Almost every American has heard about “The Talk” that fathers and mothers of color have with their children of a certain age, particularly those becoming drivers. “The Talk” cautions children to recognize their lives are disproportionately at greater risk when they are on the road – across the roughly twenty million traffic stops conducted each year, folks of color are more likely to get stopped, ticketed and/or arrested. In the book “Suspect Citizens,” academics analyzed the data found from roughly 20 million traffic stops and concluded that minority vehicles are searched based on a pretext, unlike their fellow white citizens. While we await desperately needed police structural, process, and personnel reforms, we can build on that cautionary message to further educate motorists on how to “walk that talk.”
Proactive compliance is a concept that helps organizations understand their legal and moral obligations in areas such as product and workplace safety, the environment, and human resource standards. By applying Proactive Compliance to a driver’s behavior, we can reduce many of the risks present in a traffic stop situation.
Traffic stop risks are not just to young drivers of color. US Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), the only black Republican in the Senate, described publicly his experience of being stopped multiple times by law enforcement officers, he said: “for what amounted to driving while black.” Unfortunately, due to the highly charged political landscape, Senator Scott has been unable to translate his experience into real systemic change.
Parents know a traffic stop might be their child’s first encounter with law enforcement. “The Talk” is an uncomfortable conversation to have, especially with Black children. If not delivered with the right nuance, it can suggest a predisposition to hopelessness rather than a reinforcement of awareness and preparedness. There are other mixed messages to be avoided. In a 2017 Business Insider interview, basketball superstar LeBron James said he told his children, “When… y’all start driving…be respectful to cops, as much as you can. When you get pulled over, call your mom or dad, put it on speakerphone, and put your phone underneath the seat. But be respectful the whole time.” Sadly, drivers say that respect often is not reciprocated.
While LeBron’s advice was well-intentioned, proactive compliance shows us a better way forward. According to law enforcement professionals, the suggestion to “put your phone underneath the seat” actually could increase risks during a stop. Physical movements by drivers and passengers inside a car, especially “reaching for things,” are too open to misinterpretation.
Instead, law enforcement professionals recommend that a driver’s hands need to stay visible. In my own research and interviews, one officer said this: “Put the phone on the dash…People act differently when they know they are being ‘observed’ so why try to hide the fact you’re recording…if the officer knows he’s being recorded, ideally it would keep him in check.”
This one behavioral change would be immensely useful, but insufficient by itself to eliminate all traffic stop challenges.
Recent traffic stop tragedies make it clear the arc of the moral universe has been slow to bend towards justice. For those who believe in it, bending that arc needs our help. Several individuals and groups across the country are striving to reduce traffic stop fatalities, injuries, and tensions. Eddie Chapman, a senior retired Chicago policeman, partnered with Dr. Neil Shulman of Emory University to create an innovative training and poster book approach to promote traffic safety for younger drivers. NBA superstar Michael Jordan helped Officer Chapman recreate a traffic stop to make their visual points.
Perhaps the most prominent among these activists is Mrs. Jackie Carter, President of the non-partisan, non-profit Alliance for Safe Traffic Stops (ASTS). A Pennsylvania native and former grand jury court reporter, Jackie observed firsthand thousands of traffic stop-related cases, impacting rich and poor alike, as they came through the judicial system. She talked with hundreds of police officers, prosecutors, and attorneys about the dozens of different aspects of a traffic stop and desired behaviors on both sides.
Jackie and her associates synthesized those interview observations into an easy-to-remember acronym SAFE that reflects four proactive best practices for drivers:
Stop as Instructed and Show Your Hands: Many police officers mentioned a driver’s hands that this became the first priority. When it’s dark, turning on the dome light also helps. It enables officers to assess the driver and occupants.
Accept Direction and Ask Permission: Police officers frequently observed that “reaching” by the driver is an “escalating factor” during traffic stops. Officers prefer that the driver/occupants listen first and then ask permission to do so.
Furnish Your Requested Documents: Many officers reported drivers could not readily produce their driver’s license, current vehicle registration, and valid proof of insurance. Having documents accessible became the third priority.[vii]
Engage Courteously and Respectfully: A majority of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, attorneys, and drivers lamented the deterioration of civility so prevalent today, especially in traffic stop situations. Managing ourselves is key.
ASTS and others are working proactively towards a national consensus on making traffic stops safer, more civil, and effective for everyone involved. Modest progress is being made. Several states – including Texas and Virginia – now require motor vehicle operator education include appropriate traffic stop guidance. Other states will follow.
In the search for small but meaningful “wins,” SAFE traffic stop procedures address a workable Proactive Compliance approach. Making SAFE steps a component of every “Talk,” and putting SAFE into practice on the road, can contribute to saving lives, avoiding injuries and expenses, and helping to calm our troubled racial waters.
Implementing this change also raises the question, “What is reasonable for citizens to expect from police officers during a traffic stop?” The answer to that remains pending.
Norman Blake is the pen name of a former professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Johns Hopkins University and former professor of national security studies at the National War College/National Defense University. He has almost fifty years in the intelligence profession, most of that in the operational, counterintelligence, and counterespionage arena. The views expressed herein are his own.