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.
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.)
turn your wheels to the left – It happens to a lot of officers: your cruiser gets rear ended by a passing motorist. If you are out of your car, and your wheels are turned to the left, your patrol car will (hopefully) roll to the left, and away from you.
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.