Conduct the traffic stop from behind the "B" pillar, with the hands of the driver and other occupants in clear view. (Photos JP Molnar)
Location, vehicle position, approach and tactical considerations are all elements of a successful traffic stop.
Position your patrol vehicle approximately one-to-two car lengths back, slightly offset, if needed, & with the wheels turned out
When possible, employ contact and cover principles to maximize officer safety.
FEATURED IN PATROL
It’s often said that we learn most from tragedy. In my time, like many of you, I’ve attended one too many funerals for a fellow brother or sister in blue. It’s never easy, and it never seems to make much sense. But if we’re resilient, we’ll look at the incident that led to the officer’s death and take lessons from it so that others may live. Progressive departments will take a hard look at our field and academy training protocols, identify weaknesses that might contribute to poor tactics and remedy them along with new information to reduce the chance of reoccurrence.
If we look at the stats, the three easiest places to get killed in this job are at domestic violence calls, driving patrol vehicles and at traffic stops. When I was an officer at a large municipal agency in Southern California, my patrol days were spent running from domestic call to domestic call. Traffic stops were rare because time was spent mostly at residences dealing with people that couldn’t figure out how to get along. When I moved to another state and became a trooper, my life was traffic stops—thousands of them. Although I certainly made my share of mistakes in learning how to be safe out there, I also picked up a few things I’d like to share. In this article—part one of a two-part series—we’ll discuss some tips and strategies for safer contacts with violators.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
The simple fact is that drivers commit multiple traffic violations in front of you on a daily basis. As the observing officer, you have absolutely no idea why they’re behaving the way they are until you stop them. It may be because they’re late to work, they just spilled coffee on their leg or they just got into a major fight with their significant other. When you identify a particular violator, take the time to observe their driving behaviors, variation in speed, lane position, proximity to other vehicles and use (or lack) of turn signals. Build your case for the stop. Although this isn’t a primer on DUI enforcement, aggressive driving behaviors typically are caused by a driver in an agitated or altered state for reasons you have yet to discover.
Example: I assisted a fellow trooper in a pursuit where the vehicle fled after failing to stop for a basic speed violation. The pursuit lasted a good distance, with the suspect driver driving erratically. When finally forced to stop, it was discovered the driver had killed his girlfriend in another state, was driving her vehicle and had planned to shoot it out with us in the classic “death by cop” scenario. Fortunately, the suspect had ingested too many prescription meds, so he was too lethargic to carry out his plan. The point: What may look like a simple speed violation can end up being a murderer on the run.
As you watch the violator vehicle, ask dispatch to gather as much information about the vehicle, it’s registered owner, any previous history and if there are any warrants associated with anyone connected to it. Keep in mind that the driver may not be the registered owner. This isn’t the time to be plunking on your MCT, so use the power of your dispatchers and keep your eyes on the violator. There are times when the driver’s behavior is so egregious that you have to take immediate action. Remember: A traffic stop of that nature means that, other than the violation and immediately observed behavior, you’re going into the stop “blind” to some degree. But there are ways to mitigate that, which we’ll discuss a little later.
Location, Location, Location
State troopers differ from other types of LEOs in that beat areas are usually huge. I know rural sheriff’s agencies face the same challenges, but the reality is that most of my traffic stops occurred in the same general areas on a regular basis. Typically, it was in the more congested parts of my beat, so it was important to know where a safe traffic stop could be performed without being compromised.
Example: When I was a field training officer, I’d regularly ask my trainees to verbalize fictitious traffic stops as we drove. I’d ask them in a given area where they would choose to do a traffic stop and justify why it was a tactically sound location. If it was on the freeway, was there sufficient room on the shoulder? Were there tall sound walls that reflected passing traffic that would make communication difficult and avenues of escape difficult? What about proper cover? Was there a concrete jersey barrier lining the freeway on the right shoulder that could be used as cover and protection? What about on-ramps, off-ramps and merging traffic in the area? How about bridges and overpasses in the area? If you work in an urban environment, as I did for several years, freeways or expressways are an issue, so know your safe places to stop. If you work off these high volume roadways, know the neighborhood and what tactical threats might be an issue in the area.
It wasn’t too long ago that an officer in Southern California was sniped on a traffic stop. Remember: You can’t always control where a violator will stop, but you can increase the odds of a safe stop by knowing your beat and where the best places are to conduct business.