"No Such Thing As A Routine Traffic Stop"
After tragedy in Minnesota, a Force Science study surrounding the safety of officers during traffic stops gains renewed interest.
In my 34 years as a working journalist here and back East, I've covered more than a dozen slayings of police officers and attended the impressive, as well as moving, funeral services and processions that often follow. It was no different this week as veteran Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick was laid to rest as thousands of fellow police officers and citizens paid tribute.
The married father of two was fatally shot during what has been described as a "routine" traffic stop. Well, sure, many of them are what most of us would think are routine. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly half of all face-to-face encounters annually between police and members of the general public take place during a traffic stop, mostly without incident.
Minnesota state troopers conducted more than 1 million traffic stops in the past three years, an average of about 360,000 annually, according to State Trooper Lt. Eric Roeske.
But as we saw July 30 in West St. Paul, they also pose, along with disturbance calls, one of the most potentially dangerous scenarios for police officers. Patrick, 47, was shot as he approached a vehicle, unaware the driver was not the registered owner but a wanted fugitive with a long rap sheet who faced three years in prison for a probation violation. Witnesses said Patrick never got a word out or a chance to pull his gun in defense. He was ambushed from the driver's side by an individual who will likely now face life in prison without parole for the murder.
According to FBI Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted reports, 62 officers were killed during traffic stops from 2003 to 2012. That does not include 34 others who died during and after vehicle pursuits. Most involved shootouts like the one that took place in St. Paul between police and Patrick's suspected killer, Brian Fitch, hours after the slaying. In 2012, 4,450 officers were wounded or assaulted in various manners during traffic stops.
Improving officers' safety and analyzing their reactions during stops that turned dangerous was the centerpiece of a much-cited study conducted last year by the Mankato-based Force Science Institute.
Ninety cops from 22 police agencies in Washington and Oregon took part in the exercise. Officers were asked to approach the driver, a study researcher playing the role of a belligerent motorist acting that way to intentionally distract the officer. The participants, 80 men and 13 women, were told to approach the vehicle at various angles and stand near a line that delineated the B-pillar section of the vehicle, near the outer edge of the closed driver's-side door.
The B pillar is also the leading edge to an area in the rear of the vehicle called the mitigation zone, where officers can retreat for cover in case things go south. The participants were told only that they would be conducting routine traffic stops that may or may not escalate.
The study, billed as the first to systematically evaluate police officer responses to the threat of lethal force during a routine traffic stop, found that:
-- The driver, armed with a fake gun resting on the console, was able to pick it up and shoot 90 of 93 participants several times before the officers could return fire. It can take a quarter of a second for a driver to pick up a gun in such a location and fire off a shot
-- One officer deflected the weapon and shot the driver; another subdued the motorist with a choke maneuver before he could fire, and a third struck the gun away as it discharged. Nine others tried similar reactions but were shot. Cops are generally trained to move forward and neutralize potential harm rather than retreat when they are in such close proximity.
-- Officers who drew their weapons after they had entered the mitigation zone were on average 0.39 seconds faster reaching that safety area than officers who drew their weapons as they retreated.
-- Officers who approached the motorist from the passenger side got to the safety zone an average of a half-second quicker than those who approached from the driver's side.
"Such a small window of time could mean the difference between life and death in the field," the researchers noted in the study.
'NO SUCH THING AS A ROUTINE STOP'
William Lewinski, the institute's executive director and a behavioral scientist and police psychologist, has presented the study's findings to hundreds of police agencies across the country. A member of the The International Association of Chiefs of Police's tactical patrol operations committee, he said the group may officially promote the passenger-side approach as a preferred method, pending conditions and circumstances.
But Lewinski stressed that there's no guarantee that even the best preparation and training will fully protect officers from such lethal harm, in part because the criminal has the element of surprise.
"What happened in (West St. Paul) is such a tragedy," he said. "The actor who starts the action always has the jump."
Roeske said the last state trooper to be shot and killed during a traffic stop in Minnesota was Donald Zeismer in 1973 on Minnesota 61 on the North Shore.
Still, he said, "There is no such thing as a routine stop." The murder of Officer Scott Patrick is a somber reminder of that.
To read the traffic stop study, go to forcescience.org/trafficstop.html.