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When to Ask the Extra Question: Discretion and Traffic Enforcement

  • Friday, October 18, 2019
  • 11:30 AM - 1:00 PM (CST)
  • Austin Dispute Resolution Center

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When to Ask the Extra Question: Discretion and Traffic Enforcement

Presentation by Dr. Warren Andresen

When to Ask the Extra Question: Discretion and Traffic Enforcement

During a traffic stop, a police officer often finds herself playing a role with the citizen that is not dissimilar from that of a mediator.  When an officer observes a moving violation, she is tasked with resolving a conflict between a motorist and the traffic law in a timely and effective manner.  In this role, the officer begins by being attuned to whether or not there is an appropriate environment to hold a mediation. To make this determination, the officer scans the landscape to determine whether it is safe to initiate a stop and then strategies about how best to signal the motorist to pull over onto the side of the road.  This opening communication with the motorist is vital, as the motorist must see the officer and recognize her communication to pull to the side of the road, and sets the tone for everything that comes next during the traffic stop.

Once the officer turns on her siren to signal a motorist, she begins a complex interaction, which may be fraught with conflict.  The officer becomes hyper-focused on the motorist and the surrounding environment, attentive to any developments that could imperil the safety of the traffic stop.  Similar to a mediation, the officer conducts an intake process of the motorist that draws on at least two information sources. The officer often begins by observing the behavior of the motorist to anticipate what will happen next.  Does the motorist pull over quickly and safely to the side of the road? Does the motorist appear angry about the traffic stop, as evidenced by behavioral cues such as hitting the steering wheel? The officer also relies on the police dispatcher to relay important information about the motorist to her (i.e. Does the motorist having open arrest warrants?  What kind of traffic record does the motorist have?). Based on this information, the officer has often begun to anticipate how best she can attend to the personal needs of the motorist even before she exits from her patrol vehicle.

As the officer walks up to the motorist, she continues to scan for any signs that could suggest potential danger, and at the same time, she also considers options about how best to engage the motorist.  The challenge that ultimately faces the officer is the need to get the motorist to accept the legitimacy of the traffic stop, including the disposition, whether it is a warning or citation, with a minimum of conflict.  Yet, a unique challenge of this communication is that the officer has only a limited time period to engage in this mediation. Because the location of the mediation is often on the side of the road, which is dangerous due to motor traffic speeding past, the officer has to communicate as quickly as possible with the motorist in a manner that will effectively bring the traffic stop to a close.  To achieve this, the officer often tries to tailor her communication directly to the preferences of the motorist to expedite the traffic stop. Often, the officer may negotiate with the motorist around the severity of the disposition or describe the options that are available to the motorist should she wish to challenge her disposition in court. For the officer, a failure to bring about a calm resolution that is perceived as fair could result in the motorist taking actions that could imperil both parties.  Thus, in traffic enforcement, it is dependent on the officer to take on the role of a mediator, and to communicate with the motorist in a productive manner to safely resolve the many dangers that could potentially arise in a conflict between the citizen and the law.       

About Dr. Warren Andresen

During the past ten years, Dr. W Carsten Andresen has worked as a researcher at Travis County Justice Planning and Travis County Adult Probation.  Additionally, he has taught American Law Enforcement at St. Edwards as an adjunct professor for the past three years.  He received his PhD from Rutgers University in Criminal Justice.  His research interests include policing, the county jail/criminal justice system, recidivism, community corrections, program evaluation, and film noir.

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