Max Allstadt: A Routine Traffic Stop

Last friday morning, I was driving home from my girlfriend’s house when I realized I’d left my computer behind. I was already running late, and the whole reason I was headed home was to print out some fairly important stuff, so I got frustrated, did a U-turn and hastily headed north on MLK.

Just north of Brockhurst St., I saw the blue and reds in my rearview mirror, realized I’d done a “California stop” at the stop sign right behind me, and pulled over to the right in front of an OPD cruiser.

Two officers got out of the car. They’d parked cautiously far behind me. I stuck my head out the window and hollered “stop sign?”. The officers were staying back and to either side of me. “Turn of the engine!”, hollered the cop on the right in response. I did as he asked, put my hands on the wheel, and waited.

And this is where I started to notice that being pulled over felt a little different that day than it usually feels. The officers were approaching very slowly. They seemed to be staying spread far enough apart that I couldn’t see both of them at the same time.

They also never broke out of a posture called “retention”. It’s a position meant to prevent their holstered sidearm from being snatched by surprise and used against them. It is also the position that most people who openly carry pistols use to practice drawing and firing quickly. A defensive position, not overtly hostile, but absolutely ready for trouble.

The officer who approached my window was young, but he looked like he’d been awake for a week. He dryly asked for my paperwork, which I handed over, trying to smile and be friendly. I told him I’d been online recently, calling for more stop sign and crosswalk enforcement, and that it was kind of ironic that I’d run a stop sign next to a school, and there was no way I was going to argue about it.

No smile. No acknowledgment. He just walked back to his car and ran my license. His partner stood in a blind spot between my right side windows. When I craned my neck to try to get a look, he was stone faced, maintaining the “retention” posture. He never took his eyes off me.

When the Officer with my license returned, it was still all business, and still entirely too heavy for the business at hand. I understood why. I wasn’t offended. These guys were going through the same motions that proved to be the last acts of Sgt. Mark Dunakin and Ofc. John Hege. They’d no doubt been recently instructed by command to take extra precautions, and they were following orders to the letter. But this time, they weren’t just following orders because they were orders.

“Drive safe,” said the officer as he handed back my paperwork. “BE safe,” I said, deliberately. As I rolled off slowly under a low white sky, I hoped he had understood how much I meant by that.

Max Allstadt is a carpenter, musician and arts activist. He has lived in West Oakland since 2003.

28 thoughts on “Max Allstadt: A Routine Traffic Stop

  1. Max Allstadt

    What’s good in this? That the police are being extra careful? Maybe that’s good. I don’t see much good in the broader situation. More fear, more tension, and more sadness in the city is anything but good.

    I saw men carrying a lot of extra weight that morning. And I felt for them. I didn’t have a chance to say so out loud, and that’s why I wrote this.

  2. Christy

    Thanks for this post. Seems like I’ve been seeing a lot of citizens on the street lately going up to police officers to shake their hand and say “thank you for your service,” or words to that effect. I hope interactions such as that help lighten some of the extra weight you saw last Friday.

  3. dfisher

    It’s going to be a tough road for all involved for the coming year and beyond. Police agencies don’t forget nor do they live lightly after tragedy. The Oakland community must support their service agencies and hold them accountable at the same time.

    The OPD and town comunity needs time to grieve and process. Out this must come, thought, dialogue and action. The later, consisting of positive interaction between communities historically adverse to OPD (b-ball games, more youth development presence and etc). “The barriers to interaction are laced with trying”.

  4. livegreen

    –Thank OPD officers when you see them. (Usually they hear only negative comments).
    –Some NCPC’s are donating Blue Ribbons for citizens to tie to their car windows or antennas so OPD will visibly see signs of support.

    Community PSO’s have mentioned that most officers appreciate the community and knowing that the community appreciates them. My observation is they can’t know this by either intuition or osmosis (esp. when the vocal minority is spouting expletives at them).

    The silent majority must speak up in support of Officers, the majority of whom are good people.

  5. Ken O

    Is there an NCPC in Uptown/downtown oakland? I live near 19th and Telegraph.

    V – saw you going to the uptown “town hall” nancy nadel had at the uptown apartment complex. I was going to a warriors game so unfortunately i missed it. Look forward to seeing your notes, if any.

  6. livegreen

    City Councilperson Offices usually know the NCPC’s and their NSC (Neighborhood Service Coordinator) contacts who work between neighborhoods, cities and neighborhood/community policing contacts (PSO”s or Problem Solving Officers).

    Also the United Neighborhood Council’s of Oakland website has the easiest tool I’ve seen for finding both the NCPC’s and the NSC contacts: http://www.uncofo.com/
    (click on “find your NC/NCPC”). Note the NSC info seems up to date, but the PSO info they got from OPD is out of date (another bureaucratic subject…).

    If the NCPC doesn’t have the ribbon they or their NSC should ask UNCO.

  7. OnTheGoJo/Joanna

    Max, Good for you for keeping your cool and not getting even more anxious or obnoxious when they stopped you. We all know how it is to be in a hurry and then to be stopped only makes things worse.

    It’s been over a year since I was robbed at gunpoint and yet I still find myself getting all nervous when someone comes in with an oversized t-shirt and pants around their knees. I can’t help it. I’m waiting for the gun to get whipped out.

    OPD officers have an even tougher mental challenge along with all the other challenges they face every day. Although many of us here deeply appreciate their service, we all know there are many more out there that don’t.

    So did you get the ticket in the end?

    Cheers,
    Joanna

  8. Max Allstadt

    Of course I got a ticket. I deserved it and told them I knew I deserved it. And I haven’t been “obnoxious” to police since the 2002 Iraq War protests in NYC. I’ve grown up a lot since then.

    You’ve been robbed too, huh? How come I’m the only person I know in this town who hasn’t had that happen yet? (knocks on wood)

  9. Genie

    Thanks for this post…I can’t imagine what it must be like to be an OPD officer these days. I’m sure they’re all stressed as hell. The situation is so very, very sad.

  10. Patrick

    I truly am a sucker for overtly sentimental stories, which is why I hate to be the one to bring this up: if Sgt. Mark Dunakin and Officer John Hege had approached Lovelle Mixon’s automobile in the same way they did Max’s, I have no doubt in my mind that at least one of them would still be alive today, and possibly both.

    I used to date a police officer back in the day. As a result, whenever I am pulled over (which thankfully is rare), I always open my window and stick my open hands out the window, clearly showing the officer that I am not holding a weapon.

  11. John Klein

    Joanna,

    You will probably never get over that nervousness. I say this because about 15 years ago, I was driving behind Eastmont Mall headed toward Foothill Blvd. I was simply driving along the street. A car pulling out of the Mall stopped for me as I drove by. The driver didn’t like that he had to stop for me and yelled “PUNK!” at me as he stopped.

    There was something very mean and biting in the tone of his voice to struck me really deep. And when I stopped behind several cars at the red light just a short distance from there, something inside said I should not pull up too close to the car ahead and to leave extra space at front of my car – so I did. I then looked my mirror and the guy who had yelled at me was stopped behind me, had gotten out of his car, and was walking toward toward me

    I had only a split second to decide what I was going: talk or run? It instantly occurred me that this guy wasn’t coming to talk so I pulled into the opposite lane and around all of the cars waiting at the light. The guy jumped into his car and began chasing me. I got to Foothill and it was, like, holy shit…where am I gonna go??? I turned right onto Foothill, totally freaked out and not knowing where I was going; in the mirror, I saw the guy come around the corner after me.

    FORTUNATELY, I saw the police substation just then and pulled in and watched as my “new friend” drove by. To this day, I still leave a little extra room in front of my car at stop lights in certain parts of town.

  12. avis

    Good for you, Max.

    My husband and I got to see the OPD in action last night and boy were we glad they came to our aid. At 1:30 am this morning our house alarm went off while we were sound asleep. At first I assumed my husband had gone downstairs and set off the alarm, but when I realized he was still sleeping next to me I got quite a scare. After waking him I answered the ringing phone, it was the alarm company calling to ask if we had mistakenly set off our alarm. I told them “No, we were sound asleep, please help us”. After living next to the Oaktown Crips in East Oakland for the last 2 yrs we are aware that crime is a constant companion in our neighborhood. Pretty quickly there were OPD officers at our front door and I can’t tell you how glad we were to see them. They asked us to step out of the house and wait behind them. One of the officers started asking us questions about what happened while 2 other officers checked all the doors and windows. Although they could not find anything amiss the officers decided to enter our house and check it out, room by room. As the first officer slipped thru our front door I couldn’t help but whisper “please be careful”. While all this was going on, an officer stayed with my husband and I, offering to let me sit in his warm car and asking me questions to keep me calm. I had to ask myself last night, how many people in this world rush towards danger? How many people put themselves between you and a burglar? Our experience turned out well, no criminals, no one hurt, just a faulty alarm. But I will always be thankful for the dedicated professionals who came to our aid from the OPD. Thank You Officers very much for your professional, courteous and heroic behavior on our behalf.

  13. BikeOak

    Very enlightened post. With the posture the officers took, someone from the “vocal minority” would have taken in the situation from a totally different point of view. I won’t go into their talking points, it would be counterproductive in this forum. If you don’t know what I’m talking about see this week’s feature story in the East Bay Express.

    Max, you can count me in the never-been-robbed crowd too.

  14. len raphael

    MA, putting your hands on the top of steering wheel is good way to reduce cop job stress. at night, turn on your interior light also. don’t reach into the glove box to have registration ready.

    -l

  15. Max Allstadt

    Patrick,

    I don’t think that second guessing Dunakin and Hege’s procedure is something for you or me to take up. There are technical employees of the department that will take care of evaluating and investigating that incident. We have no way of knowing the specifics of how that played out, if it was error, luck, fate…

    I don’t really want to know about how exactly it all played out. In some ways I think that bearing the cross of that dark knowledge is something that the police volunteer to do for the rest of us. The best cops aren’t just helping us by helping. They also help by bearing witness. For now I think it’s best to leave them be to attend to the second by second story of how it all happened. Monday morning quarterbacking robs the police of the privacy of grief that they absolutely deserve right now.

  16. Patrick

    Again, I truly appreciate the sentimentality which, in your telling, is almost religious. It *is* touching, and I truly mean that. I am an ardent supporter of the men and women of OPD; people that put themselves in harm’s way each and every day to ensure that you and I can return home safely to find that everything we own is intact. Unfortunately, in many of Oakland’s neighborhoods, safety is something we consciously think about daily, rather than it being so expected that it becomes an afterthought. I used to live in Twin Peaks, in SF – after a couple of months, I stopped locking my door – why bother? But I don’t live in Twin Peaks anymore. I love living in Oakland, but it requires a different mindset. Sentimentality (or perhaps familiarity) – and the fuzzy feeling of safety it may offer – can get you shot.

    Dunakin and Hege were certainly better trained in marksmanship/traffic-stop protocol than Mixon. And if they had approached him as if they were about to be shot, the incident may have played out differently. Can you honestly say after what you experienced that you don’t agree? If Mixon had faced two officers, one in the “blind spot” and both in retention pose, would the outcome have *probably* been different?

    I mean no disrespect to these fine men and I don’t bring this up to suggest complacency per se; I bring this up simply to refute the arguments that Mixon was pulled over as a matter of routine, endemic police harassment (expressed elsewhere). I don’t believe it and I don’t think most people do either. If these men were intent on harrassment, they would have been prepared for a fight; as seasoned officers, they knew full well what the Oakland streets can offer. Their abilities and training would have given them the upper hand, but it didn’t work out that way. To my mind at least, this suggests a routine, with-cause traffic stop.

    Max Allstadt: Monday morning quarterbacking robs the police of the privacy of grief that they absolutely deserve right now.” Unfortunately, I must again vehemently disagree with your sentimentality. The employees of our police department, regardless of the dangers they face, are public servants. As a result, they subject themselves to the same scrutiny that Dellums, Edgerley, Lindheim et al face. Would you defend Edgerley’s alleged action of informing her nephew of an upcoming police raid based on a right to “privacy”? All city employees must face the same level of scrutiny lest we scrutinize none of them.

  17. Max Allstadt

    It’s not so much a blanket statement that I meant to make. Civilian discourse is obviously the backbone of a healthy society. It’s more that we were talking about a violent incident that we didn’t witness, and there’s just no way to know the details, so why hypothesize when all it will do is poke raw nerves, yeilding no new truth?

  18. Max Allstadt

    I didn’t speculate about anything I didn’t see first hand. As for the right to privacy, ongoing investigations are usually kept confidential.

    Also, typically, findings about incidents where police are lost to violence are made public in time. They aren’t usually widely reported, because it’s simply macabre and in poor taste. At the same time, if there’s anything police will study diligently themselves, it’s this. A friend is an Atlanta PD detective. He tells me that early in the academy, recruits are told of incidents like this one in detail, both to ensure their commitment and to be certain that they understand the seriousness of the job they’re pursueing.

  19. Patrick

    Your entire post is speculation! Your suggestion is that these two officers treated you in the manner they did specifically because of recent events – when it is entirely possible that those two officers have always approached traffic stops that way. The last time I was stopped, about 10 years ago, the officers treated me in exactly the same way that you describe.

    Furthermore, your sentimental tale relies on a thought process of Hey! It’s only non-threatening little ole me, Max Allstadt, not some Lovelle Mixon wannabe! And for your story to be effective, the reader must know that too. If this were printed in the San Francisco Chronicle, it wouldn’t make any sense because who the hell is Max Allstadt? And as the officers didn’t know you either; you could just as easily been the next cop killer. You’ve drawn a conclusion based on who you are, with an assumption about the work habits of two men you’ve never met before.

  20. V Smoothe

    I don’t see any of that in Max’s post, Patrick. He wrote a frank (and I think, quite touching) account of an experience he had, and how it felt tangibly different than the same experience usually does.

    Furthermore, I can’t understand on what you are basing your assertions about how other officers did or should have behaved at a different time in an incident that you were (presumably) not present at.

  21. Max Allstadt

    Actually, my understanding is that OPD did in fact increase the level of caution and attention to procedure at traffic stops following the loss of those officers. That wasn’t hypothesis. I heard it from a cop, but I believe it made it to the mainstream media too.

  22. Patrick

    I agree that the post was frank and touching. I’m simply suggesting that this event was perhaps “tangibly different than the same experience usually (is)” because of a change in Max’s thought process, not necessarily an impossible to prove change in the actions of police officers.

    The “assertions about how other officers did or should have behaved at a different time” were Max’s, not mine. His post suggests that because of the Mixon incident, these officers acted “differently”. And that’s a hypothesis that relies on Max’s “feelings” as opposed to actual events. Taken out of the context of recent events, Max’s post is unremarkable.

  23. Patrick

    When I stated “if they had approached him as if they were about to be shot, the incident may have played out differently” your response, in part, was “and there‚Äôs just no way to know the details, so why hypothesize when all it will do is poke raw nerves, yeilding no new truth”. I, too, read that OPD instructed officers to “increase their level of caution and attention at traffic stops”? But, why? Assuming that every traffic stop could turn into another Mixonesque event should be routine, not an afterthought.

  24. Ralph

    This back and forth has me thinking one thing – I want to met Patrick. Curious to know how he and Max differ.

    Prior to the incident I witnessed officers use the approach that Max encountered. I have also noticed who have not used this approach. You make a 1000s of traffic stops and most are routine. Unless something seems completely out of hte ordinary, It is easy to fall into the trap that they will all be routine. As stated at the memorial service, there is nothing routine about a routine traffic stop.

  25. Quercki M. Singer

    I liked your post a lot, Max. Thanks.

    I too think about how things are a little different now. Are the police more careful? Less friendly? It’s got to be hard for them right now.

    I did a ride-along with my beat officer once. There was only a single officer in the car at that time. Have they changed the procedure? Or was this time training or something that requires two officers?

    I haven’t been stopped for a traffic violation in such a long time, it was nice to get a description of what it’s like now.