One Simple Way to Reduce Deadly Traffic Stops
The following is an interview with Law Enforcement Action Partnership representative Det. Vince Felber (Ret.) of the Akron Police Department in Ohio. He left policing after 20 years of service and now works with LEAP to educate people about the effects of the justice system on communities living in poverty and how they impact police officers' ability to do their jobs.
Mikayla Hellwich & Monica Westfall: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you did in law enforcement?
Det. Vince Felber (Ret.): I started in 1992 doing patrol, working one of the poorer sections of Akron, Ohio, a city of 200,000. After four years on the street, I spent two years working in the forensic science crime scene unit. I moved on to the detective bureau -- investigating property crimes, burglaries. While there, I spent some time working in the pawn unit and also got involved in a couple of homicide cases. One of those cases gained national interest. I did a number of TV programs -- me and my partner. I wrote a book about the case with a producer from one of the TV shows.
Thanks for joining our team. Can you give us a brief synopsis of the paper you wrote: “The Poor and the Police Versus the System”?
Though retired, I still felt connected to the police department and the officers. There's been a lot of negative press involving officers. Police officers get negative press because of what happens, which has to do more with the court system than it does police officers. There's a lot of hostility between police officers and the poor, and this leads to confrontations. Why do police officers and the poor have so many confrontations, as opposed to the middle-class or the wealthy? I think it's pretty simple. The poor are treated more harshly by our criminal justice system.
The simplest, most common example is a traffic ticket. The average person who gets a ticket, when the police officer approaches the car -- they’re embarrassed, a little defensive -- but they accept the fact they're going to have to pay a fine, and they'll talk to their friends about how they got a ticket, then it’s over. But, for a poor person, getting a traffic ticket is a major life-altering event. When they get a ticket, they now have to find $150 to $200 to pay the ticket, with generally only two weeks to do it. Poor people don't always have bank accounts, and for the most part, they don't have savings. Because of that, they are going to be more aggressive, less cooperative towards police officers. It gets worse if they can't pay the first traffic ticket -- so with the next one -- now they're looking at going to jail, getting their car towed, maybe losing their job. They’re looking at even more fines: $400 to $500. The level of hostility they exhibit when the police officer approaches comes from fear and turns the police into the enemy. It's the root of many of the problems between the police and impoverished communities.
What inspired you to write this paper?
It was basically the result of seeing the same things happen over and over again. I know from working a cruiser that if I pulled somebody over in a certain part of town, I was going to get a lot of attitude. It's so prevalent that when I was working in the poor district, my supervisors told me not to make traffic stops. Arrests took a lot of time and we couldn't take calls. It's common, but no one addresses it. It's an issue of fairness. If somebody doesn't make a complete stop at a stop sign in a poor part of town, they're probably going to be arrested. If they're in a good part of town, they're going to get a traffic ticket. That's not the reason I was out there. We're supposed to be the police department -- the criminal justice system should be fair; it shouldn't punish one segment of society far more harshly than the other.
What would be the most effective way to train officers to de-escalate the tension with people who live in struggling communities?
I've been through a number of training programs. They're all good and help to a certain extent. In the classroom you're told you need to approach people in a calm and friendly manner to de-escalate the situation. But, it doesn't work out on the streets like that. Traffic stops are an example of one of the most common ways we come in contact with the public. You're trained to approach the person, introduce yourself, and ask if they know why you stopped them; to explain what you saw happen, and to ask for their driver's license. This person says okay in training. But on the streets, when they turn around and start cussing at you, calling you names, it changes the dynamic.
But the part that most people don't understand, that makes it so difficult for police officers -- when you go up to that car, it may be just words, but at the same time if they're reaching into their pockets, moving around, going for the glove compartment, all of that training takes a backseat. Now you're worried about someone taking your life. You're worried because that happens when you work the streets. It's not as simple as it's made out to be -- you approach, you act nice to show respect, remain calm and relaxed, and then they pull out a gun -- you now have an experience that overshadows that classroom training. So, while the training will work to a certain extent, your experience is what’s driving you. The more these negative life endangering events happen, the less you're going to listen to someone in a classroom.
It seems like trauma would imprint officers in such a way that makes it especially hard to rewire the brain to always call upon your training in intense situations.
Exactly. When someone tries to take your life, that is traumatic -- life-changing. When you get in situations -- a car chase, a foot chase... people watch movies with crashes, but nobody ever gets hurt. That's not real life. Foot chases? I've been hurt countless times. Officers have been seriously hurt just chasing someone, running into a fence, running into a ditch, running out into the middle of traffic... all those things. Most people just don't think of those as serious and traumatic, but they are, and officers experience these events all the time, continuously. Officers want to be nice, respectful, considerate, and empathetic, like people think we should be. When you go through these traumatic events over and over again, it's a lot more difficult than people realize.
Other officers have recommended departments pull officers aside every 18 months and have them sit down with a department psychologist for an evaluation like they do when they're first hired. Is that something you too would like to see being done?
That's a tough issue. Yes, in a perfect world, I would be all for that. But unfortunately, police officers learn to hold things inside. You run into traumatic events that affect you. You go from call to call -- to the worst events that happen in people's lives. You're involved. You just learn to internalize it. It's hard to even retain friends outside the police department, because at first they want to hear about your job, but after a while, it's depressing. You just hold it inside; you do the same thing with your family -- don't talk about the horrible things. You don't want to worry your wife and be such a negative person. To sit down with a psychiatrist once every 18 months, you're not going to get an officer to just talk, and sit there and express everything in one short meeting. It's a serious problem for police officers. I'm convinced that most of us are suffering from some form of PTSD. So it would be nice if police officers would have that outlet where they could talk and express their opinions, but we're so far from it.
Another problem is, and I know because they tried something like this in Akron, they had a staff psychiatrist to talk to, but they worked for the city. Nobody trusted that if you went and told him about some horrible event or some horrible thoughts, that he wouldn't go and talk to the city and get you fired. It's just a difficult situation. It would be nice if that worked, but I just don't see it.
Officers have also said that nobody's going to self-report because the first thing they do is take your gun away...
Exactly, if he's a psychiatrist that's what he should do. But then no police officer’s going to tell them the truth or tell them anything about what's going on.
I think the misunderstanding is coming from both sides where people fundamentally don't understand the difficulty that goes into being a police officer and the trauma that you experience, while at the same time police have a hard time seeing incidences from the other side too.
Sure, there is a flaw with police officers not empathizing as much as they should towards poor people, but again that's all caused by the laws and the criminal justice system. It's a double-sided coin: there’s police officers that are wrong, but then so are the citizens, they're wrong in the way they act towards each other. The people that you're pulling over and talking to, if they don't think of the police as the enemy, then they're less likely to behave in a hostile manner. They’re less likely to be aggressive, to be non-compliant. Police are too hostile and too negative toward the poor; and the poor are too hostile and negative toward the police. The solution to that problem is not punishing the poor more harshly than the middle class and the wealthy. Until we can stop this hostility towards police we're not going to be able to stop the hostility towards certain segments of the population and none of that is going to change until we change the criminal justice system so that it's fair.
So what alternatives would you recommend for creating a more equitable way to administer consequences to people who are living in different socio-economic circumstances?
I can find no justifiable reason to have fines, period. No matter what the fine is, if it's bail or any sort of court fees, they affect poor people far more harshly than wealthy people, but unfortunately our court system is all funded by fines. I see a couple different ways we could do it. When someone gets a traffic ticket the officer gets the address of the person, so the fine could be based on the value of their home, or where they rent, because that's all public record, and easily obtained. Another solution is to base the fine on the value of the car -- from sites like Kelly Blue Book. There are states that use that same kind of idea for car registration fees.
Simply put, poor people don't like dealing with the police because they're afraid they're going to get arrested -- police don't like dealing with the poor because they're afraid they're going to have to arrest them. So if you get rid of the need to arrest these people, then you've alleviated a big part of the problem. The reason for arresting people is generally economic. Take money out of the picture. Police and society can get along better.
There was a big study that came out saying that 40% of the people in the U.S. don't have $400 for an emergency -- like a traffic ticket. So, if they don't have $400, they can't pay it -- they are now wanted criminals. A middle-class person is not going to become a wanted criminal because of a traffic ticket.
Det. Vince Felber (Ret.) is a 20-year law enforcement veteran from Ohio and a speaker for LEAP. He uses his expertise in police community relations, procedural justice training, debtors' prisons, indigent defense, and the cash bail system to educate the public about criminal justice and police reform.
Mikayla Hellwich is the media relations director for LEAP.
Monica Westfall is a program associate for LEAP.