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Police Traffic Stops May Escalate If Cop's First 45 Words Are Commands

Many controversial police shootings or violence begin as routine traffic stops, such as those involving Philando Castile, Patrick Lyola and George Floyd. A new study says the first few words from an officer to a motorist can help predict whether a stop will escalate.

Eugenia Rho of Virginia Tech found in a National Academy of Sciences study that if the first 45 words from an officer to a Black motorist are commands rather than a greeting or an explanation for the stop, it is much more likely the stop will escalate to handcuffing, vehicle search or an arrest, Scripps News reports.

"In these escalated stops, the officers gives an order, a command, right: 'Put your hands up, get out of the car,' but no reason explaining why the driver was stopped," Rho said.

The study examined police body-camera footage of 577 traffic stops. It found 81 of them resulted in searches, handcuffing or arrests.

"We found no instances where the driver refused to comply with an officer's command or answer an officer's question," Rho said. "The majority of the drivers responses are answers or explanations to the officers orders, questions. And there are no instances where the driver is not complying with the officer in every single one of the escalated stops that we examine."

Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey, a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, says the officer's behavior has an immense impact on the outcome of a stop.

"The onus is always on the police officer, the trained professional," Dorsey said. "Something as simple as an explanation can avoid all sorts of other problems because at the end of the day, the goal is for everyone to go home safely, the police officer as well as the citizen. And then, when an officer just starts barking out orders, well, now you run the risk of having now the citizen become elevated in their response."

Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and several other cities are experimenting with banning minor traffic stops, arguing they overwhelmingly impact Black motorists, aren't especially helpful in stopping crime and can have fatal consequences.

Sgt. Dorsey says while she agrees police often mistreat Black people, she does not believe this is the answer.

"That sounds sexy, until you have a civilian who pulls over somebody with an expired tag who happens to be a serial killer or somebody who's wanted for robbing a bank," Dorsey said. "Now you have a civilian dealing with this armed and dangerous individual because ... traffic stops are the most dangerous interactions a police officer can have."


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