Traffic Stops Can Be Risky Business For Police

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Traffic stops are routine for law enforcement, but can be the most dangerous part of the job, Gila County Sheriff's Sgt. Craig Smith said.

During this week's class of the Gila County Sheriff's Office Citizens Academy, students learned the ins and outs of making such traffic stops.

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In a simulated traffic stop, Gila County Sheriff's Deputy Terry Neff goes to handcuff a "suspect" played by Michael Savage. Students of the sheriff's office Citizens Police Academy observed and then got to make their own "high risk" traffic stops.

Smith said the sheriff's office made a total of 1,312 traffic stops in 2003, resulting in 1,315 civil violations and 228 criminal citations.

"The most common criminal citations are DUI, driving on a suspended or revoked license, reckless driving and criminal speeding," Smith said.

Academy students observed deputies make a staged "high-risk" stop.

"The felony stop or high-risk stop may be someone who has just committed a crime," Smith said, "people who may be armed and dangerous."

Three patrol vehicles stopped a truck and one by one, fake guns drawn, ordered the passengers out. Students then took over the role of deputy and were able to experience the drama of a high-risk stop.

"You need to speak with authority," GCSO Lt. Adam Shepherd told participants. "Make them do exactly what you want."

Students ordered each subject out of the truck, to slowly back up with hands raised. One person made the demands while another handcuffed the "criminals," who were really administrative staff and dispatchers from the sheriff's office.

"Ideally, we like to have three patrol cars on a high-risk stop," Smith said. "If it takes awhile for backup, the deputy can just hold them and order them to stay inside the vehicle."

Caught on tape

GCSO Deputy Leonard Kerszykowski said he makes a lot of DUI stops. His patrol vehicle is equipped with mobile video taping equipment. Mobile Video Taping (MVT) allows deputies to get solid evidence, Smith said.

"I wouldn't want to be without it," Kerszykowski said.

"It's hard for an officer to testify about a DUI stop to a jury," Smith said. "Get out the video tape and play it for the jury and no explanation is needed."

The deputy wears a microphone on his body for sound outside the vehicle. Inside the vehicle conversation with a suspect can be recorded.

"The Supreme Court has ruled that you have no reasonable right to privacy in custody in a patrol vehicle. When someone is in the back of your patrol vehicle, it is completely legal to tape them," Smith said. "Whatever they say can be used against them in court."

Smith said the system is only activated by pressing the record button, turning on a transmitter or activation of the overhead lights. When Kerszykowski activates his overhead lights to make a stop, the camera starts rolling.

High speed pursuit

Smith played a video of a high-speed pursuit in Tucson of a teenager who failed to stop at a stop sign. The chase resulted in a three-car accident in which the teen was killed.

"The 16-year-old driver hit a tow truck," Smith said. "It was a minor violation. He should've just stopped."

Sheriff's deputies will not chase a suspect for a stop sign violation, according to their departmental policy.

"We have our own policy regarding high-speed pursuits," Smith said. "The sheriff's office primary concern in pursuit situations is the protection of the lives and safety of citizens and deputies."

Smith said high-speed pursuit is justified only when the deputy believes the suspect presents a clear and immediate threat of death or serious injury to others or has committed or is attempting to commit a violent crime. The deputy must have a good reason that can be articulated later when actions are reviewed.

Smith said each law enforcement agency has its own policy regarding high-speed pursuits and if another agency crosses into its jurisdiction, the resident agency can decide whether to participate.

"We just won't put people at risk unless they really pose a threat," Smith said. "Usually we can just take down their license plate and get them later."

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