SPECIAL REPORT: “I treat every person like they’re armed all the time.”

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Starting next school year, Driver’s Ed students in Illinois will be required to learn how to interact with police during a traffic stop.

“It’s one of the scariest things that we will do over the course of our shift is stop a car with someone we don’t know under unknown circumstances.” Peoria County Sheriff’s Deputy, James Middlemas, said.

Deputy Middlemas says every time officers hit their lights they don’t know what they’re stepping into.

In recent years, traffic stops taking a turn for the worst, have caught national attention.

Local Black Lives Matter Activist Chama St. Louis says central Illinois drivers who get pulled over have reason to be concerned.

“If you get pulled over it’s going to automatically give the citizens some form of anxiety because they don’t know if this interaction with police could end their life.” St. Louis said.

That’s why classes of soon to be licensed drivers at Richwoods High School are learning what to do if they’re pulled over. A new state law requires a training on “Proper actions to be taken during a traffic stop and appropriate interactions with law enforcement”. New drivers are taught to remain in the car with their hands clearly visible on the steering wheel and to report any improper behavior by the officer after the stop.

“There’s rules and regulations you need to follow but I think it’s a preventative measure to make sure there’s less conflict between the public and the police.” Behind-the-wheel instructor, Roland Brown, said.

“I think that it’s good to know how to handle the circumstance as well as possible.” Freshman, Madison Mitchell, said.

Still, St. Louis and local law enforcement say it’s a two-way street.

“I think if you’re going to teach students how to interact with police then you need to reform your police.” St. Louis said. “I definitely think that, yes, this is a band aid over a much bigger problem.”

We asked is this law enforcement or legislators acknowledging there is a problem between police and civilians?

“I guess the simple answer is yes or they wouldn’t be taking this step. I think they felt like they have to do something and I think this was a good first step.” Deputy Middlemas said.

Even with a heightened awareness of police interactions with the public, Deputy Middlemas says no traffic stop is routine.

“We have to respond with that little air of uncertainty of how things are going to respond because we have to be able to react to anything.” Deputy Middlemas explained.

Deputy Middlemas says he never knows what awaits him, and as we joined him on a morning patrol, a call on the scanner came in, “Peoria Police are looking for a man with a gun.” Suddenly he was right there, first on the scene.

Hand on his own gun he advanced towards the subject, who willfully surrenders the weapon, which turned out to be just a BB gun. Luckily, this situation ended without incident, but Middlemas says it’s a stark reminder to always expect the unexpected.

“I treat every person like they’re armed all the time. It doesn’t mean I’m not nice, I’m not smiling and I’m not cordial but I’ve got to have a plan to take care of that if things go south no matter what.” Deputy Middlemas said.

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