A Response To Racial Tension

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For my police friends and commenters who are somewhat less than enthusiastic over the idea of eliminating routine traffic stops,  my reasoning.  And my thoughts as to whether or not my father, the former sheriff , is spinning in his grave.

Obviously I need to make this rather novel idea more understandable, or, if you will, more acceptable to those policing our communities, so let me give it a try.

I believe Police administrators have become fearful that if they do not show an abundant police presence on the streets conducting numerous car stops the public will believe they are not doing their jobs.   They march into our city council and say they need more men.   From my perspective, they have all the men and women they need, but these human resources are simply not tasked correctly.  If you think about it, how could it be otherwise?  We all hold on to what we know and are distrustful of change. To my knowledge, no one in modern law enforcement has provided a reasonable and effective alternative to the idea of using traffic stops to cast a wide net to catch criminals. Traffic stops have become such an integral part of police operations that to surrender even a minor part of traffic stops for the purpose of reducing racial tension is almost inconceivable.

But just to be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that we stop making traffic stops or, more to the point, stop arresting criminals.  I make my livelihood representing those arrested.  From that limited perspective, the more the merrier.

What I am suggesting is we need is a paradigm shift away from what we have been doing for years in an ineffective effort to corral crime.  Let’s take a page from the playbook of the US Army.  Let’s work to win the hearts and minds of our citizens and work together with them to target and eliminate the criminal cancer.  What I am advocating here is the combining of modern technology and old investigative tradecraft to identify, investigate, capture and prosecute the serious criminals; those who are the real threats to a safe community.  I am suggesting we move away from using “routine” car stops to evaluate, track and control the criminal element.  It has become a policing tool that creates inner city tensions between the police and the poor while giving the appearance of police power, yet does little to control crime.

Here is the problem as I see it.  When I go to bed at night I sleep with my wife and nearby I keep my trusty 12-gauge shotgun.

Before I finally drift off to sleep my concern is not whether police will be able to perform a traffic stop on some clueless car owner driving down the highway with an expired tag or a bicyclist riding down the sidewalk without a headlight.  No, my concern is that a seasoned criminal will invade my home and hurt or kill me, or the ones I love.  Can a police officer conducting a random administrative traffic stop (RATS) prevent a criminal from reaching my home?  Let’s consider this for a moment.   At any given moment there are hundreds if not thousands of cars on the roads in our community. At that same moment there might be 100 active police units patrolling and not en route to a call for service or otherwise out of service.  Is it possible that one of these marked police units will conduct a traffic stop on the very robber who is headed to my home to kill and maim?  Sure, it’s possible.  But let’s face it, it is not very likely.  But to prevent him from actually doing the crime to me the officer will also have to develop sufficient probable cause during that random traffic stop to permit the officer to arrest the criminal and protect my home from invasion.  Here the probability of this random traffic stop protecting me from harm falls off the cliff.

In addition, if I am actually able to call 911 to protect me while the criminal is kicking in my door, because Jacksonville is such large a city, I realize, as you do,  that police can rarely arrive in time to prevent a crime and often they can only make a report and hope to catch the criminal before he commits another crime; this is of little benefit to the victim of a serious crime.  So necessarily, the police cannot be entirely responsible for my family’s safety.  I must be the first line of protection, and so I am.

Where the police could definitely help me is by taking a hard investigative look at the really bad guys in this town.  In my opinion, the way this should be done is through use of investigative techniques to first identify the bad actors; second, to investigate their criminal activity; third, to use traps to catch them before they can act against citizens; and, finally, to prosecute them into confinement away from the rest of polite society.  How can anyone truly believe that a police officer making a random administrative traffic stop  (RATS) can effectively protect any of us from serious criminal activity is beyond me.  It leads me to believe that top brass only watch TV reruns of 1970 police action shows like Adam-12 and CHiPs to find effective police strategy.  Frankly, the community deserves better, we deserve better, and with college-educated officers I believe we can do better.  How can police become more effective?

First, let’s identify the criminals:

Who are the real bad actors? Are they drivers with expired tags or vehicles with burned-out taillights or cyclists riding their bikes at night on a sidewalk without lights?  Possibly they are, but not likely.   Robbers, rapists, child molesters, nighttime burglars, auto thieves, murderers, those who would assault and batter, and there are a few more, but you get the idea, these perps keep their own counsel and must be specifically targeted, not accidentally targeted with RATS.

To be sure, there are exceptions.   One of those exceptions was Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and there are others.  But it has never been my thought that we would eliminate car stops altogether. Traffic stops are a necessary function of street enforcement.  For example, DUI, reckless, suspicious vehicles in residential areas or warehouse areas, cars on a BOLO, these should all be stopped.

I am speaking only about routine car stops, which arguably are the most dangerous for street officers.  Any cop worth their salt will tell you routine administrative traffic stops can be deadly.  You never know whom you are stopping, so seasoned cops never treat a routine traffic stop as routine.  From the training days in the police academy, recruits are taught to never let routine traffic stops become routine.  They are taught that believing a traffic stop is routine will get you killed because you may unwittingly be stopping a dangerous criminal just leaving a crime scene.   So by design, competent police officers always appear wary, distant and perhaps even hostile when they are conducting routine stops.  This police attitude has created a negative impact on the driving public and increased racial tensions.   Reducing or eliminating the need for officers to make routine administrative traffic stops will not only reduce community tensions, it will also protect police lives. If the city accountants insist that the fines are necessary to fund government operations, a photo of the offense could simply be sent to the registered owner’s address in the same manner red light camera citations are delivered.  The government gets the revenue and the police are no longer tagged as the messenger that should be killed.

Some commenters have suggested I would like to eliminate all traffic stops.  So let me be clear right here, I do not suggest that we eliminate all traffic stops; just routine traffic stops based on petty and administrative civil infractions that as I have said are often changed into arrests based on a voluntary consent to search from the driver. Even if the traffic stop does not end in an arrest when a ticket is issued, a driver suffers a financial hardship and if the burden is too large and the ticket cannot be paid, the driver’s license will be suspended and then the next time he is stopped he will surely be arrested.  Under no circumstance do these routine traffic stops foster goodwill in the community.

In a humorous way I am suggesting what the public has suggested for years and the stories among officers are legion, the driver aggravated for receiving a traffic ticket from an officer says “Why are you not out tracking down the really bad guys, fighting crime instead of giving me a ticket?”   Now we begin to see the answer to that very question. Officers are used to funding city coffers while casting a broad net over the driving public searching for petty criminals to arrest so the officer can become a detective.   Try giving that explanation to the driving public while at the same time asking them to trust you and tell you secrets.  Good luck with that effort.

Now more back on track.  What investigative techniques am I talking about?  Simple.  The first is using our eyes to look closely at the fabric of our community and ask these questions about the people we see:

Who has money and should not? Where is that money coming from? Who owns fancy cars but does not have a job?  Who has pretty girlfriends and no visible means of support?  Who buys expensive cars with cash?  Who buys the most expensive stereo for their extreme ride? Who has a nice car but rides in a rental because they do not want their personal car seized? Who dresses too well for their income stream?  Who lives on a gated estate and has no visible means of support?  Who travels out of town by air frequently on cash or ‘odd’ credit card? In short, who never works but lives well?

Now that we have identified who the bad boys are, the next step is to develop information about each of these targets:  Where do they live? Who do they associate with? How do we acquire this information?   We get the information from people in the community and inmates in our jails.  We just have to learn who to ask, what to ask, and how to motivate the person we ask to open up to us.  In this context, trust is at a premium.    Everyone knows that people open up and talk to people they trust and they do not talk to people they do not trust.  Routine car stops for traffic infractions is not a way to befriend people and make them trust you.

After we have identified the targets and obtained general information about the targets, we can then use the same techniques currently in use by the federal government to prevent post 9/11 large-scale terrorist attacks on US soil.  This technique is the use of physical and electronic surveillance through which investigators verify targets are engaged in criminal activity.  Finally, using this information police can create hidden traps to catch the criminals, traps to catch the criminals red-handed with sufficient evidence to prove their crimes beyond a doubt to a jury.

So what are the traps? you ask.

To understand the concept let’s start with a trap that is very effective and has been in use for many years, the pawnshop trap.  Most of us know how this works.  The stupid crook takes stolen jewelry to the pawnshop, signs a document that avers that he is the true owner of the pawned item, and adds a thumbprint.    When the stolen stuff is reported missing the pawn shop detail detective finds the property, realizes it was not the crook’s property after all, the crook lied–go figure–using the information contained on the pawn ticket, the crook’s driver’s license information along with his thumbprint, the detective obtains a warrant from a judge and then finds and arrests the crook, charging him with burglary and dealing in stolen property. The detective gets a crook off the street and the homeowner gets their property back — a win all around.  But as you know, traps can be seen, so it is not unusual in the case of pawn shops for the bad guy to “hire” a homeless person unknown to the crook to pawn the item and give the crook the proceeds for a bottle of wine and thus the bad guy avoids the trap.

And this is where that little-used college education can pay off for police administrators and for the community.  It pays off by using college-grafted intellectual skill to make traps that cannot be detected and avoided by the bad boys.  Setting effective traps to capture wily, clever criminals requires intelligence, training and attention to detail that are the hallmarks of the well-educated. This is where smartness can pay off.

Need some ideas for invisible traps?  Let me suggest two.

Operation computer/ smartphone theft

Buy three cases of laptop computers or state-of-the-art smartphones.  Place them on a pallet in a warehouse district and “permit” the electronics to be stolen.  In short order they will be in the hands of a bunch of local thieves.   Because the law does not respect privacy in stolen goods you have wisely loaded your special police software, tracking and tracing programs for the purpose of following these electronics and watching the criminals use the systems in committing their crimes, and after, say, six months you make the arrest of all involved and recover the stolen items.   Repeat.  It is an undecided legal question as to whether using the items in a listening (open mic) mode or watching the criminals through onboard cameras is legal, but it would be an interesting legal case and if the concept were to pass legal muster, think of the bad guys this could catch.

Drug cases

Open an operation using a state’s attorney, an appointed defense attorney, a local felony judge.  Then using an undercover motorhome you quietly make the arrest of a local street drug seller. You transport the dealer to the motorhome and introduce him to the system: he has an attorney to represent him and he is processed immediately through the system, his freedom and no record in exchange for his information about the origin of the drugs.  The prosecutor and the judge issue a search warrant and the supplier is arrested based on the served search warrant, and in an evening you work your way up the chain to get the major player in a community instead of filling our judicial system with low-level players whose information, if they are willing to give it, is outdated and essentially useless.  The evidence from a successful search warrant speaks volumes, and the credibility of a defense witness is almost always questionable, plus effective timely-served search warrants remove the drugs from the system before they can be transported.

Yes, there are potential problems with each of these traps, not the least of which is that it may encourage criminal activity.  Each of these ideas may require legal analysis to determine if such activity is lawful.   This is merely a list of ideas, each of which will require intense evaluation. But we have onboard and equal to the task thousands of college-educated, well paid police officers who would love the task of harvesting criminals from our communities using these innovative techniques.  If we attempt these ideas and we fail, we can always reinvigorate the RATS.

This is the value of having smart, college-educated police officers.  Let them figure these problems out and begin the process of arresting the real criminals in our communities instead of throwing out the car stop arresting net to capture only the most visible and often most stupid criminals.  Can we really expect to capture the smart and dangerous criminals in car stops?

I believe the primary mission of local police is to control dangerous criminals first and the petty criminals secondarily.  Not the reverse.  Their mission is to make citizens comfortable when they are home in bed asleep at night.  It is to protect our lives and our property so we can be productive citizens.   I believe that to accomplish this will require the police to focus all their tactical and intellectual skills against the real criminals.  This must be done with the help and cooperation of the community.   Using routine traffic stops for administrative infractions in the hope of finding probable cause to make a minor arrest is entirely counterproductive.   Such behavior serves only to clog the judicial system with minor offenders and foment the driving pubic, which is the entire public because we all drive,  against law enforcement making them less likely to trust police sufficiently so to provide them with current intelligence about criminal activity.   What a waste and misguided effort.      Now, as to my dad, the former sheriff, and what he might think about my views on this matter.   Dad fought in WWII for the apparently novel concept of freedom. He fought against the despots who would control every measure of our lives.  We won against such tyranny.  My dad believed in human goodness and knew there was evil for he had seen it first hand. He was never a fan of big government, a government that would control its citizens.  He believed that the primary purpose of

Now, as to my dad, the former sheriff, and what he might think about my views on this matter.   Dad fought in WWII for the apparently novel concept of freedom. He fought against the despots who would control every measure of our lives.  We won against such tyranny.  My dad believed in human goodness and knew there was evil for he had seen it first hand. He was never a fan of big government, a government that would control its citizens.  He believed that the primary purpose of law was to protect the innocent from the evil.  During his 28 years as sheriff of Duval County every officer who worked for him knew he felt this way.   So despite what some uniformed people may think, my dad was an innovator in law enforcement.  In the 1970s Dad wanted each street officer to be a detective and to resolve the cases for which they were first responders. This concept was cutting edge.  Dad got US government LEAA grants for computerized dispatch when most police dispatch, like Dade County, was mechanical with trolley dispatch cards rolling from the police operator to the police radio dispatch operator. Dad wore a suit and tie; he did not wear a uniform because he was a leader and the administrator, not a police officer. But to a fault he supported and protected his police officers through thick and thin. He loved the rank and file and saw that they received quality training; good pay and a pension so excellent the city wants to limit it today.   Dad and some special local citizens saw to it that Jacksonville police wore some of the first bulletproof vests found in the entire country.  The point here is that dad was innovative and was willing to take a risk for better law enforcement.  Dad certainly would have considered the idea of eliminating routine car stops as a means of reducing racial tensions.  Could he convince the rank and file?  That will forever remain an open question, for many people believe car stops are synonymous with effective policing and as you now know, I do not.

As to whether he is spinning in his grave over the position I have taken? I hope not.  I was his son. He loved me and told me so often.  More, he gave me a safe and enjoyable childhood and young adult life and he put me on the track to be a law enforcement officer like he was and I was ever so proud to become a police officer in Dade County in the days of the cocaine cowboys when it was truly fast and furious.   His friends, old FBI agents and old cops, were my friends and mentors and what they taught me made me see the world the way I do today.   I look at the problems experienced by law enforcement today by standing on the shoulders of my mentors and with the further perspective of being a defense attorney, cop, and FBI agent.  This position gives me the benefit of a different view.  Not necessarily a better view, just a different view.  I hope my dad and my mentors are at least tolerant of what I have become and the views I have found.   I will certainly agree my dad left big shoes to fill; I could never hope to fill them.  But I can do my part and try to make things a little better in the community by pointing out problems and offering potential solutions.

In closing I must say I am somewhat surprised at the intolerance some of the comments reflect.   Given your own sacrifices to the law, each of you knows the importance of hammering the bad apples.  If you have any ideas you would like to discuss, please feel free to contact me.


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