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What the LAPD is doing to make traffic stops safer

What the LAPD is doing to make traffic stops safer
William Murphy, Chief of Training for LAPD, photographed in the Los Angeles Times studio on August 12. (Los Angeles Times)

We've seen the videos: A cop stops someone on a minor beef and the stop escalates. The only answer is training, training and more training, says William A. Murphy, LAPD deputy chief of the Police Sciences and Training Bureau. The Los Angeles Police Academy requires hundreds more hours than the California minimum, and, Murphy says, the department spends millions on tech and on the time to educate and sometimes reeducate its cops — so much money the department has made some officers pay the city back if they don't fulfill a five-year contract. (Last week, a state court ruled against that practice.) The investment in specific training is more than worthwhile, according to Murphy. What happened in the Rodney King video, precursor of today's video horrors, is something no one in LAPD blue wants to see again.

What is the LAPD training for a traffic stop?

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In the academy, before we teach anything, we ask, "Have you ever been stopped by the police?" Everybody's hands go up. [They say] the officer was kind of rude. We say: "Remember that before we teach you how to do a traffic stop. What if it was your mother? Your sister? Is that how you'd want someone to treat them?"

In California, we teach an eight-step traffic stop. The first four are critical: The initial thing is the greeting — a smile, say, "Good morning, I'm Officer Bill Murphy of the LAPD." When people ask for business cards, you give it to them — that's our policy. When you do this [he points to his nameplate] and say, "This is me," you're just getting them mad.

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Then you explain the reason for the stop. In some of these traffic stops that go south, they've left out some of these components. The goal of a traffic stop is to educate, not irritate. You pull somebody over for running a stop sign to have a conversation to change their behavior.

Watch the tapes and you notice officers — not from California — don't ask [the driver], "Why would you do that?" I've had people tell me, "My wife's at the hospital delivering my first baby" or "I just got fired today and my head's not in the game." You give them an opportunity to explain before you make a decision whether or not to write a ticket.

Then [as the last step], you say have a good day; you always end on a positive note.

The Sandra Bland traffic arrest apparently escalated when an officer got testy because she wouldn't put out her cigarette; it ended with Bland allegedly hanging herself in a jail cell.

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You have to think, is [the driver] a threat to you, or are you just irritated because they happen to be having a cigarette? If you think they're really a threat, that's a different situation. I've gotten pulled over, and as a police officer, my heart still races. [Bland was] probably just nervous, smoking her cigarette.

We teach don't be the "contempt of cop" cop. Usually, you get contempt of cop when your emotions take over, when the goal becomes something other than educating, like, "You're not respecting my authority."

We're lucky: About 98% of our police vehicles are two-person. If the [first officer] for whatever reason isn't making that connection and it's getting heated, we tell them to switch roles right away. Say, "Hey, partner, let me take this over," as opposed to getting into a confrontation.

I was asked about the video of the Cincinnati incident [a campus police officer shot an unarmed man during a traffic stop; the officer has been indicted for murder]. You need to control your emotions and stress level so you don't overreact. When you overreact, you can see a threat that's really not there.

Sounds like cop yoga.

I wouldn't call it yoga, but we talk about breathing, getting control, a whole course on physiology.

What else do you see in these videos?

It's the same thing: training. California law is above the rest of the nation in the embrace of training. Some states don't have the money to do it. Training is costly. It pulls your officers out of the field. But if you're not training people properly, you're going to mishandle situations, someone is going to sue you, and when we lose, those figures can be up to $40 million. Doing it right upfront is the best way.

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We teach that every single encounter, you have to do it right, because if you don't, it could be on the front page of the newspaper or in a video. And not only is your job on the line but the reputation of the Police Department. We got things wrong too. Rodney King was probably the biggest wrong thing in the history of law enforcement. We don't like to critique other agencies, but we would talk about how we would do it differently.

How has LAPD training changed?

About eight years ago, we redid the entire 920 hours of the police academy [training] with Luann Pannell [director of police training and education], a psychologist, an expert in research and training. She's my right-hand person. Prior to that, it was a lot of lecture-based training. That's not the way it works in the street. The academy today is an academy of scenarios. You teach technical skills, but you also have to teach problem-solving and critical thinking. Officers have a split second to put together the law, the tactics, the community relations — you don't get to go to the department manual.

Chief Charlie Beck has ordered retraining since the shootings of Ezell Ford and of Charly Keunang on skid row.

We're doing five or six hours across the entire LAPD, 10,000 officers. It started with the Christopher Dorner shooting [eight LAPD officers violated deadly force policy by mistakenly opening fire on two women during the search for Dorner]. And then Ferguson happened, and Eric Garner [in New York City] and Ezell Ford here, and we were on the way to do a lot of training.

Part of it is how to build public trust. Obviously when you get incidents perceived to be unjust by the public, if the perception is you're not transparent with the information, if you don't embrace community relations-building, those things lose public trust.

[At the academy] we go into the history of incidents that lost public trust: Rampart, Rodney King. Rodney King changed law enforcement worldwide. The London Metropolitan Police told me they had purchased 25,000 Monadnock [batons, the kind used in the King beating] — they mothballed them all. This is another agency in another country. A bad incident impacts us all.

What about mental illness calls? You may not know beforehand that someone is mentally ill.

We have a mental evaluation unit, experts on call 365 days a year. We send out smart teams to diagnose people, and our detectives look for repeat offenders; they create a plan for those. We've launched state-of-the-art mental health intervention training [for patrol officers], to make sure they understand that the situation may take more time, or what to say or not to say to persons [they] suspect may be mentally ill.

We're going to do [another] 10 hours of practical applications, pulling people out of the field, running real-life scenarios to see whether they can handle it right.

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How do dashboard and body cameras change officers' training?

It puts additional pressure on them. We tell them to embrace that; it can be a huge positive. We'll still have a bad apple once in a while, but I think [videos] keep us in check. Our challenge is to make officers believe it will help them on personal complaints but not do their job differently because they may be filmed.

This interview has been edited and condensed. patt.morrison@latimes.com

Twitter: @pattmlatimes

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