Traffic stops continue to be one of the more common police actions, and an all too frequently police officers are hurt or killed doing them. The dangers can come from the occupants of the vehicle you have stopped, or from other motorists on the highway.
I’ve offered traffic stop safety tips before, but I’ve put together a few more things that the patrol officer might want to consider when making traffic stops. Hopefully some of these ideas will help keep you safe.
Location, location, location – Prior to making the stop, try to anticipate where would be the safest location to make the stop. Consider a location with lighting and out of the main flow of traffic. If the driver does not stop where you would like them to, use the P.A. to direct them to a better location.
Communication – Communication with dispatch and your partners is critical. Ideally, call in the traffic stop before you even initiate the stop. Make sure dispatch has the tag, vehicle description, occupant information, and your location.
Once you have made the stop, make sure you communicate with your partner. If you see something unusual or dangerous, tell your partner! He or she may not have seen what you did. The use of hand signals or radio codes is helpful when trying to pass information on to your partner, but keep in mind that a suspect may not know what you are saying, but he will know something is up.
Maintain an evacuation route – Know where you are, and what is around you. Based on that, know where you will evacuate to if things go bad. If you already have a planned escape route when you walk up to a stopped car, you will execute that escape without having to think about it if the scene goes bad. Also keep in mind that in a shootout, your cruiser is not always the best place to fall back to. Concrete highway barriers, bridge abutments, or a tree line may all be available to you as cover…and they may be closer than your car.
Control the movements of the occupants – Cars are used to transport criminals and weapons. When you stop a car, you most likely do not know who is in the car, and what they may be carrying. Watch occupants who move their hands into areas that could be used to conceal weapons. Remove occupants from the vehicle if you need to for your safety.
Also, when you remove someone from the vehicle, be wary of anyone who tries to get back in without your direction to do so. In several cases, subjects returned to their cars and retrieved firearms that they then used to attack officers.
Obviously, make sure you have the appropriate amount of back-up officers to assist with the control of occupants you remove from the car.
Search Safe – Practice safe searching techniques. Always have a cover officer present with you during a vehicle search: never search alone! Also, never search the vehicle with people still occupying the car.
When searching, make sure the vehicle is in a safe place for you to conduct the search. If you are right next to a highway lane with traffic zooming by, you may want to consider moving the vehicle farther off the road, or into a nearby parking lot or side road (keeping search and seizure rules in mind, of course.)
Lastly, look before you reach. Do not reach into an area you cannot see without first looking into the area to visually check for anything hazardous. Needles, razor blades, and knives may all be left behind by a doper, or place intentionally by a criminal to purposely harm you. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
Maintain Environmental Awareness – Danger can come from the vehicle stopped, and from passing motorists. But, have you considered that danger may come from a seemingly random person wandering into your enforcement action?
Making a traffic stop in a gang neighborhood, for example, may place the officer in more danger from the street thugs looking to attack a distracted cop, than the occupants of the stopped car. Pay attention to anyone walking toward your vehicle stop, and call for back-up as appropriate. You cannot effectively watch the pedestrian, the stopped vehicle, and use your computer to check for license status and wants.
These tips are just a few of the many things to think about when making traffic stops. I encourage anyone with a tip they wish to share to leave a comment below.