Inside the Academy: Traffic Stops and DWI

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. - In 2016, the St. Louis County Police Department conducted 59,616 traffic stops - an average of 163 each day.

We hear the phrase often, but recruits at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy are learning there is no such thing as a "routine traffic stop." Academy instructor Paul Powers is teaching them how to physically and mentally approach a vehicle.

"You hear a lot of officers that are traffic officers talk about 'Well, I would write my own mother a ticket.' We don't want that," Powers said.

Instead, according to Powers, the goal of any traffic stop is voluntary compliance.

"If you can stop somebody, talk to that person and think that that person is never going to commit this violation ever again, we've gotten what we need. We don't need to write a summons for that."

Once again, recruits are learning that being transparent with the public will help ease tensions and relieve some anxiety. (This has been a common theme in the training at the academy.) Powers tells the recruits they must explain to people why they're being stopped.

While getting pulled over can be nerve-racking experience for a driver, there are also countless 'unknowns' for an officer every time they approach a vehicle.

"We have to be cautious, we have to be vigilant," said Recruit Trevor Green. We have to constantly be looking at the car. How many passengers are in the vehicle? Any movement in the vehicle. If they're reaching below their seat."

If an individual is ever pulled over, Powers said they can help the situation by keeping their hands on the steering wheel and avoiding any sudden or unnecessary movements.

"You want to give somebody the benefit of the doubt, or you want to be trusting and build that rapport," said Recruit Mary Mills. "At the same time, have it in the back of your head that I want to make sure I'm not standing in a bad position or getting too close to them."

Powers takes particular issue with drivers who get behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol or drugs. During his 30 years as an officer, Powers has made more than 1,500 arrests for driving while intoxicated. It became a personal mission after his father was hit by a drunk driver.

In Missouri and Illinois a person can be arrested for driving with a blood alcohol content over .08 percent or if the driver's behavior suggests they are impaired. Recruits are learning a series of tests they can give drivers to help determine impairment.

During the academy training, volunteers were brought in to help the recruits put their lessons into practice. The volunteers drank alcohol and took a breath test. Then the recruits had a chance to practice the tests on the volunteers.

Mills said Class 193 has watched several videos of the tests being performed, but said this was a "great training opportunity" to test it for themselves on real subjects.

Powers said the first thing alcohol impacts is a person's judgment. Someone might not be legally drunk, but they may also not be fit to drive.

"Just because they're not over that legal limit does not mean they're not dangerous," he said. "So maybe we don't make the decision to arrest them, but we definitely don't let them drive."

To see more of Fox 2's exclusive look inside the academy, visit www.fox2now.com/academy.