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For officers, traffic stops are anything but routine

Hillsborough County sheriff’s Cpl. Ed Raburn gives a ticket to Sean Watson of Lithia for speeding. Raburn is a traffic officer supervisor and is very cautious with every traffic stop.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Hillsborough County sheriff’s Cpl. Ed Raburn gives a ticket to Sean Watson of Lithia for speeding. Raburn is a traffic officer supervisor and is very cautious with every traffic stop.

TAMPA — Cpl. Ed Raburn turns on the flashers of his unmarked Hillsborough County sheriff's truck and zooms to the car ahead.

His face tightens.

"Wait in the car in case he shoots me," Raburn tells a passenger.

As he approaches the car, Raburn taps the trunk with two fingers, leaving his prints behind to identify the vehicle in case he's killed.

"That's the routine part of it," Raburn said. "In many cases, it's just as scary for us as it is for them."

Any cop will tell you that so-called routine traffic stops are anything but routine.

The FBI has the numbers to prove it: Of the 41 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty last year, 10 died during traffic stops or pursuits.

When police respond to a bar fight or a domestic dispute, they have a sense of what they're walking into. But anything can happen during a traffic stop.

About six months ago, Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Craig Lariz stopped a motorcycle going 70 mph in a 45 mph zone.

The driver pulled two hunting knives on him.

"I drew my gun on him, and we had a standoff for a good five minutes before backup deputies arrived," Lariz said. He was able to talk the man into throwing his knives down before anyone was hurt.

Lariz estimates he's run into at least two dozen potentially dangerous situations during traffic stops.

Just last week, Tampa police Officer James Wilkinson stopped a Dodge Dakota for careless driving and discovered a loaded .22-caliber revolver hidden in a purple Crown Royal bag between the driver's seat and door, according to an arrest report. The driver turned out to be a felon, and he was taken to jail.

In 2006, Wilkinson was shot in the chest by someone he pulled over. He was saved by his bulletproof vest and a pocket note pad.

Pinellas County sheriff's Sgt. Ken Page said someone once tried to stab him with a 3-inch pocketknife when he pulled the man over for driving erratically near Ulmerton Road. When Page stepped away, the man put the knife to his own throat and threatened to kill himself, Page said. The two had a nearly 20-minute standoff before Page and backup officers shot the man with nonlethal beanbag rounds and took him to jail.

Tampa police Officer Jay Reese said he has turned his bad experiences into teaching tools as a law enforcement trainer, recalling a time on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway when a driver pulled a gun on him.

When he stopped the man for speeding, he noticed how nervous the man was. "The guy was shaking like a leaf," Reese said. When Reese asked for registration, the man grabbed a gun instead. Reese grabbed his own and pointed it first. He took the driver to jail.

"Bad stuff can happen," Reese said. "You've got to be on your toes."

Reese said the most important thing he tells officers is to be hyper-aware of their surroundings. Take note of anything unusual and call in as many details as possible, Reese tells them.

Pasco County sheriff's Sgt. David Buhs, who also trains officers, said the same thing. "More or less, our biggest concern is that they never be complacent under any circumstances," Buhs said. "Not that everybody out there is a threat, but complacency is what kills officers."

Police are trained to do many things during a traffic stop besides writing a ticket. Touch the back of the car to leave fingerprints. Stay focused on the driver and passengers' hands. Use a spotlight at night to blind the driver from reaching for anything and stay close to the car to avoid getting hit by a passing vehicle. Call for backup if anything seems weird.

But it's not always that simple.

Sgt. Larry Kraus, A spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, said troopers in desolate areas or in the middle of a highway often find themselves miles away from other officers and have to be even more cautious.

Kraus said it doesn't matter if the driver is a mom in a minivan or a teenager toting his friends around. Anyone could pose a threat.

"There's a reason why we approach everybody as if they're a suspect," Kraus said. "People think we get all jumpy, but pretty much in this day in age everyone you stop can have a weapon."

During traffic stops, Kraus said, he often thinks of his wife and 9-year-old daughter. He wants to keep going home to them safe.

"Every time I approach a car, and I work a lot of midnights, I think, this could possibly be the last car I approach in my career," Kraus said.

Raburn said the same thing, talking about how he first met his wife and how his two kids "crack him up." Then he stops talking.

Another speeder. His face tightens.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

. FAST FACTS

If you're stopped

Here are some tips from law enforcement for motorists who get stopped:

• Stay in the car unless you are told otherwise.

• Don't reach for anything — not even your license or registration — until the officer asks for it.

• Keep your hands in sight.

• Pull over with enough room for the officer to walk around your car.

• Let the officer know if you have a concealed weapons permit and a weapon in the car.

• Be nice. Cursing and crying will only create more tension, and probably won't make anybody want to give you a break.

For officers, traffic stops are anything but routine 08/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 8:53pm]
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