Gail Gibson and Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Traffic stops -- such as the one that led to the recent FBI shooting of an unarmed Pasadena man -- are among the most dangerous aspects of police work, law enforcement experts say. The potential for things to go wrong is great, and officers typically have only seconds to assess the situation and decide whether to use their weapons.

"There isn't a lot of room for second-guessing," said Sheldon F. Greenberg, director of the Police Executive Leadership Program at the Johns Hopkins University. In potentially high-risk traffic stops, he said, "If you don't make the right decision, there's a pretty good chance you could end up dead."

Officers approaching stopped cars don't know how the people inside will respond -- a problem made worse, police trainers and instructors say, by the proliferation of handguns, elevated seats in sport utility vehicles and the trend toward tinted windows. When officers believe that a dangerous felon is inside a stopped car -- as was the case in the FBI shooting nine days ago -- the tension is even greater.

Justice Department statistics show that of the 51 police officers killed in 2000, 13 were killed in traffic stops or pursuits, the largest single cause. Maryland State Police troopers, who make about a half-million traffic stops each year, categorize each one as either high-risk or unknown risk.

"Every time we approach a vehicle, there's an inherent danger," said State Police Lt. Bud Frank, a former traffic instructor at the state police academy.

"We may stop someone for a routine traffic violation," Frank said. "But we don't know if weapons are inside. We don't know whether the person just committed a crime. You never know who you're dealing with."

Federal and local officials investigating the shooting of Joseph C. Schultz, 20, after a traffic stop in Anne Arundel County, are expected to review whether FBI agents who pulled over the red Pontiac Grand Am that Schultz's girlfriend was driving acted properly in stopping and approaching the car.

The couple was pulled over by FBI agents looking for a bank robbery suspect, but authorities acknowledge that it was a case of mistaken identity and that Schultz had no connection to the crime.

Schultz was shot in the face after FBI agents approached both sides of the car carrying assault-style rifles and ordered the couple to put their hands up and to get out of the car. An attorney for Schultz's family has said that Schultz was shot trying to comply with the agent's order to get out of the car.

FBI officials have said that the girl, 16-year-old Krissy Harkum, was stopped by plain-clothes agents in an FBI vehicle that was unmarked but equipped with emergency police lights. Harkum's father says his daughter never saw police lights when she was forced to the side of the road as she and Schultz returned home from a shopping trip and a stop at a 7-Eleven to buy Slurpees.

Also at issue will be whether the agents took proper steps in approaching the car and ordering the young couple out. For law enforcement agencies nationwide, such issues are constantly under review because of the dangers of traffic stops, police officials said.

FBI officials declined to discuss how agents are trained to handle traffic stops. But at other agencies across the country, new officers typically spend weeks training to make traffic stops. Many police departments also have formal procedures for dealing with potential violence when stopping someone to make an arrest -- what is known as a felony stop.

At the state police academy, Frank said, instructors teach troopers how to position their patrol cars and what orders to give people inside the stopped car, including orders on how to remove their seatbelts to avoid sudden motions. Until the suspects are out of the car, troopers are instructed to stay behind the vehicle, with guns drawn.

Although police officials want officers to be on guard, they say it also is important that officers don't overreact. State troopers are trained to tell suspects if their actions are being perceived by police as threatening before the situation escalates to the use of force.

"Just because a person doesn't follow an instruction doesn't automatically mean we draw our guns and fire," he said.

In most traffic stops, though, police say drivers are not armed criminals, they are just nervous. But, that can lead to deadly errors.

Anne Arundel County Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan said he advises drivers stopped by police to keep their hands on the steering wheel until the officer tells them what to do. At night, drivers should turn on the interior light so officers can see inside the vehicle.

Telling the officer what moves you want to make -- such as reaching into the glove box for the car registration -- leaves less opportunity for confusion, Frank said.

"We don't know whether there's a gun in the glove box," he said. "It helps when the person says, `OK, the registration is in the glove box. I'll get it now.' It automatically de-escalates the situation."

Officers' perception of danger can be heightened if they believe the person in the car could be armed and dangerous, Greenberg said. The officers' comfort level also depends on how routinely they make traffic stops. A state trooper who regularly pulls over dozens of cars during a Saturday afternoon shift is likely to be more familiar with the procedure than a federal agent who rarely performs traffic stops.

"We look at [the FBI] sometimes like they're supposed to be infallible," Greenberg said. "But the crisis-encounter stop is no different for them than for any other agency. ... You never know how you're going to react in a crisis until it occurs, even with the best training."

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