By Jean Reynolds

The topic of bias is important to police officer training programs. Citizen who are unhappy about a traffic citation will sometimes claim that they were unfairly targeted because of race, attitude, appearance, gender, or some other form of bias. Officers can minimize the risk that they will be accused of retaliation by following some practical guidelines about maintaining objectivity, avoiding power contests, and understanding the implications of the Constitutional right to free speech.

Police officer training programs often include valuable advice about avoiding charges of bias. When citizens are cited for traffic violations, they sometimes claim that they were targeted because of their race, attitude, appearance, or gender. In other cases citizens claim that they were deprived of their First Amendment right to free speech: The citation was a form of punishment for arguing about the violation. Sometimes these situations end up in court—an outcome that’s extremely unpleasant for the officer, especially if the court sides with the citizen.

Here is some information that can help you avoid bias complaints in your dealings with citizens:

  1. Avoid power contests.

Contests always have a winner and a loser. In a dispute with a citizen, there is no guarantee that the officer will win. Never argue with a citizen, and don’t take the bait if a citizen tries to argue with you.

  1. Focus your attention on following the procedures you’ve been taught. You can write a citation or make an arrest even if the citizen denies wrongdoing. Do not prolong the traffic stop to try to convince the motorist that you were in the right.
  2. Do not use threats to force a citizen to comply. Here are some statements that can cause problems for officers in a court hearing:

“That attitude could land you in jail.”

“You just talked yourself into a ticket.”

“If you keep that up, I’ll book you.”

If those statements are caught on a camera—or a witness testifies to them—you could be charged with a violation of the citizen’s right to free speech.

  1. Do not comment about a citizen’s race, age, gender, style of dress, etc. Stick to the topic at hand: The violation.
  2. Limit yourself to objective, factual statements. Experienced officers say that it’s helpful to describe what the car was doing rather than focusing on the driver:

Not “You were speeding,” but “I clocked your car at 67 mph.”

Not “You’re reckless,” but “Your car didn’t stop at the red light on Main Street and Buttonwood Road.”

  1. Decide on your course of action—writing a citation or giving a warning—before you start talking to the motorist. That way you can avoid being influenced by what happens during the encounter, and you’re less likely to be accused of bias.

These common-sense guidelines will help you handle traffic stops efficiently and objectively. More important, they will help ensure that your encounters with motorists will be unbiased and professional.