Viral Louisville traffic stop: Putting the video into perspective

Video of a traffic stop by a Kentucky crime interdiction team has generated close to a million views, negative headlines and lots of online chatter


We all know the parable of the three blind men describing an elephant. The first feels the side of the elephant and describes the beast as a wall. The second feels the trunk and describes the creature as long and skinny like a fire hose. The third touches the tusk and describes a spiked, barbed creature. The same thing happens when a viral video hits the internet.

Nearing a million views, a video titled “Louisville Metro PD Falsely Alert K-9 To Conduct An Illegally Search” of a traffic stop by a Louisville, Kentucky crime interdiction team, has generated headlines and commentary questioning the officers’ actions. The scene is an unmarked detective unit tasked with reducing violent crime. The officers make a car stop based on an improper turn violation, pull the apparently cooperative driver out of the car, pat him down and handcuff him while a K9 unit searches the car. The driver is an 18-year-old black male with no criminal history. The dog reportedly alerts in a manner imperceptible on the 32-minute video, which is edited from multiple officers’ body worn cameras. The driver’s mother arrives, argues with officers, then the driver is released with a traffic summons.

SCENE 1: THE TRAFFIC STOP

The driver, Tae-Ahn Lea, answers his cell phone, then begins to narrate his experience for the benefit of his mother on the phone. An officer instructs him to get out of the car, then grabs Lea’s wrists and guides him out of the driver’s seat.

Civilian: Detectives stopping a kid for a rinky-dink traffic violation. That doesn’t sound right. Then he gets dragged out of the car for talking on his cell phone. They didn’t need to do that!

Cops: When a subject starts talking on a cell phone he’s not paying attention to me and that’s dangerous. Plus, he could be calling other people to the scene, which can cause conflict, which is exactly what ended up happening. We’re not worried about him telling somebody since it’s all on our body cams anyway. It’s a safety issue.

Policy wonk: There are specific policies and laws that cover when you can require people to get out of their vehicles and how much physical control police can exercise. If the officers can articulate the reasons for their actions their response is lawful. Stopping cars for a traffic violation with an ulterior motive for the contact is legal.

SCENE 2: THE PAT DOWN

Lea is patted down for weapons and repeatedly asked if there are drugs in the car. He is asked for consent to search and refuses. He becomes frustrated and officers ask why he is acting so nervous. A K-9 unit is called.

Civilian: Come on, man. He told you he had no drugs and he was within his rights to refuse consent to search. And you think he’s acting nervous? Of course, he is, there’s a swarm of cops there!

Cops: There are behaviors that are characteristic of persons who are guilty and at immediate risk of getting caught. When he declined consent to search we didn’t search. But a minimal detention for a canine sniff around the car is legal. The pat down was for officer safety.

Policy Wonk: Once consent to search is denied, any further pressure to cause the person to change their mind could be construed as intimidation that could lead to subsequent consent being ruled as coerced. Officers must articulate a reasonable belief that a person is armed and poses a danger before conducting a lawful Terry search. They may have had other facts known to them or not seen on this edited video, but justification for a frisk here is hard to find. Lea’s behavior seems anything but inappropriately nervous given the circumstances.

SCENE 3: THE FAMILY ARRIVES

Officer tells Lea to stop with the attitude. The K9 begins a search, reportedly showing an alert that is narrated by its handler but not visible on the video. Lea is handcuffed. An officer begins a search of the car, removing the bagged food and drinks, placing them on the roof of the car. An officer calls for an additional unit due to family showing up to “cause a ruckus.” The detective making the stop talks to the mother who arrived and engages in a relatively calm argument over the stop, including a threat to arrest the mother. Lea is questioned and searched for drugs based on the K9 alert. Officers end the encounter with a traffic summons and the question to Lea, “Why do you have this negative view of the police?”

Civilian: If my son was pulled over I’d want to see what’s going on and talk to the officer, too. There was no reason to threaten to arrest the mom!

Cops: There are few things more volatile than an audience. It distracts the officers and they are invariably emotional and defensive. Once the dog alerted, we have grounds to do a more extensive search. Every officer exercised restraint and calm professionalism. We try to explain our strategy to deal with violent crime. We know it’s an inconvenience to be stopped by the police, but that’s how we are trying to find criminals before they hurt someone.

Policy Wonk: This kind of interdiction effort has little support based on research, and clearly has trust and public relations costs. The officer’s question of why this young, black driver has a negative view of the police can be answered by the man’s present experience. It is hard to appreciate the efforts of police when you are standing in the roadway handcuffed while a police dog is walking around in your car when all you were trying to do was make a run to the convenience store. While the interaction with the mother was reasonably calm, talking to someone who desperately needs to be heard means that neither person is heard.

And so, the elephant remains.

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