What should you do when you’re pulled over by the police? Answers tend to differ from one driver to the next, and from the officers themselves. That discrepancy can be dangerous, and even the most mundane of misunderstandings can turn violent. Minorities are particularly susceptible – according to a 2016 study in the American Journal of Public Health, black and Native American men are nearly three times more likely to be killed by police force than white men, while Hispanic men are nearly twice as likely to be killed.
“No one should leave a traffic stop dead,” says Arizona Representative Reginald Bolding. After witnessing an uptick in media coverage of police-involved shootings during stops, the Laveen Democrat began working with the Arizona Department of Transportation to draft new traffic stop protocols for inclusion in the state’s driver license manual and test (due at press time). Bolding says the main issue is that many drivers simply don’t know how to behave when pulled over, or what their rights are.
One of the biggest misconceptions he found among drivers is that they thought they should immediately get out their license, registration and proof of insurance upon pulling over. In actuality, drivers should keep their hands on the wheel, in plain sight, until the officer instructs otherwise, because an approaching cop may mistake furtive movements as attempts to conceal something illicit or pull a weapon. With officers, Bolding says, “the biggest [misconception] is that they assumed that the public knew what [police] policies were.”
Assumptions, of course, do nothing to proactively decrease situations of tension between police and citizens. Larry, a Queen Creek resident and black man who didn’t want his last name used due to employment circumstances, says, “I learned over the years from my dad that when you’re pulled over by the police, it’s ‘Yes sir. No sir.’ Always be compliant.” Many “African-Americans are taught you don’t want to have any interaction with police because it might not go well for you… I’m likely to come up on the short end of the stick based on history,” he says.
But Larry Urbanek, a retired Illinois police officer who now teaches defensive driving at DrivingMBA school in Scottsdale, says such mistrust of police isn’t helpful, either. “Remember, first off, that [the cop] is doing a job” when he or she stops you, Urbanek says. “The last thing a police officer wants to do is get in a fight. We want to go home just like you do.” The best alleviant in cutting tension is to be respectful when conversing with a cop, he says – that, and taking the ticket. “Even if you’re 100 percent innocent, just take the ticket,” he says, adding that you can fight it later in court. “It’s not the worst thing that’s going to happen to you.”
In addition to recommendations for new drivers, Rep. Bolding is also working with new officers to ensure “everyone is speaking the same language.” Don Yennie, training manager at Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (AZPOST) says traffic stop procedures aren’t a black and white issue. “It isn’t scripted, we have to allow for individual differences,” he says of how he teaches officers in training to complete traffic stops. “What we really emphasize is, ‘Listen to what you’re being told.’ Listen. Don’t be robotic… I always tell the recruits, ‘You get more bees with honey.’”
Phoenix criminal defense attorney Richard Gaxiola says though there’s no general procedural on either side of how to behave during traffic stops, the issue is a simple one: “Just establish a protocol – a trust [between] both the driver and the police officer.” And while drivers absolutely have rights – you can refuse a search of your vehicle; you can ask for a supervisor to be present if you feel uncomfortable – Gaxiola says his best advice is, “If you’re stopped, it’s not your turn to protest the stop. That’s up to the courts.”
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