OPINION | NWA EDITORIAL: Failure to yield

Trooper’s aggression too much for situation

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's job is to defend the state from litigation.

Righteous litigation. Wrongful litigation. Litigation in which nobody knows for sure what the correct answer is. But defend it, she shall.

That's really the only explanation for her office's vigorous defense of an Arkansas State Police trooper's premature and ill-advised actions in a central Arkansas traffic stop.

Janice Nicole Harper, 39, was driving along a dark, multi-lane U.S. 67/167 last July. She passed an Arkansas State trooper, who clocked her driving 84 in a 70-mph zone. Of course, that's illegal, but we all know other motorists were likely breaking the law, too, just not quite as much. But the law is the law.

The trooper immediately turned on his blue lights. Harper quickly moved to the right and turned her car's hazard lights on. She slowed down, but didn't stop.

After almost two whole minutes (sarcasm intended), the trooper pulled along side and executed what law enforcement officers call a PIT maneuver -- precision immobilization technique. In it, the officer sort of side taps the rear end of the car ahead, causing it to spin.

Harper's car indeed spun. And flipped over on its roof.

After the trooper approached, Harper immediately asked why the he forced her into a spin out. Trooper Rodney Dunn explained she didn't pull over and stop fast enough. Somewhere in the mix, as she struggled to release herself from the upside-down vehicle, Harper expressed concern her pregnancy.

The facts are fairly clear, especially given the recording of the incident on the trooper's dash cam.

And now, Rutledge's office is defending Dunn and the state police, going so far as to call the trooper's actions as "objectively reasonable."

To whom? Lawyers?

Here's the Arkansas Driver License Study Guide, Volume 1, Edition 8, from January 2018:

  1. Pull over to the right side of the road - activate your turn signal or emergency flashers to indicate to the officer that you are seeking a safe place to stop.
  2. If you are unsure if you are being stopped by an actual police officer, activate your turn signal or emergency flashers and pull to the nearest well-lit location, or dial 9-1-1 and request confirmation that an actual police officer is attempting to stop you.

Don't both of those pieces of advice, from the state of Arkansas, suggest Harper was objectively within reason to do exactly as she did, which was to start looking for place to pull over safer than a interstate-like highway, at night, where the right side of the road was lined with concrete barriers?

Col. Bill Bryant, who oversees the state police, said PIT maneuvers have been shown to be "an effective tool to stop drivers who are placing others in harm's way."

But a lot of drivers have also heard the advice listed in the driver's license study guide.

One can argue all day long whether there was room for Harper and the trooper to stop on the shoulder and safely engage in a traffic stop, but isn't that an eye-of-the-beholder evaluation? A pregnant woman, at night, on a road constrained by a concrete wall? It's reasonable a driver might believe there's a better place. And since when does any of the actions she took qualify as putting others in harm's way?

When the only infraction is traveling 14 miles per hour over the speed limit, doesn't it seem reasonable to suggest Dunn was just a little too eager the treat this driver too aggressively?

There's a difference between saying the trooper followed policies or adhered to state laws and saying he did nothing wrong. The state also argues he's immune from facing Harper's litigation claiming negligence and excessive force.

Those are matters of law. But as a matter of common sense? Nope.

How many Arkansans have heard the advice Harper was following? Even today, you can find it on websites for insurance companies, lawyers, news organizations and others. One lawyers' site advised that turning on one's flashers "send a signal you're concerned about the officer's safety, too." One news organization's advice, collected from law enforcement, suggested hazard lights "will let the officer know you aren't attempting a get-away."

As far as public safety, is that best served by a trooper following a driver who clearly has seen him and slowed down, or by flipping a vehicle across three traffic lanes, creating a wreck oncoming cars have to maneuver around until it's cleaned up?

Are state police really out there engaging in this take-down maneuver for people speeding by a few miles per hour beyond other traffic?

It really seems the only person behaving in the interests of public safety was Harper.

Unlike some critics, we don't go so far as to suggest the PIT maneuver should be banned. Like so many tactics in policing, it's one tool that can be effectively deployed to protect the public when a motorist shows clear signs of resistance or an attempt to escape. But, goodness, it requires some level-headed judgment.

Reactions like Dunn's, however, don't do law enforcement officers any favors, because they reinforce the narrative that officers are too eager to, figuratively and literally, to pull the trigger unnecessarily.

The Arkansas State Police may say its trooper did nothing wrong to help with the legal defense, but it needs to stop its troopers from attacking Arkansans so aggressively over a few miles per hour.

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What’s the point?

Use by state police of an vehicular maneuver to stop a speeding motorist who has slowed down and activated her flashers is unnecessarily aggressive.

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