Traffic Stop Survival, Part 1

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.

Call It Out
It’s hard to find you if no one knows what you’re doing or where you are. Use the radio and call out the location, direction of travel with cross street, vehicle plate, type and color before you turn on your lights and siren. If need be, call out the number of occupants, and don’t be afraid to ask for a cover unit. The time to do it isn’t in the middle of a fire fight. The radio is there for a reason. Use it.

The Stop
As much as you identified the violation that motivated you to make the stop in the first place, the time to really watch is when the vehicle is coming to a stop. Is the driver making a lot of movement in the car? Are they alone? Sometimes passengers are laying down in the right front or back seats. Does the driver make an abrupt and erratic maneuver to stop their vehicle, or are they more methodical? Do they try to lead you to tactically unsound location? Was there a distinct change in driving behavior once you activated your overheads and siren, or did things stay about the same?

You wouldn’t walk up to someone you didn’t know and place your nose against theirs. Why do officers insist on stopping their patrol vehicle inches from the violator’s vehicle? Doing so significantly reduces the reaction gap between you and the violator, and doesn’t give you the time you want to properly time your approach. Your vehicle should be at least two car lengths behind the violator, directly behind their vehicle in areas where road width is an issue. Otherwise, slightly offset to the left can be used if you are planning a driver’s side approach, which we’ll discuss later. This will allow you to observe from a distance before you walk up, gives you time to reach cover, and any movements by the violator to exit their vehicle will be telegraphed easier. Turn your front wheels to the left to thrust your patrol vehicle in a direction away from you should it be struck from behind.

Remember: During the day, the suspect can probably see you better than you can see them, so distance is your friend. At night, your spotlights should be pre-set so that your passenger-side spotlight is aimed at the center rear view mirror of the violator vehicle, and your driver’s side spotlight hits their left side mirror. Takedowns should be used for overall illumination. If you’re fumbling with the spotlights during the first part of the stop, you’re telegraphing your location to the violator, which is tactically unsound. Set the spotlights up to match your preferred vehicle position. Because almost all of my stops were performed with my patrol vehicle directly behind the violator, I set up my spotlights accordingly.

Your goal is to overwhelm them with a halo of intense light that disrupts their night vision through mirror use and allows you to approach on the passenger side without creating a dangerous backlit situation. Violators, especially seasoned criminals, assess everything you do from a tactical standpoint. That could make the difference between challenging or complying as the stop progresses.

It’s All in the Approach
You may think the first approach to the violator vehicle is the most dangerous, but statistics show that a good number of officers have been killed during subsequent approaches in the course of the traffic stop. It’s assumed they would have more information on the occupants of the vehicle because they’ve obtained information from dispatch or an MCT, but this can also work against them. Simply put, a criminal who’s concealing a violent past or warrant pretty much figures you won’t know that information on the first approach, but that same criminal figures you definitely know the second time you approach—even if you don’t.

The first approach sets the tone of the stop. Take a few seconds to assess the situation. Many cops have been killed because they failed to recognize dangerous suspect movements, tactical disadvantages and visibility limitations, because their “contempt-of-cop” meter, coupled with adrenaline, got in the way.

Take the time you need. Statistically, officers who work alone on traffic stops have fewer incidents because they know they have only themselves to take care of business. Being patient means taking an overall “snapshot” of the situation and occupants first. If something seems off, trust that feeling. Lots of occupants? Bad location? Can’t see clearly into the vehicle and something doesn’t seem right? Proceed methodically and control the situation. Make it your stop.

If you can’t see in the windows because of tint, use the PA to request all windows be rolled down. Make it safe for you first, then consider your approach. Once you arrive at the vehicle, it’s time for business. The less you have to adjust to the situation, the better.

As you approach, there are two schools of thought. In my opinion, the more tactically sound approach is from the passenger side. In my experience, it provides a better view of the passenger compartment, is closer to available cover on the side of the road, and you don’t have to worry as much about getting whacked by passing traffic. Right-handed shooters (the vast majority) will have a harder time concealing their shot. It also allows you to approach from an angle so that you stay out of the violator’s right side mirror, something you can’t do with a travel lane alongside you if you chose the driver’s side approach. Furthermore, approaching on the right allows you to look across the rear passenger area while still keeping an eye on the driver. The right front passenger is clearly visible too.

Note: When you get out of your patrol vehicle, walk around the back of your patrol vehicle and begin your approach from the right. Do not walk between the front of your vehicle and the back of the violator’s on the way to the passenger side of their vehicle. It puts you in the middle of the kill zone should the violator engage you. If your vehicle gets hit in the rear, which is very common, you’re done. I know this seems like common sense, but I see it all the time in my area, so take the time and walk around.

The driver’s side approach is more traditional, and it has its time and place. Limited room along the right side of the violator vehicle, when you’re in a parking lot or side street with lots of room, when you’ve determined that you’re dealing with a low-risk violator—all might be cause for a driver-side approach. Some officers like to be closer to the violator because they feel it makes it easier to determine any sign of intoxication or impairment. It also may be because that’s what’s taught at their academy, so it seems more familiar. Ultimately, it’s a matter of what the officer deems appropriate for each stop.

As you reach the violator vehicle, conduct business from a position of advantage while constantly scanning all areas of the interior for weapons. Clearly identify yourself, the reason for the stop and request the necessary paperwork in a polite but firm manner. Doing so sets the tone that traffic stops are your bread-and-butter and that business will be conducted on your terms.

If the vehicle is only occupied in the front seat area, don’t ever pass the “B” pillar. Too many cops still get killed by presenting themselves squarely in the middle of the passenger or driver’s side window opening, and seasoned criminals recognize that type of inexperience and can take advantage of it. You should clearly see the hands of all occupants. Tell the driver to place their hands on the steering wheel until instructed to do otherwise, and ask the passenger to place their hands on the top of their knees or touching the dash, depending on the type of occupants you’re dealing with.

If you see passengers in the back seat as you approach, stop by the “C” pillar behind them, ask them to roll down the right rear window, and conduct business from there. Instruct them to place their hands on their knees, the headliner or back of the front headrests. Of course, discretion is required. There’s a difference between a carload of gang bangers and a soccer mom chauffeuring 10-year-olds. The point: Do what’s needed to neutralize threats from the most common source—the occupants of the violator vehicle. If applicable, ask the right rear passenger to hand you identification, licenses and registration for everyone in the car while never moving past the “C” pillar.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled ( Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, No. 03-5554) that peace officers conducting lawful stops have the right to identify the person(s) involved. [Ed. note -- This applies only to states having mandatory identification laws. For more information on this ruling and which states are affected, see the clarification by clicking here.] Use this to your advantage. Remember: Never walk past anyone until you’ve established who they are and everything’s under control. Once you have all the necessary paperwork, tell the occupants in a polite, firm manner to remain as they are, and that you will return in a few minutes. Then make a tactically sound retreat back to your patrol vehicle to continue the stop.

That’s it for part one. In part two, I’ll discuss some tips and tactics during the execution and conclusion of the stop. In the meantime, stay safe.

JP Molnar would like to thank the Pinal County (Ariz.) Sheriff’s Department for assisting with the photographs for this article.


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