CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- There should be no suspense in a traffic stop.

That is a principle that Sgt. Joseph Harvill, Training Coordinator of the Professional Development and Training Office, tries to instill in Charleston Police Department officers. He encourages them not to ask a person to explain why he or she was pulled over, but instead be upfront about the reason.

“A lot of times, people get complacent behind the wheel,” Sgt. Harvill said. “People don’t necessarily know and if anything it seems a bit disrespectful to come up and use that kind of language.”

It is the same reason he encourages officers to ask the driver “Are you OK?” and exercise compassion during a traffic stop.

According to the CPD General Orders handbook, a traffic stop should be initiated in a “courteous manner” followed by informing “the violator what traffic law he/she has violated and the intended enforcement action: the violator should not be kept in suspense.”

The reason for this is rather simple: a traffic stop could be the only interaction a person has with law enforcement and Sgt. Harvill recognizes it can sometimes be a traumatic experience.

“No one likes to see blue lights in their rearview mirror,” he said. “We have protocols, procedures, and policies in place to keep us safe and motorists safe, but we try to steer clear of being robotic about it.”

He went on to say that the first thirty seconds of an initiated traffic stop are critical.

“In the first 30 seconds, you formulate an impression based off [sic] that officers’ actions towards that citizen, and that sets the tone for any future thought processes the person has encountering a law enforcement officer,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being human on a traffic stop.”

Once Sgt. Harvill and assisting officers explained the proper way to go about a traffic stop, the class was put to the test.

We paired up in twos (main officer and partner) and hopped in a CPD cruiser. Two role-players were in a car in front of us. We were given a scenario and asked to demonstrate what we would do in that instance.

There are two reasons an officer can pull a vehicle over: moving violations (ex. speeding) and equipment violations (ex. expired registration tag). Over a 4-year period, 55% of motorists were stopped by the Charleston Police Department for a moving violation and 45% were stopped for an equipment violation

The scenarios were “nominal-style” traffic stops, ranging from someone running a red light to having a diabetic episode behind the wheel.

Once we assessed the situation, we collected the necessary paperwork such as license, registration, and proof of insurance and “ran” it through the system to see if anything came back. For class purposes, it always came back clear.

Then were tasked with another decision: Let them off with a warning or issue a citation, the same two options presented to CPD officers. Which one is chosen is based on discretion. Sgt. Harvill said if an officer does issue a citation, he or she should make certain the motorist understands exactly what the next steps are.

“Going through and explain every component of it,” Sgt. Harvill told the class. “As long as you explain it, a lot of times that goes a long way to some understanding. In a sense, you’re putting a total explanation and creating transparency as to what we’re doing and why we’re trying to accomplish that objective or goal.”

The Standford Open Policing Project estimates that officers across the United States make more than 50,000 traffic stops a day, roughly 20 million per year. Between 2014 and 2018, the Charleston Police Department made roughly 139,000 traffic stops, the majority resulting in warnings.

That translates to thousands of opportunities for a stop to go tragically wrong.

So what happens if a traffic stop or some other police action goes wrong under the Charleston Police Department? That is where the Office of Internal Affairs comes in.

In 1991, the Charleston Police Department became the first municipal agency in the state to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), known as the gold standard in public safety.

CALEA, as Captain Anthony Cretella explained, is a process that allows agencies to voluntarily demonstrate they meet an established set of professional standards through various types of proof such as pictures and after-action reports.

CALEA falls under the Office of Internal Affairs, as does the complaints department. The complaints department is focused on “full, fair, and objective investigations.” Captain Cretella and Lt. Thomas Bailey explained that every complaint that comes to the department goes through the same process with the same objective in mind.

The complaints process is as follows:

Receive the complaint → Classify the Complaint → Investigate the Complaint → Adjudicate the complaint

Once a complaint comes in and it has been investigated there are 5 possible officer conduct findings:

  • Sustained – the investigation found sufficient evidence to prove the allegations made in the complaint
  • Not Sustained – the investigation failed to find sufficient evidence to prove or disprove the allegations made in the complaint
  • Exonerated – the incident occurred, but officer conduct was proper
  • Unfounded – the allegation is proven to be false
  • Policy Review

If necessary, the officer in question is disciplined. Lt. Bailey said the main purpose of discipline is to “address the problem and correct the behavior.”

In pursuit of developing proper office conduct skills, the Department began randomly selecting body-worn camera footage for review in 2015.

But even still there is work to be done in the Department, including in the Traffic Division. A recent CNA audit revealed racial disparities in stop rates and search decisions for stops in which warnings and citations were issued.

Captain Cretella said they are actively working to address those issues, including by developing a strategic plan and creating a comprehensive database of traffic stop data.

As Deputy Chief Chito Walker emphasized in the first two classes of the Academy, the best way to ensure officers are following proper protocol is to cultivate a professional culture and ensure oversight.

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Inside the Charleston Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy Series

*EDITOR’S NOTE: This course is specific to the Charleston Police Department and reflects only the training, policies, and procedures of that agency. Each law enforcement agency/department has its own standards and guidelines.