When a traffic stop goes beyond routine

A group of mothers protest police brutality in Washington, D.C. in May.
A group of mothers protest police brutality in Washington, D.C. in May. AP

Early one December morning in East Baltimore in 2000, I saw a car drive by with its headlights off. For minor traffic violations, for honest mistakes – if the driver was sober, polite and carrying a valid license and registration – I would usually just issue a warning.

I stopped the car. But before I could get on the radio to call in the stop, a middle-aged African-American woman exited the car while shouting into her cellphone. The “routine” went out of this 1 a.m. stop.

I told her to get back in her car several times, which she finally did reluctantly. I approached and asked for her license. She was on her phone saying she wanted a sergeant and another officer and added: “If I’m going to get shot, I want it to be recorded because I know this is recorded and I know my rights.”

She wouldn’t stop talking, yelling really, at me and into her phone: “He just pulled me over for being black. I can’t believe this would happen to me. There are all those drug dealers, and you’ve got to harass me!” I could see the parking lights on her dashboard were illuminated, which maybe made her think her headlights were on. I pointed this out to her. She said, ignoring my point, that she was on her way to donate suitcases for charity.

As I returned to my car, a call came over the radio for a woman being assaulted by a police officer at my location. I told the dispatcher there was no assault in progress, and the call was related to my traffic stop. Before I had even approached her, she had called 911 certain of the injustice she was experiencing at the hands of a white officer.

I thought of this stop while watching the video of Sandra Bland, the young woman who died in jail after she was stopped in Texas for an illegal lane change – a minor violation. Like that scenario, my traffic stop could have gone in any number of directions.

I could have raised my voice. I could have threatened the woman with force and arrested her for non-compliance. I could have done all of that legally, but I didn’t want to. What is legally permitted is not always morally acceptable.

I was focused on a goal: to finish this stop without anybody getting injured. Honestly, I had little sympathy for this woman’s mistaken sense of moral justice. But I had empathy for her as a human being.

My sergeant and another officer arrived on the scene within minutes. My sergeant told me to remain near my car while he talked to the woman. I filled in a ticket. Ironically, given her insistence that I stopped her because she was black (in a neighborhood that is 98 percent African-American), a verbal warning could be proof that the stop was unjustified. I needed a paper trail to cover my actions.

The driver remained upset while she signed for the ticket: “I had my lights on. How can you look me in the eye and tell me I didn’t ... ? God will judge you. You'll have to answer to God in the end!”

In the end, we had only a traffic court judge to answer to. He listened to our versions of the stop before concluding, “Sounds like a routine traffic stop ... I'll take the officer’s word over yours.”

Was that the ideal ending? I don’t know. Little about policing is ideal. But that’s why we have police officers, to handle non-ideal situations. These often involve people who are lost, mentally ill, criminals or victims. And, like Sandra Bland, nobody should die because police officers are more interested in absolute dominance than professional, moral and tactical discretion. Peaceful resolution isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the very purpose of policing.

Peter Moskos is the author of “Cop in the Hood” and a former Baltimore police officer.