Dr. Bobbie Green, the president of the Doña Ana County NAACP, wrote in a letter published Sunday in the Sun-News that she wants a moratorium on police traffic stops. Here is the first paragraph:
I have been pulled over by law enforcement officers twice in the past year. Both traffic stops occurred in the middle of a pandemic. Both times, I was outraged by the disregard for my safety during the pandemic. Were the officers just doing their jobs? And, what exactly is their job, anyway? Both times I invoked my best people skills to make sure the officers were at ease, regardless of my ire. Both times I was furious but dared not show emotion or escalate the situation. I am painfully aware that all too often these encounters are costly, if not deadly.I
You can read the entire letter here:
I'm not sure why anyone would be furious over a traffic stop unless there were some extenuating circumstances not revealed in Dr. Green's letter. My initial reaction is to ask why the officers pulled her over. Did she commit traffic violations? What were they? Was she cited? Was she given a break? If there was no violation of a traffic ordinance what were the reasons for the stops? How was her safety endangered? All the officers I've seen on patrol wear masks outside their vehicles and there is no indication in her letter that the officers violated that protocol. Did she file a citizen's complaint regarding either of those stops? If so, what were the results? If no complaint was filed, why not?
I could go on with the questions but it isn't necessary to waste time and space asking. In her opening paragraph, Dr. Green pretty much sets the tone for the way she feels about law enforcement and the rest of the letter reinforces that belief.
Allow me to share a couple of my experiences in 22 years with the LCPD.
In the late 1990s, when I was the Lieutenant of Professional Standards, I was given a citizen's complaint filed by an NMSU professor against two patrol officers. He accused the officers of pulling him over because he was black. It was a nighttime stop, and the officers pulled him over on Lohman at I-25 after seeing his car turn south on to the northbound off-ramp of I-25 at the overpass. In other words, had the professor continued down the ramp he would have been traveling southbound in the northbound lanes of the interstate highway.
The professor stated in my interview with him and his lawyer that he was pulled over for DWB: Driving While Black. He said the officers saw a late model BMW with a black man behind the wheel and that was all the probable cause they needed. The NAACP backed the professor's claim one hundred percent even though he admitted to the traffic violation.
In interviewing the officers, they stated to me in separate interviews that they were eastbound on Lohman on routine patrol when they observed the car make the turn going the wrong way down the ramp. They saw the BMW come to a stop on the ramp, right about where the big red signs with white lettering are posted that read WRONG WAY. They saw the reverse lights on the BMW come on, and watched the vehicle as it backed up the ramp. The driver then swung the front end around and headed east in the eastbound lanes of Lohman with the officers behind him. That's when the traffic stop occurred. The officers thought that they possibly had a drunk driver.
The officers both told me that they couldn't tell who was driving the car, how many people were in the car, or even if the driver was male or female, because of dark tinted windows. The professor was solo in the vehicle. He was not impaired. He stated in his interview that once he realized his traffic error and corrected it, the cops had no reason to pull him over. It was just a simple mistake and they should have never stopped him.
I examined the BMW. It was not late model, but several years old and the body was not in that good of shape. It did have dark tinted windows. Even during the day, which was when I looked at the vehicle, I noted that it would have been impossible to tell the race of any occupant of the vehicle . Maybe the gender, depending on the size of the man, but no way could anyone determine race without the windows being down or the door being opened.
A lawsuit was filed by the professor which the city settled out of court some months later for a few thousand dollars. Why did they settle? Cheaper to settle than litigate. An interesting note was that the good professor had lived in other cities during his career and had filed lawsuits against the police in those locations as well (I believe it was three, or possibly four different incidents), ALL of which were settled out of court for a few thousand.
I use this case as an example because it illustrates perception. I believe that a reasonable person would see that there was cause for the traffic stop, but perhaps not everyone sees it that way. Obviously, for some people, being pulled over equates to abuse of authority, perhaps even profiling. Here's another example of perception:
I was on patrol in the late 1980s, working nights. I observed a car northbound on Solano at Piñon with no tail lights. I pulled it over and the driver got out of his car before I exited the patrol car. He was African-American, in his twenties, and as he slammed his car door shut (hard enough to make the car rock back and forth) he yelled angrily at me, "What it is!"
I could have told him to get back in his car, which the law gives me every right to make him do for my own safety, and he most likely would have refused and the situation would have escalated from there. Instead, I replied to him in an even voice.
"What it ain't," I said.
I pointed at his taillights.
"You ain't got no taillights."
Immediate de-escalation of event. I got his paperwork, wrote the ticket, and told him while I was writing it that if he could get the lights to work before I finished the ticket he would only get a written warning. I told him it was probably a fuse but he didn't have any. We talked. He worked swing shift, I believe at a restaurant, and was on his way home. When I had him sign for the ticket I told him that if he could get the taillights fixed before the date he was supposed to appear, I would dismiss the citation. He came to the police department a few days later with lamps that worked and the ticket was dismissed.
Attitude is everything. Maybe instead of a moratorium on traffic stops we could have a moratorium on bad attitudes and disruptive behavior toward police officers. Maybe, just maybe, every single traffic stop made by a cop isn't about race. Maybe a traffic stop is just a traffic stop unless the person we pull over escalates it into something other than routine.