A 'teachable moment' in a Baltimore traffic stop, but what's the lesson?

The Community Oversight Task Force says the marathon traffic stop of its now former chairman Marvin McKenstry, in which he refused at least 60 orders to hand over his license and registration, is a “teachable moment.” Mr. McKenstry has been replaced as chairman but remains on the panel, and in a Facebook post, the task force says all parties have “resolved the issue internally,” whatever that means. But what lessons do we draw here?

The Fraternal Order of Police and others are lauding Sgt. Terrence McGowan for professionalism in what became an unnecessarily tense encounter. Mr. McGowan was clearly irritated and raised his voice from time to time — which is understandable — but he also wouldn’t let Mr. McKenstry bait him into an arrest. That said, he wound up bringing multiple additional officers onto the scene, blocking off traffic with their cruisers and thus negating the ostensible reason for the encounter in the first place, which was that Mr. McKenstry was double-parked. This encounter clearly moved quickly from being about enforcing traffic laws to enforcing the notion that police must get the last word in an encounter and can never back down.

Mr. McKenstry has, if not defenders, then at least people who see his side of the story. Given the history of discriminatory enforcement by Baltimore police, Mr. McKenstry could well have come into the traffic stop with the assumption that he would have been left alone if he had been white. Even so, what did he accomplish by refusing to hand over his license and registration? What did he accomplish by refusing to sign the tickets Sergeant McGowan eventually gave him? What did he accomplish by putting his hands on the roof of his car and demanding to be arrested? Even if this was arbitrary enforcement — and to be clear, we don’t know enough about what led up to the confrontation to make any judgments about that — Mr. McKenstry, of all people in this city, had more productive avenues open to him to raise the issue.

Ultimately, this incident isn’t a question of who was or wasn’t acting justly so much as it is a vivid portrait of how wide the disconnect can be between police and residents in Baltimore. The two men manage to spar back and forth for nearly an hour without ever really talking to one another.

When he visited The Sun’s editorial board recently, before this encounter took place, Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa talked up a system he says is in place in Virginia that allows officers to send a text to the owner of a car that’s just been pulled over to introduce themselves and the reason for the stop before they even get out of the car. He was excited about its potential to take the edge off traffic stops. If this incident is at all indicative of the level of distrust between Baltimore residents and police, it’s going to take a lot more than that.

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