I recently got a call from Chuck Remsberg, one of the co-founders of Calibre Press and author of the best-selling, officer-survival trilogy Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters, The Tactical Edge: Surviving High Risk Patrol and Tactics for Criminal Patrol. Chuck and his partner Denny Anderson were also the creators of the original Street Survival Seminars, which I had the pleasure of teaching for more than 12 years.
Turns out, Chuck was responding to an inquiry he received from a young officer who was confused by a statement made by one of his academy instructors during a class on vehicle-stop tactics. The confusion arose from whether to allow the operator of a stopped vehicle to walk back to the officer’s squad car instead of having him return to his car while the stop takes place. The academy instructor had apparently asserted that it was actually safer to allow the driver to continue walking back to your squad car rather than telling him to return to his vehicle where, as the instructor stated, “He might have access to a weapon.” Chuck was getting some feedback on his response to the young officer.
I disagreed with the academy instructor’s assertion. In fact, should a driver start to walk back to your squad car, I believe you should immediately direct him to return to his car. Here’s why.
The basis for my position is four-fold. First, asking the driver to return to his vehicle isn’t only safer, it’s also, in essence, a test of compliance. In the driver’s journey walking back to your squad car, he may inadvertently venture out into traffic. Also, should the driver not comply with your request, his noncompliance should be cause for concern and escalate your awareness level a notch or two.
Second, you may not have received all of your data back from either the dispatcher or your MDT. As part of a stop, most savvy street cops will run a plate check for the vehicle history, as well as a NCIC check on the registered owner. Ideally, this info should be in hand before making contact with the driver and be obtained out of earshot of the subject being run.
Third, some drivers think they’re doing you a favor by coming back to your car. In fact, I’ve had more than a few violators start to helpfully reach for their wallets as they make their way back to my vehicle. (The first time this happened, I think I broke the “alighting from behind the wheel” speed record in getting out of my squad car. Had the driver seen my duty pistol positioned behind my leg rather than my finger pointing at him, he might have broken a similar speed record in returning to his car!) Getting the driver to stop and return to his car the instant he starts walking toward you can prevent a similar scenario from occurring.
Finally, if you allow the driver to walk toward you, it removes one of the best tactical options you have in conducting investigatory vehicle stops—the passenger-side approach. And that’s the focus of this month’s column.
An Effective Tactical Tool
It’s well established and documented that passenger-side approaches are one of the best tactical tools police officers have in making vehicle stops, especially when compared to traditional driver-side approaches. Mental transcripts from post-shift “choir practices” have often memorialized the look on the faces of both drivers and passengers alike when patrol officers have knocked on the passenger-side window to ask for the operator’s license and registration. (“Man, this guy’s head spun around so fast, he looked like the girl in The Exorcist!”). Furthermore, there’s evidence that officers actually see more when making a passenger-side approach.
Research conducted in California several years ago showed that more than 90% of the officers undergoing vehicle-
stop training who made traditional driver’s side approaches missed a suspect hidden in the back seat of the car they’d stopped. In contrast, the group of officers who were told to make a passenger-side approach found the hidden suspect 100% of the time. Perhaps this was because the officers who used the passenger-side approach were less preoccupied with being struck by traffic. Perhaps these officers were simply able to see more. Whatever the reasons may be, what is known is that passenger-side approaches are a great tool from an officer safety perspective.
Should you decide to go with the passenger-side approach, there’s one caveat. Remember: The main benefit is the element of surprise. Most drivers won’t expect the investigating officer to approach from the passenger side.
To not compromise this element of surprise, remember that your route to the passenger-side door should start from behind your vehicle, not from a point between the front of your squad car and the rear of the violator’s car. This is especially true at night. Most street cops know the tactic of directing their vehicle’s spotlights at either the driver’s side or rear-view mirrors (or both) to keep the occupants from observing your movements. However, I’ve seen this tactic defeated when the officer walks between the front of their squad car and behind the suspect’s vehicle, directly across their spotlight’s beam, as they make their way up to the passenger-side door. In fact, it’s never a good idea to walk between the suspect’s vehicle and your squad car for a number of safety reasons. If nothing else motivates you, picture the result of being crushed between the two cars as a result of a rear-end collision with your patrol car. Avoid doing this whenever possible.