American roulette

Posted on June 17, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

There are tens of millions of traffic stops every year. It’s the most common reason for a citizen’s interaction with police, according to a Bureau of Justice Survey.

More than 40 percent of people who had face-to-face contact with a law enforcement officer cited being a driver during a traffic stop as the reason.

Anything so common can become seemingly routine.

I’m among the millions who have mainly dealt with police through my driver’s side window. If the policeman approaches cautiously, it can spur a slightly indignant instinct.

I’m not a criminal. I’m not a threat. I’m just trying to get somewhere.

So why all the dramatic posturing, staying slightly behind my field of vision? Because for me it’s all routine. License, registration, warning or ticket, thank you officer.

But that’s the dichotomy. The routine traffic stop is a unicorn, with blood on its horn.

That’s what events like the one in Newport on Monday remind us, with shock and sadness.

A 15-year veteran of the Newport Police Department, universally praised as a compassionate officer intent on mentoring troublesome youngsters, responded to a routine call on his radio about a possible car break-in.

Except, for police, routine calls are really a form of American roulette. Spin the routine cylinder enough times, and eventually one winds up in the chamber.

That’s what happened Monday.

There had been previous reports of car burglaries in the area, and when Lt. Patrick Weatherford saw a young man on a bicycle leaving the scene, he gave chase on foot.

The “fleeing suspect” is often portrayed by defense attorneys as posing no threat; but that depiction exists only in the safety of the courtroom.

On the street, in the real world, police are rarely in greater peril than when pursuing a possible perpetrator. They don’t know for sure why he’s fleeing. They don’t know whether he’s guilty of anything. They don’t know if he’s armed and dangerous, or simply afraid.

They typically only find out when he pulls a gun and fires. Which often gives an officer about a quarter-second of warning.

It wasn’t enough time for Lieutenant Weatherford to take cover.

He is the second fallen Arkansas law enforcement officer this year. The first was Deputy Kevin Mainhart, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Yell County in May.

Police are extensively trained to assess situations, but they are not automatons or robots. They’re people, with human natures.

If they make the slightest mistake that lets down their guard for even an instant, in the wrong place at the wrong time, they can suddenly be facing mortal danger. Few other occupations are so unforgiving of such minor miscalculations.

In 2013, the Force Science Institute conducted a first-ever study to systematically evaluate police officer responses to the threat of lethal force during a routine traffic stop.

Participating police officers were observed and filmed approaching a stopped vehicle in which the driver (a study confederate) engaged them in a 45-second verbal argument. The driver claimed he was his own sovereign nation and not subject to U.S. traffic laws, and was equipped with documentation to show the officers.

Each participant made three “stops” over several days during the exercise.

On the third stop, however, the driver had a handgun on the console (all firearms were loaded with Simunition blanks), and without warning grabbed the gun and opened fire on each participating officer.

Of 93 participants, 12 attempted to neutralize the driver, but only three of those successfully did so. The other nine were “shot.”

All told, the driver was able to aim and shoot at officers 90 of 93 times, with a mean weapon-discharge time of just over a half-second.

In contrast, it took retreating officers more than two seconds to reach the “mitigation zone” behind the vehicle, which offered the most safety because it limited the field of vision and weapon alignment of the driver.

Many officers were “shot” multiple times. Everything was videoed and measured: officer heart rates, startle-response motions, back-pedaling and side-stepping retreats, return-fire times.

The data indicated that officers who attempted to draw their weapons while retreating to the mitigation zone took 0.39 seconds longer to get there than officers who waited to draw once they reached the zone.

That’s barely more than the blink of an eye, but it drives home just how fast routine can escalate to exception for police—how quickly normal can become lethal.

Lieutenant Weatherford leaves a legacy of kindness and a loving family behind.

I also hope he leaves us all with a little more understanding, empathy and tolerance for our uniformed neighbors who willingly swear to protect and serve and, if required, sacrifice everything for us.

Official flags flew in tribute at half-mast this week.

A good personal gesture of honor is to remember that while it’s easy sometimes to second-guess police in highly polarized and politicized cases, they deserve a lot more than our second guesses. If you haven’t thanked an officer recently, now would be a good time.

Or maybe your next traffic stop.

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