By Carol Stark
I admit it. I sometimes make snap judgments. Example: When I drive by a scene where police have made a traffic stop and they have the occupants of the car handcuffed, I might make an assumption of guilt. If police have their guns out and drawn, well, I’m calling for a photographer.
But, I’ve learned it can play both ways. A few weeks ago when I found out Alexandra “Lexi” Nicolas, the newsroom’s web producer, and Ryan Richardson, a reporter who had been on the job two days, had stood outside Lexi’s vehicle with guns trained at their backs while police officers handcuffed them, my assumption of guilt was directed this time at the law enforcement officers.
I calmed down. And then we all took the opportunity to learn something. Today, I’d like to pass my new insight your way.
Lexi and Ryan were traveling south on Main Street near the Globe building at almost the same time Joplin police had been called following a strong-arm robbery at a nearby convenience store. Lexi’s vehicle fit the description given to the officers. Also, the suspects were a male and a female. The officer sees Lexi’s vehicle, turns on his lights. She thinks the officer is trying to get around her, and pulls over. But when the stoplight turns green, she continues driving and turns onto Fourth Street. She knows she hasn’t done anything. Suddenly, she realizes it is she he wants to stop.
She knows if she pulls into the library parking lot from Fourth Street, she will be breaking a traffic law. There’s a no entry sign clearly posted. If she pulls off onto Joplin Street, she will be headed down a wrong-way street. So, she pulls into the closest vacant parking lot she can find.
This all sounds very reasonable to me. It’s dark. It’s hard to see. Lexi’s window won’t roll down.
Events then go something like this:
An officer screams at Lexi and Ryan, while they are still in their vehicle. They are told to put their hands over their heads and to step out of the vehicle, walking backward toward what now are several officers. Guns have been drawn and aimed at my reporters until they are handcuffed.
Ryan, who just moved into a new apartment, can’t immediately remember his address. He told me later, he’s sure he’s going to be dismissed from his job. Lexi, meanwhile, is trying to explain her actions to the police officer. That is followed by a 20-minute wait while a witness from the convenience store is brought to the parking lot to see if Lexi and Ryan are the suspects. They aren’t the strong-arm robbers, and they are allowed to leave. They immediately call me at home.
I’m upset, but since my employees have not been jailed, I figure I can address it the next day. Then, I start second-guessing. What if Lexi and Ryan had indeed done something to cause this very serious situation?
In this day and age of technology, there is a great way to quickly get answers. The patrol car had video and audio that went on when the police lights went on. Anyone involved in a traffic stop can make a records request for a copy of a video. Police Chief Lane Roberts agreed to walk Lexi, Ryan and me through the entire stop. I believe he or another officer would do the same for you.
When his officer first attempted to pull Lexi over, it would have been a routine traffic stop. Roberts explained he would have asked them a few questions and then they would have been free to go. However, when Lexi, unknowingly, began driving again, the situation escalated.
“At that point, you have an officer who has every indication that the driver is trying to get away from him. He radioes other officers, the adrenaline starts pumping,” Roberts said.
Because Lexi drove onto a dimly lit lot, Roberts said the officer’s training puts him on high alert. Roberts mentioned an incident where a Eugene, Ore., officer was shot and killed in 2011 when he attempted to stop a woman for running a red light. She fled. He pulled up beside her, indicated she should stop and she shoots him. Traffic stops put officers in dangerous situations. Roberts said the officers’ response was largely textbook, and was aimed at protecting everyone involved.
Perhaps, the perception could have easily changed if at the end of the stop, the officer had told Lexi and Ryan he was sorry the incident had occurred. Not an apology, because clearly the officer was doing his job. In fact, it sounds like he did it quite well.
Still, an acknowledgment to Lexi and Ryan about the brief trauma they had gone through would have gone a long way.
My lesson? Well, I’m glad we pursued our questions. I hope you will do the same. It’s your right.
Carol Stark is editor of The Joplin Globe. Address correspondence to her, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.