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The Smell of Fear

The public, as well as the law enforcement community, knows there's no such thing as a routine traffic stop.

January 01, 1997  |  by Maureen Hayden

Public vs. cop perception

Later, Antor told a reporter she thought Beckwith was crazy. "I thought this was a scene out of 'COPS.'... I never seen anything like this before in my life."

Beckwith arrested Antor and ticketed her for speeding and failing to stop for a blue light. The latter charge was dismissed. Within two days of the incident, Antor contacted attorneys and filed a complaint against Beckwith with the highway patrol. In the complaint, Antor accused Beckwith of racism, saying she was brutalized because she is black. Both Beckwith and his attorney denied the charge. What Beckwith does concede, however, was that he acted out of fear.

"The reason I had my gun drawn is because I had been behind her for quite some time," Beckwith told Dateline NBC. "And I didn't know she didn't have a gun. I didn't know that she wasn't hiding drugs. I didn't know any of this."

Beckwith was a seasoned trooper. On the job for 11 years, he had racked up an impressive pile of letters of commendation. His father was a trooper for 30 years. He knew the dangers.

"Anything you stop anybody, you never know what you're walking up on," Beckwith said. "And you always have the threat of imminent danger. I mean always. Regardless if it's your grandmother or it's some 17-year-old that's high on crack that's going to, you know, basically kill you."

In the weeks after the incident, much of the criticism focused on the use of unmarked police cars. South Carolina legislators called for their total ban in the state; an Indiana legislator announced he'd told his wife never to stop for an unmarked police car. And some criminal justice experts soon predicted unmarked police cars would soon become a thing of the past. But Beckwith's boss, South Carolina Public Safety Director Boykin Rose, said the incident was not about the kind of car Beckwith was driving.

"This case has nothing to do with unmarked cars," Rose told reporters after he made the videotape public. "This trooper just lost control."

Others in law enforcement concur.

"I know it's easy to look back and analyze what went wrong," said Sgt. Sandra Houston, acting commander in charge of public affairs for the California Highway Patrol. "But on that tape, it looked like (Beckwith) lost all his composure, and in doing that, he gave up control of that situation. That's the fatal mistake. If you maintain your composure, you keep your focus."

But maintaining composure in the face of the unknown is not easy.

"You know the old saying," Singleton said. "There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop."

Indeed, Beckwith later said some of the anxiety he experienced that day stemmed from his recollection of a "routine" traffic stop that went fatally awry in 1992. That year, a fellow South Carolina trooper was shot to death while making a traffic stop on the same stretch of highway. The incident sparked a spirited discussion about the use of unmarked cars and about how to handle the public's fear of the police.

Clearly marked for protection

Although top South Carolina Highway Patrol officials downplayed the role of Beckwith's unmarked car, they quietly began to reduce the number of unmarked cars on the state's highways three years ago. In doing so, the followed a pattern set but other agencies that had already grappled with the issue.

CONTINUED: The Smell of Fear «   Page 2 of 4   »

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