Thursday, December 8, 2011

"South Forty, Traffic" UPDATED

"I guess the officer didn't make it because they covered him with sheets."

Traffic stops. They're like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get. Most of the time the violator pulls over, sits in their car and suffers through the contact. Occasionally, the driver or another occupant argue about something - the officer's eyesight, perception, parentage.... Sometimes, someone in the car has a gun.

So early in the situation at Virginia Tech (yet again) only two things are clear. A police officer and another person are dead. The person or persons who did it are at large.

The officer is always at a disadvantage in the early part of the contact. Everyone knows what happens. The cop stops, gets out, approaches the driver's window. We are trained to minimize risks, observe obviously suspicious behavior, be patient, change up where we stand, how we approach. Little tricks of the trade we try to mostly keep secret. People know where we are at the start, though - getting out from behind the wheel.

The advent of dashcams has made it possible to observe and dissect the final moments of many officers caught in the early, vulnerable stage of a contact. Always the same, the police car hardly stopped when someone gets out of the other car, points a weapon and the little telltale holes appear in the windshield. Often, they are deadbang center of the driver's side. One right after the other. With all of the crap in the front seat area it's hard to be tiny enough to take cover.

There is a certain unfairness about today's murders, understood by other families who lose loved ones so close to Christmas. A time of family, generosity and hope becomes yet another painful anniversary. Time doesn't heal wounds, it just makes them endurable.

We bury another brother or sister, another hero. The Virginia Tech community mourns the loss of two more lives. And the next time I pick up the mike and announce "South Forty, traffic"? I'm rolling the dice, just like every other uniform in the country. If it's you in the car ahead of me, be nice. Try to understand why we're sometimes so curt. You see, it's been a bad year for all of us.

UPDATE: Officials at the recently-concluded press conference announced that the second "victim" appears to the the suspect in the police officer's murder. Thank God, there will be no more gunshot victims. But before anyone dances on a grave not yet dug, the suspect no doubt has family who are now learning of his fate. In their hours of grief they will know only pain. No one, not even understandably angry cops, should rejoice at that.

UPDATE: Information coming from authorities in Virginia suggests that the traffic stop - and the gunman who killed the officer - may have been unrelated. If true, that's an unusual (not unheard of) scenario. Akin to an ambush. Coward.


  1. In Oakland, I've been pulled over near my shop a number of times because I drove a 1964 Buick Special. It was a hunk of junk but it must have resembled more than a few witness descriptions over the thirteen years I drove it. The police officers always approached with one on the passenger side, hand on gun at side using the solid metal framing as cover, with partner at rear with clear view of my head and hands. I always kept my hands locked at 10 and 2 until told to move, and would pop the glove compartment open with one finger, allowing the officer on the passenger side to see the contents before taking out the registration. Although they were decades younger than me, it was always 'Yes Sir' and 'No Sir' answers. Once they confirmed my identity, they were as nice as could be and visibly relieved. I do not and did not envy their job, because I could imagine all the variables in every interaction they have to make. I see Oakland squad cars with only one officer now because of this city's financial mess and I wonder how many Virginia type tragedies are ahead for our police department.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Bernard. Yeah, most of us use some form of the contact/cover, with the cover officer hopefully far enough removed that they can call for help before engaging a threat. Working one-person cars, which I assume is the case at Virginia Tech, doesn't afford much margin for error, or for something as unexpected as some asshole strolling up with a gun. We train for all of these eventualities, but're just sort of screwed.