Traffic stops gone wrong: Local Black attorneys share what to do when stopped by police

PITTSBURGH — This is a two-part series on the dangers of encounters between minorities and police.

Channel 11′s Michele Newell spoke with three Black criminal defense attorneys about traffic stops and how men of color can survive being pulled over. She also talked to police about the training they receive and the programs in place to bridge the gap between officers and the community.

We are getting real about the important issues in our communities – from racism to housing and healthcare inequities to policing reforms. We bring you stories that tackle the tough issues and give a voice to the often marginalized voices in our city.

How to Survive a Traffic Stop

No one should expect things to turn violent when they’re stopped by police, but it’s happened time after time to Black and brown people in America.

“I’m tired of seeing young Black lives being lost at the hands of law enforcement,” said Turahn Jenkins, a criminal defense attorney.

Jenkins said he still gets nervous and tenses up when he sees a police car behind him.

Channel 11′s Michele Newell talked to three Black criminal defense attorneys in Pittsburgh. They want to help young Black men survive traffic stops by sharing what they do when they’re stopped by police.

“I think by us coming together and doing some discussions about it, it will increase awareness,” Morris said.

The men said all traffic stops are different but agreed the best way to survive one is to prepare for it ahead of time. Walker said before police even pull him over, he has a checklist in his mind.

“Where am I? What time of day is it? Where can I pull over that’s well lit? Where’s my license and registration? Is everything legitimate? How can I get it in my hand before the cop gets here? Is this a well-lit area? If I have to get out the car, can I do it safely?” Walker said.

Each attorney said their vehicle is always prepared for a traffic stop.

“I keep my wallet close so I can grab my license if I am pulled over. I also like to keep my license and my registration together,” Jenkins said. “When the officer approaches, I would ask for permission before I make any reaches because it can be construed as furtive movements and also a threat.”

It’s advice that could help reduce the number of violent interactions with rogue police, but of course, not all officers are bad.

“Well, if I can add, neither are we. Neither are we. I think that’s part of the frustration with the community, that there are a lot of good officers, they don’t speak up,” said Jenkins.

Police Working to Bridge Divides

Police protect and serve, but recent police shootings of unarmed Black people have placed officers under a lot of scrutiny.

Channel 11 talked to the Pittsburgh Police Bureau about efforts to provide proper training for officers and bridge the divide in the community.

“The work of community engagement is so important because we are building relationships with people and within communities. Those relationships lead to trust,” said Sgt. Tiffany Costa.

Costa heads up community engagement and loves the works that she does.

“It’s my life’s work honestly. I would do it for free, but some days it’s very hard to put on this uniform and badge and know that I’m part of something that has a history of hurting people,” Costa said.

Youth Connections is one of the community programs within the Pittsburgh Police Bureau. Costa said she answers all the questions, even tough ones.

“We go into ninth grade classrooms around the city and teach the students about rights and responsibilities with the police. How to interact safely with the police. Sometimes the kids will ask, ‘Why did you become a police officer?’ Sometimes it’s really hard questions like, ‘What’s your opinion on Antwon Rose?’ or, ‘Why do police officers shoot Black kids?’” Costa said.

Costa said she believes some of the problems with policing in America involve a lack of trust and community.

“As a police officer and as a human being and as a mom it’s hard for me to watch incidents where people are hurt and I’m not going to pretend that is not true,” Costa said.

Steven Hoffman has been with the Pittsburgh Police Bureau for nearly 30 years. He is an instructor with the police academy and focuses primarily on traffic stops.

“It does not matter race or gender of the driver. You are going to approach that as professional as possible with the training you received,” Hoffman said. “The officer should always practice officer safety regardless of the circumstance, particularly in traffic stops. We prefer and strongly enforce in training, that the officer tell the individual upfront why they are being stopped. So that way that person knows why police are there and why they’re being stopped.”

Hoffman says de-escalating tense situations is critical.

“On traffic stops, some people get upset. Your job as a police officer is to be professional and not get upset as well and escalate the situation by your words or your actions,” Hoffman said.

Patrol officers in the city of Pittsburgh are required to wear body cameras to hold them accountable to their training and for their own protection.

“In 2020, every frontline officer does have a body worn camera tamper proof. They cannot change anything alter or delete anything,” Hoffman said.

With all the nationwide protests and scrutiny of police, it’s important to know what mental health resources are available to officers. Channel 11 asked the department what mental resources they offer.

“There’s always room for improvement regardless but the mental aspect of it, we have a peer assistance member program,” Hoffman said.

“I would like to see all officers have more frequent mental health checks so that it’s not just voluntary but that it becomes a part of our policy,” Costa said.

Despite the challenges, the work Costa does in the community keeps her motivated.