Traffic Stops – An Anecdotal Lesson in Defense

Some years ago, a former middle-school classmate and I found each other on Facebook and discovered that despite being hundreds of miles from our old school, we lived just a few miles from one another in a totally different state. We connected as friends and have kept up with each other ever since.

Just a couple of weeks ago, this friend was traveling through a dark neighborhood miles from home when she was pulled over by what she believed was one of North Carolina’s men in blue.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

Read the story for yourself:

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — A man pretending to be a law enforcement officer pulled a woman over Tuesday and robbed her of her purse at gunpoint, Durham County sheriff’s deputies said.
Deputies are urging people to be on the lookout for the robber, who displayed a single blue light on the dark-colored SUV he was driving.
The man used the light to pull the woman over at about 10:30 p.m. on Big Horn Road near Guess Road, then approached the woman’s vehicle brandishing what looked like a rifle, according to deputies.
He took her purse and fled, leaving her unharmed, deputies said.
Deputies launched an “exhaustive” search, but were unable to find the man, who remains at large.
The sheriff’s office said drivers being pulled over by unmarked vehicles can call 911 to verify the vehicle behind them contains a legitimate law enforcement officer.
Durham police recently reported that someone had stolen a number of police uniforms. The robber in this case was described by the victim as wearing dark-colored clothing and a beanie hat, deputies said. He was also wearing a mask. (Source)

First of all, kudos to Kimberly for keeping it together enough to get a decent description of the suspect and not losing her life in the process of one of the worst experiences most of us can imagine. This could have been far FAR worse.

After hearing the story, I immediately reached out to Kimberly for clarification of the media narrative. After some back and forth, I have a pretty good understanding of what happened. I then reached out to two friends: one who is a chief of police in a nearby town (Chief Matthews) and another who is a defense attorney (Mr. Brantley). I wanted to get some perspective on the best way of managing a nighttime stop. What follows are the lessons I gathered from these two friends*.

Both Chief Matthews and Mr. Brantley agree on the following protocols for experiencing a nighttime stop in which the authenticity of the police officer is undetermined:
1 – Reduce speed. Few things in the process of following a suspect vehicle with flashing blues will make an officer twitch like failing to reduce speed. The prospect of a high-speed chase is not a seed you want to plant in the officer’s mind.
2 – Turn on emergency flashers. Doing so will alert the officer that you know he is there.
3 – Call 911. The 911 operator should be able to query local police dispatchers to verify that the officer following you is indeed legitimate. If local police are not working the area, the operator should be able to connect you to (or communicate directly with) the state highway patrol for verification.
4 – Drive to the nearest well-lit and decently populated area. Putting yourself in clear visibility of numerous witnesses will be a deterrent to would-be thieves

Chief Matthews also adds that turning on the inside dome light is a good idea as it allows the officer to see that you are not prepping a weapon to be used against him/her once you are on the side of the road.

I further inquired of Chief Matthews about how best to identify a legitimate unmarked cruiser, particularly in the dark. His initial single-word answer speaks volumes:

“Lights.”

Chief Matthews went on to say that lights are to a cop what crack is to an addict. There are never enough. A single blue dashboard light (as was used against Kimberly) is rarely if ever the only light in use. Real police cruisers should have, at a minimum, the dashboard light, wig-wag headlamps, and strobe-effect turn signals front and rear. Additional lights might include colored (red or blue) grill lights. Basically, the officer wants the area surrounding the stop to be well illuminated and the cruiser well identified for his safety and yours (to avoid roadside collisions by passing traffic).

As Kimberly was reflecting on the experience with me, she offered a very poignant observation: “I realized we become ‘comfortable’ in our live’s routines. And blue light automatically meant police.” She was compelled to stop because her experience with police had become a matter of blind obedience and compliance.

Now, that’s not to say we should disobey the directives of sworn officers of the law. However, there’s nothing wrong with ensuring that the individual about to confront you on the side of the road is indeed an officer.

To quote Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.”

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* Bear in mind that these rules/laws apply to drivers in North Carolina. Rules in other states may vary. Consult a legal professional in your state for appropriate steps to take under similar circumstances.

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