I’m seeing it more and more…because it’s happening more and more. Law enforcement cutting back, in some cases, way back on pretextual traffic stops. Stops for minor infractions like broken tail lights, overly tinted windows, expired tabs, ornaments hanging from rear view mirrors, obscured license plates, hanging license plates, etc., etc. During the height of the pandemic, with cops stretched as thin as Olive Oyl, many departments were almost forced to slash their pretextual stops due to personnel shortages. I said then, and I say now, look for that trend never to go away. And, it hasn’t.
Minneapolis has become the latest large agency to decide it’ll no longer pull over motorists for minor traffic violations, such as expired tabs, or having an air freshener dangling from a rear view mirror, a non-working license plate light. And so on. Police critics, says the Minneapolis Star-Tribune have long argued that, much like stop and frisk policies, pretextual stops in which officers use a minor traffic or equipment violation as legal justification for pulling over someone they wish to investigate, contribute to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Ah, but hold thy horses. In a recent blog, Chief Ed Delmore of the Gulf Shores, Alabama PD and a long-time trainer of national repute wrote:
“On April 16th, 1995, Oklahoma Trooper Charlie Hanger stopped a vehicle for a low level violation. The driver was Timothy McVeigh. After stopping him, Hanger began to suspect McVeigh, based on his behavior, was involved in something criminal. Within moments, McVeigh was in custody for illegally carrying a weapon. He was still in custody five days later when it was determined he had blown up the federal building in Oklahoma City 90 minutes before the stop. Trooper Hanger’s exact words later were: ‘I have always tried to let the public know that when an officer is out making a traffic stop, they are looking for things other than that traffic violation, because criminals come up and down our roads each and every day, especially on the interstate system, we’re there not just to save lives, but to catch any illegal activity.'”
Remember Son of Sam, who murdered six and kept New Yorkers terrorized in the spring and summer of 1977? I sure as hell do. Even from a far-away vantage point in St. Louis, that story riveted Americans for months. It was the lead story on TV newscasts from Syracuse to San Antonio, Sitka to San Diego. And do you remember what led to his capture? A lot of great police work, of course, but the actual precipitating incident, a traffic cop who ticketed the Son of Sam’s car illegally parked next to a fire hydrant. And, as Chief Delmore is quick to remind us what brought down the likely most prolific murderer in U.S. history:
“Well, when Ted Bundy was finally taken into custody, he was about 20 minutes from where I’m sitting right now in Pensacola. He was sleeping in a Volkswagen behind a closed business or near a closed business. And the officer ran that plate and it came back stolen and took him into custody right down the street from where I am now.”
No racial disparities among these three infamous killers, were there? All of them were Caucasian. So I asked the chief: bad boy, bad girl behavior, regardless of ethnicity, doesn’t change over the decades. Does it?:
“It does not. It does not. In my, I’ve been teaching criminal patrol for nearly 30 years. And I’m still using examples from the early nineties.”
Among those examples?
“I’ve had stops where people did, for instance, the No-look rule where most people in the presence of a police officer that’s in a marked car in uniform will look over at the officer as opposed to somebody who is guilty of something is hauling contraband or something like that. They often are white knuckled on the steering wheel. Looking straight ahead. It’s like when, uh, a police officer in uniform walks into a bar or into a restaurant or into a gas station, anybody who’s in that bar restaurant or gas station is going to look at that police officer. That’s what the uniform is designed to do is to attract attention. Same if you walk through an airport and you see military personnel in uniform, walking through the airport, you’re going to look out just to see what branch they’re from. If they’re uniform is squared away, a variety of things that people do naturally, but a crook is not going to do that. They’re intentionally going to look away and there just been so many examples and you know, or murders have been caught based on those observations.”
“Well, let’s talk about people who smoke for instance, smokers, uh, when they get nervous about something, apprehensive about something, pissed-off about something, fire up a cigarette. And, uh, the same thing happens when somebody who’s guilty of something and is a smoker, and is then in the presence of law enforcement, it’s not unusual for them to do a combination of these times, like the No-look, then firing up the cigarette, then looking for the nearest exit ramp. It’s never just one thing in a vacuum. It’s a combination of several things.”
There isn’t a veteran traffic officer alive or not who doesn’t, or wouldn’t have stories about traffic stops for minor violations, which have led to killers, rapists, armed robbers, child abductors, ungodly amounts of contraband, felons in possession of firearms, and, God only knows what else. Right, Chief?:
“When I was rookie policeman, uh, I saw a car where the driver was looking straight ahead, obeying what we call the No-look rule, but the passengers were doing something that is also not unusual. Passengers, uh, believe that they’re invisible. So the passengers, while I see the driver doing the No-look after noticing, obviously, that there’s a marked patrol car officer in uniform nearby, the passengers are turning around, I’m behind them now, and they’re looking at me and then reporting what they see to the driver. And I can see all that movement going on inside the car. I know, uh, through my training experience, even as a rookie, that something is going on and now I see that they have a tail light. Okay. There’s the pretext stop that gives me probable cause to stop the car. I turn on the lights to stop the car. The car doesn’t stop for a long time. It continues to roll and not trying to allude with speed. They’re just trying to make a plan, basically long story short. Uh, when I actually get up on the car and make the stop turns out, there’s a dead body in the trunk of the car, a woman that they had murdered an hour before I stopped them. They were on the way to dispose of the body when I pulled them over.”
Here’s the bottom line, Chief, how many such stops which YOU made ended up in deadly encounters with minorities…or anyone else?
“Zero. None. And it’s not hundreds in my career. I’ve been in law enforcement for 40 years, plus, uh, it’s thousands upon thousands. None of mine have ever resulted in that, but they have resulted in a significant number of criminal arrests.”
And how many ended up with significant arrests for much more than a broken tail light attended window or expired tag?
“Uh, too many to count. I couldn’t even provide you an accurate list, but it’s thousands in my career.”
I wondered, since the chief is a firm advocate of solid pre-textual stops if he also believes in solid stop-and-frisks?
“Absolutely. Absolutely. And again, it’s really not that much different, uh, we rewarded officers for making self-initiated arrest that result from vehicle stops or pedestrian checks. Go back to, uh, Eric Rudolph, uh, the guy who blew up the bomb at Centennial park in Atlanta in 1996, rookie policeman doing a pedestrian check on a guy digging in a dumpster on a grocery store parking lot took Eric Rudolph into custody. It’s those seemingly routine mundane things that, when done by a well-trained police officer, can turn out to be so much more.”
And, Ed also has the welcome mat open for cops from those jurisdictions where policing is perhaps shall we say, taken a back seat to the defund me crowd and the blue boo birds. What would you tell these street cops who desperately want to do the right thing?
“I would tell them to, uh, look for a different position in law enforcement, in a place like mine where the political leadership supports us, the administration is going to support good police work and do that as quick as you can, because again, it’s just not tenable to do good solid police work and send them to some of these communities anymore. You may recall, not too long ago, I wrote an open letter to the governor of Illinois about some of the police reforms, quote unquote, that were being done in Illinois that were all anti-cop anti citizen and pro criminal. And my letter not so tongue-in-cheek was, Hey, thank you governor, because now I’m going to steal a bunch of your cops. My recruiting concerns are over and that’s true. Two of the last four officers I hired and we’re at full strength now, uh, came from Illinois and they would have continued to work or worked in Illinois had it not been for the ridiculous stuff that’s going on there.”
To throw YOUR garrison hat in the ring with the Gulf Shores P.D., all you need to do is visit them at: gulfshoresal.gov .
And, be looking for much more featuring Chief Delmore in our training program “Pre-textual Traffic Stops/the Many Pluses” coming to In the Line of Duty in early 2022. And, thanks for stopping by. Remember for all your video and online training needs, visit us at lineofduty.com. Click on the red tab marked ‘Get a free trial.’ I’m Ron Barber and that’s Stuff You Never Ever Learned at the Academy.