Sunday, August 2, 2015

Bogus phrase of the day: “Routine traffic stop”

(1)  First, a logical point.
Semantically,  epistemologically, the expression routine traffic stop is comparable to successful candidate -- you don’t know until after the event that the candidate was successful, or the stop routine.  If the officer gets shot, turns out it wasn’t so routine after all.
The term “routine traffic stop” is currently deployed so as to load the political dice, much like “unarmed black teenager”:  until you have searched him, you do not know that he is unarmed.

(2)  Second, a statistical/criminological point.
Many traffic stops, especially at night, are a time of peril and tension for the officer involved.  For an example, we need seek no farther than this morning’s headlines:

The reader may wonder,  whether the media frenzy over the recent Cincinnati case, may not have sapped the officer’s vigilance, and thus contributed to his death.

(3)  Third, a rhetorical point.
Some traffic stops that the police themselves, with good reason, present as “routine”, in fact are a tactical pretext in the investigation of a crime scene in progress.  The police know for certain that a violent and dangerous individual is on the loose;  what they don’t know is whether the person in the vehicle (whose description loosely matches the necessarily provisional witness description of the perp and his getaway car) is the felon in question.   Until that is established, it makes plain operational sense  not to alert the suspect to the fact that he is under suspicion, so that he goes for his gun before backup can arrive.  Hand him a line about a tail-light, or a front license plate, or whatever, to buy time.

A dramatic illustration of this appeared yesterday on NPR.  They were interviewing a black DC lawyer who has just published a book about how the public should deal with police.  He presented what, on the face of it, was a plain case of wanton police profiling and overreaction.  While not speeding or otherwise infringing any traffic laws, he was pulled over, and told it was because he had tinted windows.   He did not, in fact, have tinted windows.  Several cops with guns drawn  swarmed the car.  After investigating, they let him go;  he filed a complaint with the city.

At this point, every listener would be siding strenuously with the motorist, and fuming at the DC police.  But as a result of the complaint process, the motorist eventually learned what had really been going on that night;  and he was man enough to share this with the audience.
A couple of blocks from the stop, shortly before, a murder had been committed.  The killer was on the loose; his description and that of his vehicle were within error-range of what the cops were confronted with here.  That bit about the tinted windows was simply the best the frontline cop could think up on the spot -- not very skillfully;  if it had indeed been the perp, the guy would have caught on to the ruse.

After this lesson in the basics of police technique, the lawyer still doesn’t quite get it.  He still holds it against the police that they didn’t give him the real explanation right on the spot.  But that was while the killer was still on the lam.   It would have been a gross operational infraction to divulge information on an operation in progress, to John Random Citizen, who then posts this exciting news on social media, potentially alerting the killer that the cops have a description of his vehicle so he’d better ditch it pronto. 

(4)  A game-theoretic perspective

The officer/motorist scenario is a case of ‘asymmetric warfare’:

Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr., said late Saturday that the shooting “evidences the fact that there are so many guns on our streets in the wrong hands…At any given minute in a 24-hour day, [police officers] are dealing with folks who have no rules of engagement.

(5)  The broader legal context

The lead article in this morning’s New York Times  profiles a trainer and researcher who focuses on exactly such matters, and often serves as an expert witness:

[Update 8 Dec 2015]
The latest "routine traffic stop":

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