Basic Composition of Traffic Enforcement

Traffic enforcement has long been a staple of police organizations as an essential service to the public. It is widely considered one of the most effective tools to combat and deter traffic infractions and crime. Recently, society has made demands and outcries for police to find remedies to the rising increase in aggressive driving and crime rates.

Many departments have dedicated resources into improving output from traffic units in order to vamp up public safety on the roadways. In turn, focus has shifted toward specialized assignments or task force units (directed patrols) designed to address targeted traffic problem areas, impede drug trafficking, and hobble other organized crime. If you consider how we use motor vehicles for conveyance and transport in our daily lives, endless possibilities are also sought after in the criminal world.

Most people are familiar with the axiom of traffic stops being “routine” and perhaps disregard their complexity and dynamic potential. They are far from being classified as standard or ordinary and can rapidly change in scale ranging from a simple citation for speeding to an ambush on the officer. Let’s take a look at the complexity by dissecting several fragments making up the experience of a traffic stop from the officer’s and citizen’s points of view.

PROTOCOLS

Traffic stops, in a general sense, are quite similar in procedure across the country. Standard training practices for traffic enforcement are included in all police academy curriculum and field training. Each officer develops their own style and dialogue with a driver, however, all of them include: (1)an approach; (2)an introduction and explanation; (3)license, insurance, and registration requests; (4)wants/warrants inquiry; (5) declaration of a warning or citation decision; and (6) a closure-all completed within an average time of 20 minutes. Protocols are facilitated by the officer who prefers cooperation from the motor vehicle driver. Thus, the procedures are designed to make the stop as efficient and expedient as possible to lessen the inconvenience to a driver. This is considered a detention, temporary in nature, and is a somewhat tense situation for both the officer and driver/passengers. Motor vehicle operators are required to provide a driver’s license, proof of insurance, and vehicle registration upon request from the officer.

PERCEPTIONS AND EXPECTATIONS

Objectivity versus subjectivity has long been placed heavily as a demand on law enforcement and weighs on their integrity. It’s a hot topic whether officers are viewed as fair and equitable and ranks high on the list of priorities for public confidence in a department. In fact, it becomes very crucial for officers who do have discretion, to be objective. How is this possible when a human is making a decision based upon subjective encounters? Sometimes it is difficult, but officers are to exclude bias when making decisions or solving problems. Not only is it a public mandate for officers to be objective and fair, but department supervisors expect officers to do just that in their daily decision making. Can officers possibly stop every infraction they observe and treat each police contact exactly the same? No. Perfection is not possible.

Stops are based upon observing a violation and being able to make a traffic maneuver to intercept them without being reckless or impeding other traffic. If an officer does not see a violation, obviously a suspect driver may avoid detection. This can occur from time to time. Police may also be on their way to another call and the violation they observe does not outweigh the call they are responding to, so they must dismiss it. Not all important or potentially urgent calls are code 3 (emergency) runs. In all fairness, we often do not know what they have been dispatched to or are observing from inside their patrol car. Secondly, each police contact is unique and separate from the one prior; therefore each stop cannot be conducted or concluded in exactly the same way.

CONSEQUENCES

What are the consequences of breaking a traffic code? Citation or arrest: depending on the magnitude of the offense. Collateral damages are a fine and/or a possible court appearance. In some cases it also includes a point on your driving record, perhaps a mark on reputation, and insurance rate increases. Every motor vehicle operator is mindful of the repercussions of a violation.

Although traffic stops are a type of brief detention, they do not result in arrest unless there is a more serious violation of traffic or criminal code other than running a red light, for instance. Infractions can have assigned fine and penalty scales which can categorize each cited individual in the same fee schedule if they choose to pay the ticket. They do not allow a person to have a jury trial. A person wishing to have a court appearance leaves the outcome up to a judge. More serious violations can be classified as misdemeanors and have higher fines, penalty scales, and jury or bench options for court procedures. Officers may also issue warnings which do not require any action from the driver, but are designed to deter future infractions.

FROM BEHIND THE WHEEL

Is it true most citizens view speeding and other traffic infractions as a public hazard and danger to their safety? Yes, I would say with certainty this is mostly true of public opinion. Many studies have been conducted on this topic and can be researched for more detailed statistics.

No one likes a traffic citation. When a person feels the laws are there for public safety, yet outraged when they receive a citation for a violation, their behavior is typical of an average citizen. Even though some complaints are often immediately directed toward the issuing officer, most people are disappointed in themselves.

Breaking down the psychology of a police contact would involve a lengthy discussion. In brief, society keeps a watchful eye on public policy, government, and issues which concern their everyday lives. Reputation and driving record are two matters most pride themselves in maintaining to avoid license suspension and insurance rate increases. Being issued a citation is deflating to one’s self-esteem and integrity which distresses most in the initial phase of emotions. Secondly, fines and insurance rates are affected by substantiated findings of fault and may impact a person’s driving record.

Still, people know the consequences and yet, some blame the police at times instead of evaluating their own malfeasance or taking responsibility for their own actions. A second common complaint against an officer is for rudeness;  if the officer did not present themselves in a pleasant manner to the driver or the driver perceived the officer as rude. Officers realize a traffic stop is not perceived as a pleasant experience for any driver which means it is paramount they are professional each time.

DISCRETION

Who gets a warning versus the person who receives a citation? What influences officer discretion and if so, does that take away from the objectiveness? Many factors affect police discretion which include but are not limited to (in no particular order of importance): (1) suspect attitude and demeanor, (2) attitude and demeanor of self, (3)police standard requirements ,(4)traffic enforcement strategies , (5) public safety concerns, (6) productivity (measurements), (7) evaluations,(8)environmental and surrounding influences, (9)justice system variables such as court overflow, revenue,(10) city council directives, (11)suspect’s record, (12)personal life interferences, (13)situational circumstances, (14)internal department structure and expectations, (15)supervisor directives, (16)public scrutiny, (17)suspect’s stress, and (18)officer’s stress. These integral components are just a few of the “static noises” around a simple traffic stop, influencing an officer’s decision. At the same time, an officer must depersonalize his or her decision and compartmentalize personal conflicts and stress. Bias must be eliminated from the officer’s evaluation of the stop and he or she should execute the decision in a fair manner.

RISKS TO OFFICER AND PUBLIC

A traffic stop is a risky and complex duty for an officer. Officers must not disregard the danger it attaches to both themselves and citizens. The maneuver of the stop, placement of vehicles, location, lighting, and weather, etc., are all factors police take into consideration before deciding to make a stop in order to maintain safety. Proper police tactics are instructed and emphasized with repetition in police academies and field training.

Not only does a stop involve procedures, proper police tactics, but it entails guiding human behavior which is surrounded by several internal and external influences unknown to the officer. A person is automatically agitated or nervous once they are pulled over by a police officer. Suspect emotion and intentions are two of the most prolific reasons why traffic stops are very dangerous for law enforcement. If this danger intensifies or moves beyond the scope of a simple traffic stop, the public then becomes endangered as the situation escalates. There are copious amounts of threatening elements surrounding a stop and it is certainly impossible for an officer to mitigate every one.

Proximity of the exposed officer on approach outside the suspect vehicle compared to the logistical advantage of the driver and passengers raises the level of risk for ambush. Potential discoveries of illegal activity, warrants, and the unknown manufactures inside a vehicle alert the officer’s constant watchful eye and defensive posture. Situational awareness and emotional intelligence are of the utmost importance. An officer’s apathetic behavior and professionalism are skill sets which draw compliance and can defuse an emotional or volatile situation.

Environmental surroundings, ongoing traffic, linear vehicles, and an open roadway add to the risks of injury. Precautions and best practices need to be taken into account to prevent the officer or driver from getting injured or killed due to vehicle crashes, sideswipes, or weather affecting the condition of the roadway. An officer must be able to identify risk and gauge threat levels while reacting appropriately. Again, they must constantly scan, be alert, and assess their situation for survival and safety for themselves and others.

BY DESIGN

Traffic enforcement is designed to promote public safety by stopping a violation, reducing crashes, and enhancing public enjoyment. At the same time, it deters other drivers from committing an infraction and historically changes behavior of the ticketed driver and onlookers. Presence of law enforcement is on every driver’s mind on any roadway. In conjunction, safe driving techniques and unsafe alternatives and consequences keeps most vehicle drivers in a “checks and balances phenomenon” while operating a motor vehicle.

Traffic stops are the most common interaction a citizen will have with a police official. To some, it may be the only contact they encounter with law enforcement. These experiences influence citizens’ perceptions of law enforcement, department directives, and public opinion.

Are traffic infractions frivolous and do police organizations focus too much attention to this matter? On the contrary, many communities report law enforcement organizations do not devote enough tactical attention to traffic operations. In fact, most departments have room for improvement and enhanced enforcement of traffic codes. This can be explored by analyzing traffic crashes, defining problem areas, observing traffic congestion, speed concerns, and identifying aggressive driver behavior. Administrators evaluate their programs and resources accordingly to keep updated and apprised of flux in community specific issues and traffic/crime hot spots. With these considerations, a community can evaluate where traffic enforcement is successful or where additional operations are needed.

Traffic flow, safe operation of motor vehicles in masses, and efficient infrastructure are direct parallels to public safety. Law enforcement officials engaged in active random and directed patrols and implemented traffic enforcement assist with public safety and traffic efficiency. Traffic units also reduce criminal activity through stops and contacts. Without traffic enforcement, police work would operate at a detriment of effectiveness due to our reliance on transportation and public safety would be jeopardized.