The Not-So-Basic Traffic Stop

The passenger-side approach offers you the double-win of a safer approach and a tactical advantage. (Photo JP Molnar)

Let me start off by saying that the term basic stop is a misnomer. The only thing basic about the standard everyday traffic stop is finding the violation, activating your emergency lights and stopping your patrol vehicle. Whether you put your patrol car in park or your patrol motorcycle's side stand down, that concludes the basics. From that point on you have entered the realm of the unknown and begun your roadside investigation. For those of us who treat traffic stops as our bread and butter we need to stop and ask ourselves a few questions: Am I looking for just another citation/statistic? Am I rushing through this to get to the next one? Am I prepared to confront the unknown? Am I complacent?

I know I’m guilty of being complacent from time to time and it bugs me. It is difficult to go out there on the road and produce activity to keep the higher-ups happy. But I’ve found myself Monday morning quarterbacking myself immediately afterward. How did I walk up to the subject vehicle? Did I really look around the car while I was standing at the window or door? Did I get everything I could out of the contact? If you ask yourself these questions the bottom line is that you rushed and didn't meet your objectives.

Assuming this is a simple traffic violation and not a high-risk or felony stop, you need to start with how you plan on approaching the subject car. Nine times out of 10 I choose to approach from the passenger side. On the freeway it’s 10 out of 10. Shield yourself from traffic as much as possible. Traffic collisions are the No. 1 cause of death for the traffic officer.

Use each stop as a training experience for yourself. Do you know your location? If the time came and you had to broadcast a quick "shots fired" or "officer down" to dispatch, would the location you broadcast be accurate enough for your beat partners to find you. Interstate 805 southbound just north of the X Street over-crossing is better than Interstate 805 southbound north of X Street. I don't want my partners to travel north of X Street, not see me, and take the off-ramp to turn around. As you walk up recite it silently to yourself. When you need to use it you want it to come out quick, precise and, most importantly, clear.

Leave a Mark
As you approach try to stay close to the subject vehicle. Touch a portion of the vehicle with an ungloved hand. I make it a habit to touch the brake light each time. It’s an act that’s quick and doesn’t require taking your eyes off of the occupants. Some officers write down the license plate of the target vehicle prior to the stop. This requires extra time in the patrol car when you should already be outside. What if you stop and the driver or passenger quickly pops out with a gun? Also, most departments have video and the stop will be recorded. Technology isn't foolproof, and these systems do fail. We don't need to be members of the same department to attest to that. Keep it simple, and manually plant your fingerprint.

Approach the C-Pillar, Pause & Assess
Once you reach the C-pillar briefly pause and assess. Check out the number of occupants and remember something distinctive about each (e.g., tattoos, hairstyles, clothing). If there are two or more occupants and they decide to foot bail on you, you should be able to identify the driver easily so there’s no uncertainty once they are taken into custody. If the side windows are tinted don't be afraid to tell the occupants to roll the windows down. The manner in which you order them down doesn't have to be aggressive. Don't walk up on a vehicle with no visibility. It doesn't matter if the driver is on parole or it’s an elderly churchgoer. This is an officer-safety thing.

Proceed to the B-Pillar

On the way look at the hands and body language of the occupants in the back seat. Where are their hands? What is in them? Are the occupants fidgety and nervous? Here’s where your roadside investigation truly begins. The unspoken and silent actions of people sometimes speak volumes. But don't forget that the B-pillar is also the point at which you get a sneak peak at the front occupants. By pausing at the B-pillar not only are you assessing, but you’re also shielding yourself from the driver. By standing where you are you’re making it difficult for the driver, if he has the intention, to pull a gun, turn at an awkward angle and shoot you. The vast majority of people are right handed. Imagine having a pistol in your right hand, turning to your right while seated in the driver seat, and shooting behind you. Not the ideal shot for them, but for you the officer is gives you a great shooting platform.

Onto the A-Pillar
Once you have cleared the B-Pillar and approach the A-Pillar, spin so that you are now facing oncoming traffic. From this vantage point you can observe the entire vehicle. When the driver reaches into the glove compartment, pivot again and look into the glove compartment. There may not be drugs or a weapon, but I can't begin to tell you how many times old citations fall out and the driver stumbles to hide them. Every time it reminds me of the movie Liar Liar with Jim Carrey. Any doubts in your mind about giving a verbal warning should instantly dwindle. But maybe there are some drugs in the glove compartment. Now they’re in clear view and you have probable cause to enter the vehicle to conduct a thorough search.

Stand Square & Pivot
From this point on I like to stand squared up to the right front passenger window. From this position I can easily continue to scan and monitor oncoming traffic as well and maintain a clear visual of the occupants. I've been taught to pivot again at the A-Pillar and face traffic. The only issue I have with that is that I lose a visual of the front most portion of the dash and floorboard. Also, if the stop turns into a deadly encounter I prefer a square shooting platform to the target. I can get a good first shot off then continue to move and shoot. I know I’m not going to maintain the same location once shots have been fired.

Be Professional
When speaking to the subject (aka the violator) kill them with kindness. No matter what their demeanor toward you may be maintain your level or professionalism. You have to assume you are going to be recorded and put on YouTube. Some people want to get you so fired up you forget your professionalism. Have you seen the German tourist YouTube video? I rest my case. I have come into contact with other officers and have observed other officers speak to the violator.

First, remember that the person you’re dealing with may be the run-of-the-mill citizen who may do everything right, but just got caught speeding for whatever reason. This may be their only contact with law enforcement all year. Officers already appear intimidating. Full uniform, gun, flashlight, tight haircut. Its everyday to you or me, but to the soccer mom with screaming kids in the car it can be nerve-racking.

Now comes the dialogue. I know there are innumerable ways to do it. I try to minimize mine. "Good morning ma'am/sir. May I please see your driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance?" I do this first for a few reasons. One, I like to obtain the information before they start to possibly argue with me over the reason for the stop. If you get into a discussion because the violator didn’t believe they were did whatever it is you said they did, it will delay you while you wait for the information you requested. It also allows you to continue observing.

Look at where and how they retrieve the wallet. If they are frisking themselves in an attempt to locate their identification there is a good chance they don't have a license.

Also, when they retrieve their information see if they fumble through their wallet, drop it or hand you a credit card instead of identification. These may be signs of intoxication and if they are, they are great things to include in a report to paint a picture for the prosecutor and maybe even a jury.

If you don't get all the information, for example, the insurance, tell them to keep looking for it while you go back to you patrol vehicle. Tell them, “If you find it hold onto it until I come back. Don't come out and give it to me.” This will keep them occupied until you are ready for your second approach. If they find it before you are ready to go back, hold off. Minimize the times you need to approach. You can get the information later. 

Once I have the information and I’m satisfied with the content I inform them of the reason for the stop. "I stopped you because of your speed. I got you on my laser devise (LIDAR) at 90 mph. Any reason for your speed?" These are punctual statements. Don't ask them if they know why you stopped them. This invites them to argue with you. Once they give me a reason I just say, "Okay, I will get you on your way in a moment." If I see something that troubles me, or I have the hairs on the back of my neck stand up I will ask further questions about the location to which they are traveling, where they are coming from -- the standard. 

I don't need to tell you what to ask because you already know. Some officer's like to keep everybody talking. Interrogating the basic speeder about why they are speeding and if they understand the dangers of their actions really gets you nowhere. It goes from being a businesslike transaction, to a demeaning lecture. If you don't suspect them of doing anything other than violating the vehicle code, scratch out a quick citation or give them a warning and end it.

Protect Yourself
Walk back to your patrol vehicle cautiously and take multiple glances back at the subject vehicle. Once back at the patrol vehicle and you’re taking the appropriate enforcement action, think about your safety. If you have a patrol car door to stand behind that’s great. If you’re a motor officer like me then look for a guardrail, tree or mailbox to stand behind for cover. I previously wrote Safety Tips for Motor Officers and the concept of cover and concealment was covered at length so I won't go into details here. The premise is simple. Think about shielding yourself from traffic in case someone swerves into you. Also think about that possible deadly encounter. Stand behind objects that may give you temporary cover if there are shots fired. If you’re writing your ticket there then you won't have to waste movement to get there. If you’re a car cop, try to refrain from sitting in your car while writing the citation or verifying subject information. You should always be prepared for someone to pop out of the subject vehicle. Keep your eyes alternating between traffic and the vehicle. Never stop looking for furtive movements. 

Plan & Execute Your Second Approach
While you’re back at your patrol car or motorcycle start thinking about the second approach. On surface streets, mix it up a little. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing your initial approach on the passenger side and your second approach from the driver side. Keep the occupants of the vehicle surprised. I love it when I walk up on the passenger side and the driver is looking out the driver window. I'll stand there for a while without advertising my presence. This is a perfect opportunity to have a look around the interior visible surfaces of the vehicle. It doesn't take long. When you’re done, then knock on the window and proceed. 

The second approach should proceed much like the first. You don't need to re-touch the brake light, but you should stop at the pillars and access. Keep in mind: During the first approach, the subject may be evaluating you as much as you are evaluating him or her. When you’re back at the patrol vehicle they may be discussing if they feel they can "take you" or how they could take you out. In a way, the second approach may therefore be more hazardous for you. Not only have they already accessed you, but you’re now walking up to the subject vehicle with a ticket book and paperwork in your hand. Figure a way to walk up with the ticket book, pen and paperwork in your non-primary hand. Keep the shooting had free. Be prepared to ditch the paperwork and react if necessary. Once you reach that point who really cares if the paperwork is scattered on the side of the road.

Once you present the paperwork, tell them what the citation is for and request their signature. Answer their questions if they have any. If the location is the freeway or a congested roadway offer them tips on how to re-enter traffic in a safe manner. Not only are you telling them how to proceed so that you are safe in the event they crash on the re-entry, you are still projecting an image that you’re concerned for their safety.

 In Sum
The people you come into contact with are your neighbors and friends of friends, or they could end up being another officer. What if you stop your chief and you don't know what they look like? It’s been done by people I know. Be polite and professional because you never know. These people pay taxes and ultimately pay your salary. Once voting comes around and your department's pension is on the chopping block or you’re lobbying for better equipment, how do you want that person to vote? Do you want them to say they had a pleasant experience and they feel you need better equipment? Or do you want them to say, "That cop was a jerk. Forget them?” 

Remember: Upon each contact you need to be polite but be ever ready for a deadly encounter. Approximately 99% of the time the stop will be simple with little investigation needed. Treat those 99% as a training experience for the other 1%. Never be complacent. Never be satisfied with your methods. Strive to be better. Traffic stops are never basic. I'm confident you all know this already. The routines and repetition of our profession can sometimes suppress this. It never hurts to stop, rethink things and re-evaluate yourself.



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