Thursday, October 20, 2016

We Make Traffic Stops, too...

In Suzi's position at MACC, she gets to work with a number of very cool people and the industries they teach; from nursing to welding to IT to electronics and robots. She also supports LETC.

Each semester, the Law Enforcement Training Academy takes 20 or so folks from a variety of backgrounds and skill levels, puts them through 700+ hours of training and, once they pass the state of Missouri's Peace Officer Standards & Training exam, spits out work-ready police officers, Granted, there's still a lot of on-the-job training that happens and that amount varies from department to department.

LETC works closely with area police departments to make sure their curriculum matches the needs of the communities in which these officers will be serving. They also want community members to understand the complicated jobs officers shoulder every day. And that's how Suzi and I ended up on the front page of the local paper doing "traffic stops" in the parking lot.

Over the past two weeks, we've spent time in a Moberly PD cruiser, doing ride-alongs with officers on assignment and in the classroom doing simulations. Read the story for more details... but I can tell you now, we don't appreciate our officers enough.

I know, this is a sensitive subject right now in social and mainstream media. American officers are under unbelievable scrutiny for the ill-advised actions of some, the mistakes of others, and the simple misunderstanding of the public about what these officers deal with on a daily basis.

In our scenarios, we approached the vehicles with no idea of what we would encounter. It mirrored my experience in the cruiser, as well. Each traffic stop was a complete unknown, was this individual going to cooperate or try to assault us? The officer I rode along with was much more concerned with the safety of the drivers he stopped than with punitive consequences he could dole out. Excessive speed makes it harder for you to stop in an emergency. Wearing that seatbelt will save your life.  Each request for information was not an inquisition, but a check to see if bad guys were out on the street. Simple cooperation led to an easy conversation and quick resolution, with everyone safely on their way.

After Suzi went through the paces, it was my turn to wear the utility belt, step out of the vehicle and into a simulated traffic stop. All I was supposed to find out was why they had driven off without paying for gas. Their car and plate matched the description I received. So, was it mistake? Did they think their card worked at the pump? I asked for license and registration; confirmed the car's owner was in front of me and tried to ignore the driver recording my every action with his phone. I soon became concerned with a pile of clothes in the backseat that seemed to move. Who else was in the car?  Did they pose a threat to me? Am I about to die out here?

Suddenly, a routine stop became chaotic. The driver had told me he was alone. When I challenged him, asking what was in the backseat, the back door burst open and hooded male leaped from the vehicle, racing off into the darkness. Where should my attention be? On the driver who was still recording me? Or on the runner, who had now disappeared? I requested back up, trying to search the area around me, but keep my eye on the driver and question him.  And then the scenario changed completely:

"Hey, does this thing have 4-wheel drive?"

The hooded figure had returned and was standing behind me at my unlocked vehicle's door!

Do I pull my weapon? Where was backup? How much more confusion could my mind contain? Thankfully, at that moment, the trainers called off the scenario and we began to debrief. I had only been onscene for two minutes.

What I'm discovering is that there are a dizzying array of scenarios, statutes, training options, and concerns swirling through the officer's head at any given moment. As one officer related, one moment you could be casually driving through a neighborhood waving a kids and then next be on a loose dog call or headed to a robbery in progress. While this may be some of the job's appeal, each day, each hour, each moment holds a completely new or different circumstance. The officer has to maintain that "Ready" position for 12 hours.

Sometimes, you're just "letting the car do the talking." In other words, law enforcement just being seen in an area can be enough of a deterrent to crime. You're also waiting for the bad guys to become active. Contrary to what may be some folks' perspective, the law is very tight on what an office can do proactively; it's mostly a reactive position; someone speeds, they're stopped; break into house, get arrested.  I'm finding that we as community members are more responsible for the proactive work to keeping our city safe. Neighbors looking out for each other. Families working out internal problems and asking for help early before a domestic issue becomes a 911 call.

I'm surprised at the level of communication the officers want with community members, as well.  The more we know about their job, the better we understand how to interact with them. I've found myself driving more intentionally over the past week because I don't want them wasting their time on something stupid I've done.  At the end of the shift, the officers have punched their card to keep us safe for the same reason we all go to work; everyone wants to just get home and spend time with their families.

And I appreciate that.

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