Traffic stops have been called the “bread and butter” of police work. Even in the busiest jurisdictions, police officers regularly make traffic stops for traffic violations. Proactive officers can use these encounters to detect criminal activity beyond the simple traffic infraction.
If you have been on the job for very long at all, you will have discovered that seemingly ‘routine’ traffic stops can go bad in a heartbeat.
The driver I stopped the other day for a minor tag violation had his child’s lunch box in the car with him. Only this little girl’s lunch box held a .38 Special revolver. Fortunately, his behavior prior to the stop tipped me off that something might not be quite right, and I was able to safely conduct the stop.
Regardless on the reason for the stop, there are certain things a police officer can do to make the event as safe as possible. I’ve listed some tips that I have picked up over the years. Use what works for you, and feel free to send me your ideas as well.
Passenger Side Approach
Daytime or nighttime, this is hands-down one of the best things you can do to stay safe during a traffic stop. If a driver is looking to ambush you, more likely than not, he’ll expect you on the driver’s side. If you come up on the passenger side, you can often get a better view of what, and who, is in the car.
Another safety benefit of the passenger-side approach is not having your butt hanging out in traffic. Whether by accident or malice, some of the passing motorists may hit you while you are trying to deal with the driver. By standing on the passenger side of the stopped motorist, you are less likely to be hit by a passing car.
Get Out of the Driver’s Seat
Sitting behind the wheel of your patrol car is just about the worst place to be if the person you have stopped decides to attack you. So, when initiating the stop, get out quickly. When running your license checks, stand near the passenger/rear of your car and run them on the radio, or if you have to use your in-car computer, access it from the passenger side of your car. Writing a ticket? Try standing at the read of your car again.
If you have to sit in the driver’s seat of your car because of the computer configuration/computer generated tickets (like my department), keep a close eye on the driver. Jump out at the first sign of trouble.
Also, think outside the box. If you are behind the wheel, and the dirtbag comes running at you with a gun, just run him over. (Sometimes the best answers are the easiest.)
Wall of Light
Make sure you use all of your patrol car’s lighting to create that “wall of light” that you can use for concealment on a nighttime traffic stop. I know this is basic training you got in the police academy, but it works.
An associate of mine from another department was shot, but survived, partially because he and his trainee used the wall of light. Rolling up on a “stranded motorist,” the recruit officer properly used the lighting from their patrol car. As they walked up to the car, the “motorist” ambushed them, shooting and seriously wounding my friend. Both officers fell back behind the light, and the suspect tried to find them, but couldn’t see them because of the lighting difference. The recruit did what he had to, and the citizens were saved the expense of a trial. The wall of light made a tactical difference that allowed both officers to survive, and eventually return to duty.
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 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.
Have 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 Occupant Movement
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.
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. Aaron wrote an article all about traffic stop safety here, and it is well worth the time to read it. Also, a good reference book on making traffic stops is Advanced Vehicle Stop Tactics by Michael T. Rayburn.
I encourage anyone with a tip they wish to share to leave a comment below.