[Ed. note: This is part one of a four part series on traffic stop safety. Please read the articles on patrol car placement, exiting the patrol car and the use of light and movement for a complete look at safe traffic stops.]
Over many years of police work I’ve come to appreciate the fact that cops hate the repetitive aspects of the job. Maybe it’s the 10th call on a specific runaway juvenile, or maybe it’s the seemingly endless checklist on vehicle equipment before shift. Whatever it might be cops look for short-cuts. Sometimes we can get away with it, but many times those short-cuts are taking us down a path that will lead to disaster.
One of the most frequently conducted activities of the patrol officer is the car stop. In all but the most busy jurisdictions an officer can be reasonably expected to make at least one car stop per shift.
If you work an 8-hour shift that comes to about 250 car stops a year. Even on a 12-hour shift with the same expectation, an officer can be expected to make over 150 stops per year. With those kinds of numbers you can bet officers will try to find short-cuts, but on this kind of activity we’re walking ourselves into the bad man’s trap.
In my 14 years of law enforcement I can conservatively estimate that I have made over 15,000 vehicle stops. Now before you spit out any “traffic weasel” comments, I will admit that I spent nearly 3 years in our Traffic Unit as a DWI enforcement officer. My stop numbers were usually at or near the bottom for the entire unit, but my arrest numbers were always on top.
I’m the kind of officer that sees the traffic stop as a tool to interdict and disrupt criminals, and occasionally remind “soccer mom” that cell phones, gas pedals, and red lights do not mix. I work for a suburb of a major midwest city. Our population is about 92,000 and we have about 135 officers. And because many of the patrol and traffic officers are proactive our crime rates are low.
So it troubles me as a Sergeant to hear officers completely destroy any semblance of a well called-out car stop. When I was in the Academy we learned a form of car stop radio procedure that I’m sure is very similar to what many of you learned. It was called the C-Y-M-B-O-L method of identifying your vehicle stop:
L – Location
C – Color of vehicle Y – Year of vehicle M – Make/Model of vehicle B – Body style of vehicle (2-door, 4-door, SUV, etc.) O – Occupants of vehicle (how many, description) L – License plate information (number and State)
This was a great way for a new recruit (sheep) to learn what information needed to be relayed to dispatch for computer checks and for back-up officers in the event of trouble.
Due to officer safety input from FTO’s and other officers, and the order our CAD computers take information on vehicles, our modified model of car stop radio procedures looks like this:
L – Location!
L – License information C – Color Y – Year M – Make/Model
B – Body style O – Occupants information
L – Location!
When I was an FTO I was particularly strict with my probationary officers about getting this procedure memorized. Obviously, there are times where circumstances do not allow us to complete this model, and during those times probationary officers were instructed to get out their location, type of activity, a basic vehicle description, and repeat their location. In fact, most of time my officers will start to respond for back-up when another officer fails to get out all of the information on the belief that something unusual is occurring.
We need to remember that it is often the “unexpected” event that causes the officer to fail in the deadly force encounter. Although we should always be at Condition Yellow (on-duty or off), we need to increase that awareness level to Orange upon any type of enforcement activity. It’s often the “routine” that turns deadly.
Officers who know they’re responding to an armed robbery call are on high alert and usually respond accordingly. But that same armed robber may be in that minivan you stopped for speeding, and the effort you make to properly relay your stop information may be the difference between you fighting alone or fighting with company!
I know some guys give out ribbings to other officers about “like to hear yourself on the radio”, but there’s nothing more frustrating than knowing that officer needs help and not having all the information needed to respond and give that help.
Stay sharp, and don’t take short-cuts! That next stop may be the “one”.
Aaron is a sergeant with a midwestern police department, where he serves as a trainer, supervisor and SWAT sniper. In addition to his broad tactical knowledge, Aaron has experience in DUI, DRE and undercover narcotics investigations.