The Routine Traffic Stop: Why There Is Such a Thing and Why Cops Should Embrace the Term
I wonder how many cops, by the time they've read the title of this post, have already uttered the canned response...There's no such thing as a ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP!
Just give me a chance at changing your mind....I'm going to need all the help I can get to sway the rest of the three-quarters of a million American police officers who refuse to believe anything in our line of work is routine.
Car StopsCops quite frequently make contact with occupants of cars. It might be to help a motorist whose car is disabled along the roadway. Maybe responding to a citizen's 9-1-1 call of a "suspicious vehicle" in the neighborhood. Maybe to stop (legal term: "seize") a driver after s/he committed a minor traffic violation, like speeding or displaying expired registration plates. Maybe to identify a car's occupants who match the description of suspects fleeing a serious violent crime. Maybe the car has been reported as stolen.
Sometimes the officer knows who the driver is before stopping the car, as is the case when the officer learns of an arrest warrant through a random license plate check. At other times (and maybe the majority), the officer has no idea who the occupants are.
Depending on the circumstances, sometimes a casual contact is one where the driver is "free to leave." At others, the detention is considered a Terry stop. Yet others, the driver or occupants can be immediately handcuffed or arrested because Probable Cause exists.
Sometimes the officer puts on his/her red-and-blue lights; sometimes not. Sometimes the contact is extremely high-risk, taking into account the various beliefs and information known to the officer at the time. Sometimes the situation is...well....what we generally all call "unknown risk stop" (I'm not ready to also embark on the unknown risk versus low risk discussion...yet!)
Simply, there are lots of reasons why and circumstances that surround a police officer's contact with people in cars. But I am more interested in those car stops where the officer is making a roadway-type seizure on a car, with very little information other than a minor violation of traffic law.
My BackgroundSo early dissenters asking, "Who the heck is this guy?"
I am a 17-year police officer, working the majority of time in uniformed Patrol. I've made thousands of car stops: to arrest those leaving crime scenes; to investigate suspicious activity; to cite or warn traffic violators; to help stranded motorists.
I stop cars that are reported stolen; where passengers are reported to have guns; where home invading rapists are fleeing the area; where drivers are wanted on armed-and-dangerous warrants. I once even got into a high speed 100+ MPH chase...with what turned out to be a 9-year old driver! Stops that NO ONE, including myself, would ever consider routine. These are all high-risk.
Conversely, I've had the "no tail lamp" stop turn into a robbery arrest. I've been rear-ended several times (a passing car colliding with my cruiser) while having a violator pulled over. I've had "no seatbelt" stops snowball into major drug dealing arrests. I've found illegal guns on stops for simple speeding. I've gotten into fights. I've put driver's into involuntary admission for psychiatric evaluation. Traffic stops have convoluted into absolute craziness, deviating from the original "why" of the stop. I'll concede on the term "unknown risk stop."
I'll spare any more "patting myself on the back" or self-promotion. But I share these few traffic stop anecdotes for one simple purpose: I contend I speak from a position of being The Police and understand the dynamics of encounters between humans.
I'll address any further "you don't know what it's like!" as they arise in responses and comments.
Understanding EnvironmentsStick with me for some scientific and systems-thinking terms. There are several sorts of environments we need to discuss:
- Linear: Events unfold in a step-by-step manner. Imagine a checklist, a baking recipe, or assembly instructions. Think about the phases of manufacturing in an industrial factory line. This occurs in specific order.
- Non-Linear (Closed-Loop & Binary): Events can unfold into two possibilities, and a closed loop (no other options can enter the situation). Think win-lose or yes-no sorts of flowcharts. The NCAA basketball tournament bracket is a non-linear, closed loop, binary environment; teams win or lose, and no new teams are allowed in. While 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 (or 9 quintillion) possibilities exist, the bracket is still a non-liner, binary, and ultimately finite one.
- Non-Linear (Closed-Loop & Multiple Options): Events can unfold into a finite number of possibilities, then those possibilities can unfold into a finite number of possibilities, and on-and-on. A poker game is an example. There are only 52 cards (closed loop), but several rounds where possibilities, statistics, and options change...but can be mathematically calculated. Detailed or complex flowcharts, computational models, or algorithms can account for all decisions.
- Non-Linear (Open Loop): Simply -- anything is possible. Think of a bar fight. You don't know when it will happen, who will be involved, with what weapons, or how it will possibly end. The situation can unfold into an infinite number or possibilities, each unfolding into infinite possibilities.
There's an obvious conversation about Boyd's OODA Loop tangled in here too. But I'll let you research that on your own.
Recognition Primed Decision MakingThis conversation on traffic stops cannot be had without discussing the role of Recognition Primed Decision Making or RPDM. I'll do my best to use my Catholic high school education to explain it (but will ultimately refer you to your own research for more).
People who are in complex, dynamic, chaotic, stressful situations rely upon their experiences to make decisions. Some analogies are that people look back upon a file-folder of experiences, or a rolodex of training scenarios to help figure out an answer. In essence, people "prime" their decisions by "recognizing" things in their past.
But WHAT is it that people recognize? Few situations repeat themselves exactly...
Pattern RecognitionThe human brain, while as powerful as it is, has limitations. It uses pattern recognition (or memory) to fill in the gaps of what is expected or common. Without using these patterns, our senses and perceptions would be completely overcome by even walking into our own homes; the fresh stimuli would paralyze us each time we came into our front door.
Instead, we focus on what is different or what stands out -- as that's what might be important for a decision.
I bet you don't walk into your home every day and say, "Hey look at this hardwood floor! Look at the color on the walls. Look at the couch. That table!" It's one of those patterns that your mind tends to NOT focus on. But if your spouse surprised you by having wall-to-wall carpeting installed while you were at work, you'd recognize the departure from "normal."
Baseline + AnomalyLet's continue with the hardwood floor in your home. It's a "baseline." It's always there. A constant. It's what's deemed as normal. It's been in your home for 15 years. The rubber ball in the middle of the floor? It's an "anomaly." It stands out. At least it should.
If you step on that ball, you risk taking a spill and landing on your butt. So you avoid stepping on the ball. You think: That ball will roll. I know that from experience that round spheres on smooth surfaces have little friction and high rotational inertia. If I step on it, I might fall flat on my back and split my head open. I will step around it. Hahaha. Probably not the analytical mental process you use.
You've used the baseline of a clean, toy-free floor to subconsciously help your action. Because the rest of your home surroundings are mentally filled-in by a subconscious pattern, you were able to observe and focus on the rubber ball -- the anomaly. In fact, this anomaly fits its own pattern! Rubber balls on smooth floors are dangerous. It's a pattern. A pattern of anomaly!
The natural decision to step over the rubber ball is made through cognition. Not analysis. Not even intuition. You recalled some experience - whether personal or seeing a cartoon character slip on television.
We must acknowledge that if you step on the rubber ball, you might NOT fall like one of the Three Stooges. What happens, while controlled by physics, is somewhere between non-linear closed loop and non-linear open loop. (That's a debate that's neither necessary nor fruitful at this point.)
I recommend reading the book Left of Bang by Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley for more on baseline plus anomaly thinking, as compared to the US Marine Corps Combat Hunter program. I don't dare put words in the authors' mouths, but I believe the information contained within Left of Bang support my position here on traffic stops.
Defining "Routine"Let me share some dictionary definitions of routine:
- a set of customary or unchanging and often mechanically performed activities or procedures;
- a usual or regular method of procedure, esp one that is unvarying;
- habitual, unvarying, unimaginative, or rote procedure;
- a rehearsed act, performance, or part of a performance;
- an unvarying and often repeated piece of behavior or formula of speech;
- dull or uninteresting; commonplace;
- being of no special quality or type.