2004-05-14 / Community

The Citizen’s Police Academy Report

The Citizen’s Police Academy Report


Want to know a secret? Cops do not relish pulling drivers over as much as we think they do – here’s why.

You’re on your way to work and you’re going to be late for the second time this week. The speed limit is 35 mph but you’re doing 50, but hey, so is everyone else around you. Next thing you know there are flashing lights behind you. You pull over.

Ok. What do you know at this point? Well, you know you are going to be late for work and why. But you also know all sorts of things about yourself and the vehicle you’re driving.

All the officer knows is that you were doing 50 mph in a 35 mph zone, what your vehicle looks like, to whom it’s is registered and maybe who’s in the car (provided he/she can see in clearly). Maybe that seems like a lot, but isn’t. What the officer probably wants to know is whether, in the moments you have before he reaches your driver-side window, you are preparing a sob story or if you’re getting ready to step on the gas pedal or pull a gun.

"If you talked to most police out there they’d rather respond to an armed bank robbery than a car-stop," Police Officer Thomas Reilly, a 13-year veteran who teaches car-stop procedure at the NYPD Academy, told the Citizen’s Police Academy class this week. First, a car-stop is cop talk for pulling people over. Second, the reason the armed robbery is better than a car-stop is that with armed robberies cops at least know what they’re getting into from the start. Reilly said car-stops are never routine and can prove to be "deadly."

The thing is, cops never know if the person they’re stopping for speeding, to keep with our example, is just some law abiding citizen with a lead foot or if the person is wanted for murder in another state. How often does the latter prove to be true? It was the case in the 100 Precinct back in February when a lieutenant and a rookie officer stopped a man for running a red light, took the extra step of checking for warrants and found out that the man was wanted for murder in North Carolina.

The man was arrested without incident and the collar is no doubt used as a shining example of how "routine" enforcement can lead to significant developments in other investigations – whether they are in N.Y, N.C. or anywhere else. It’s remarkable when you think about how police in one area were looking for this guy for years and he wound up being taken into custody because he failed to stop at a red light in Rockaway and two sharp cops followed through.

But this story could have had a different ending if the alleged N.C. murderer was armed and decided he would do anything necessary to evade the authorities.

Now, don’t get the impression that cops are at the mercy of the people they pull over – that is far from true. Training and good habits help cops make car-stops safer. Here’s some of what we learned.

First thing – officers align and distance their vehicle with/from the one they stop depending on the type of vehicle it is. For example, officers will put their front passenger headlight on the stopped car’s rear driver headlight so that the police car shields the officer from traffic.

Just like that old grade school retort, four eyes are better than two. Police are supposed to perform car-stops in pairs – both out of the patrol car at essentially the same time. They’re supposed to do what I think of as a Penn and Teller routine. Remember Penn and Teller – one is, um, not thin and the other does not speak. The officer who approaches the driver side does all the talking (regardless of body mass index), while the other looks and listens. Both officers will look to see what and who is inside the vehicle.

The officer on the driver side does a few things. He/she should stand out of the way of the vehicle door and will position him/herself so that their gun is away from the window.

First, Reilly says they should tell you why they pulled you over. Besides the courtesy, this recommendation comes from the FBI, which interviewed men who killed police during car-stops. Nearly 20 cases were documented where the cop killer (apparently sweating his drugs in the trunk etc.) opened fire because the officer didn’t tell them they were pulled over for a traffic violation, Reilly told us.

Ever have a cop ask you to take your license out of your wallet or prompt you to extend it and insurance card out the window to them? Good. The logic is that if they reach in to your vehicle they put themselves in a strategically weak position. You could grab them and hit the gas – dragging them with you, or pull them close enough to reach their gun. They also don’t want to get tied up prying a license out of your billfold because it’s simply a distraction for them.

The officers are likely to take your information back to their car – they are supposed to do this, and return, together, just as they first approached your vehicle.

You should know that the police can legally pull you over for many different reasons – so don’t think that just because you didn’t run a light or weren’t speeding you can have an attitude. A dirty license plate, cracked turn signal or a blown brake light can all justify a stop.

So what if you are stopped? Safely pull over as quickly as possible shut off the ignition and then try not to do too much. A lot of movement makes cops edgy, Reilly told us. Keep your hands visible – on the steering wheel is a good place for them. You might think that it will be helpful to reach into the glove-box for your insurance card – don’t do it until the officer asks you for it. Then he/she will be expecting you to reach for it. Guns fit inside glove-boxes. Also, stay in your car.

Turn off your radio. Forget about your cellphone (duh). Try to be nice.

"In our defense, we don’t meet the most polite people out there," Reilly told us frankly.

Don’t get me wrong, the last time I was pulled over I was just about furious, but I’m hoping that when my day in traffic court comes the officer might remember me as the guy who said little and was complicit. Maybe he just won’t remember me as "the jerk in the Prelude." We’ll see how I do.

The Citizen’s Police Academy is heating up and winding down all in the same motion. There’s no meeting at the academy next week – we’ll all be touring our sponsoring precincts as part of the Civilian Ride-Along Program. I’ll be heading out in the 101 Precinct for what I am sure will be an eye-opening and interesting few hours. It could make for the most interesting learning experience yet.

There are just two classes at the academy remaining. We’ll meet with the Chief of the Internal Affairs Bureau during one class and then learn about tactical communication in our final meeting.

As we enter the home stretch, I get the sense that some of us will sincerely miss our weekly travels to the academy, and I plan to share some of the parting sentiments of my classmates with you.

I’ll report on all of this, and I have another idea that could extend the Citizen’s Police Academy Report for one or two more installments beyond that.

Graduation, yes graduation, will be at One Police Plaza next month. I hear we get a photo with Commissioner Ray Kelly that, for that week, will replace my "mug shot" which has been running with this report since we began.

I’ll do my best to look pressed and shaved.

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