New Haven police demonstrate traffic stop safety for police and motorists in a frightening time
New Haven Register, July 19, 2016
By Shahid Abdul-Karim
Is it frightening at times to be black in America? You bet it is. The recent shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by white police officers lend credence to feelings by blacks and others that black lives don’t matter.
While questions remain over what transpired between Castile and police, Castile allegedly complied with everything the officer asked him to do during the traffic stop, yet he was shot four times by the officer.
Following these high-profile incidents, I took the opportunity to meet, discuss and demonstrate with members of the New Haven Police Department the ways citizens, particularly blacks, can remain safe during traffic stops. It’s not the end-all or even the cure for the racial tension between some white police officers and the black community.
But it is an effort to instruct all citizens on how to have safer interactions with law enforcement in today’s environment, which has also seen law enforcement officers killed in tragic attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
It is important to note that New Haven Police Deputy Patrol Cmdr. Lt. Samuel Brown said traffic stops are the most dangerous actions undertaken by officers, for the officers.
“When we pull over a car, we have no idea who the person is,” said Brown, who is black and has been with the department since 1996. “We don’t know if the person is wanted, has warrants, drugs, has been in a domestic dispute or has a weapon in the car. There are lots of guns out here and officers are very concerned about that,” he said. “So we’re going to approach every situation in a very tactical manner ... in line with our training.”
Brown gave tips while I was being “pulled over” by one of his patrol officers, in a demonstration behind Wilbur Cross High School.
Motorists should consider back to top
Motorists should consider the following steps.
1. Pull over to the right, put the vehicle in park, roll down all windows and take your foot off the brake. “This will help defuse all suspicion the officer may have when they can’t see in the car. If all windows are down, the officer will have a better line of sight,” said Brown.
2. Turn off the vehicle. “Make sure hands are on the steering wheel visible for the officer,” Brown said. “If there are other passengers in the car, their hands should be visible as well.”
3. The officer will tell you why you’ve been stopped. “When the officer approaches, he or she will tell you why you’ve been stopped. At that point, you should surrender your driver’s license, registration and insurance card,” said Brown.
Further, Brown said that to increase everyone’s safety, he’d like to change the cultural habit of motorists keeping their vehicle paperwork in glove compartments. Brown advised me that motorists should keep their driver’s license and paperwork in the sun visor above the driver’s side of the vehicle.
“I want to break an old mind-set that our culture has adopted of keeping your paperwork inside the glove compartment or the middle console,” said Brown, adding that such documents should be “easily accessible.” “The reason — your hands have to leave the sight of the officer. If your hands have to reach into the glove compartment or middle console it can be potentially dangerous for the officer,” he said.
In light of the international protests and outrage over some white police officers killing unarmed black men and women, Brown said the black community has to keep in mind the climate across the nation.
“We know whatever happens nationally affects us locally. We have to think about what the officer may be thinking,” said Brown. “I’m not saying give all the focus and attention to the officer, but that is the topic at hand; we must realize motor vehicle stops are the most dangerous.”
Yet, Brown was honest with me about some officers who wear the badge for reasons other than to protect and serve. “There have been instances in the country where officers have shot members of the African-American community and the people shot seemed to be doing what they’re asked to do,” he said. “I can’t account for them or their intentions. However, I do believe in New Haven we’ve created a better culture — it’s not perfect and we have a lot of work to do, but it’s a better culture with our officers and our community,” he said.
During my conversation with Brown, I asked whether he believed that some officers are scared of the public. “Police always take every precaution; we’re taught to go into every situation as if there is going to be imminent danger,” he said. “Obviously, that keeps the officer safe.”
Other challenges that some motorists face include not having legitimate paperwork. I’ve been guilty of not having updated vehicle paperwork in my possession and, if I were stopped, it would have prolonged my time with the officer.
Brown said motorists may be confused about why they’re being pulled over and want to challenge the officer at that time. He said an average traffic stop will last between 10 and 15 minutes. “Hold your tongue. Unnecessary chatter can only hurt the situation,” said Brown. “Comply and listen to the officer,” he said. “Let the officer remain in control.”
According to Brown, the time to contest the ticket is “not at the moment the officer is issuing the ticket or about to issue the ticket.” Participating in the demonstration with several officers, though not a real traffic stop, was still somewhat intimidating. But there were a few safety takeaways for me. Comply with the officer, roll all the windows down, keep hands visible and, although it may be inconvenient, have the driver’s license and vehicle paperwork at all times above the sun visor — it could be a matter of life or death.