Things to remember during high-risk traffic stops

     When Officer Rodriguez ran the plate of the vehicle in front of him on his mobile data computer (MDC), it came back stolen. Dispatch had already hit the alert tone when Rodriguez was picking up his microphone. He immediately gave his location and a description of the car.

     Backup was on the way when the driver of the stolen vehicle unwittingly demonstrated his unfamiliarity with the territory by turning into a cul-de-sac. When the car stopped, Rodriguez took a tactically sound position and used his vehicle public address system.

     Rodriguez ordered the driver to the prone position, but the driver squirmed on the pavement for a second and took off running. A nearby unit captured the driver while Rodriguez detained the passenger.

     During a later interview, when the driver was asked why he ran, Rodriguez was not surprised by the answer. The driver had considered running several times during the encounter, and the unbearably hot pavement prompted his decision; he would rather risk further charges than endure the searing heat.

Consider local conditions

     Although there is a fairly wide 70-degree range for which it is appropriate to prone suspects on the pavement, weather extremes can cause other problems in law enforcement that need tactical considerations. Do a weather check during every briefing. It should be accompanied by other good-to-know things like road closures and local activities.

     How does one accommodate for temperature? First, remember that in a high-risk vehicle stop, time is on the officer's side after the vehicle has stopped rolling. It takes hands, feet and keys to make a vehicle roll. Every agency's training teaches officers to order the driver to toss the keys out shortly after the high-risk stop begins. Likewise, all tactical training tells officers to watch the suspects' hands. However, do not assume that the keys that hit the pavement were the ones that started the car.

     The most obvious solution would be handcuffing the suspect while they remain seated in the car. Handcuffing a seated suspect should only be done under certain circumstances. For example, when the officer, for whatever reason, is already on top of the suspect. That is, the officer is still up at the driver's window during a "normal" traffic stop and something comes up that requires immediate handcuffing. Going from high risk to walking up to the driver window is not an option just because the pavement is hot or cold. In this case, the officer must branch into a different scenario.

     One alternative to proning a suspect is having them kneel. Officer teams can even lay down a covering on the pavement for a suspect arrest area, as the situation permits. Weapons are more available when suspects kneel. Consider methods that reduce balance, and therefore employability of weapons. For example, have the kneeling suspect cross his ankles and place one hand on the head, the other straight out, thumbs down. Seated arrest positions are all right, but not everyone can seat themselves on the ground without steadying themselves with a hand. The opposite is also true. Often, a seated arrestee can't pop up like a kneeling one can.

     More officers are necessary if the arrest position is standing, as this position gives the suspect more mobility. Thus, it should be used sparingly. The advantage to a standing-arrest position is that officers also have increased mobility.

Coordination

     High-risk scenarios should be practiced until an entire team or department follows the written SOP and has a template for each scenario. Training sessions should always include at least one representative from an allied agency.

     When practicing, officers should have three training goals:

  1. Who does what?
  2. When shooting, how do we deliver fire efficiently and how do we prevent crossfire?
  3. How does the team maintain communication?

     Deciding who does what should be driven by SOP and practice. Practice in an open field using two patrol cars, a civilian car and airsoft training guns. Do not forget full facial protection and proper attire. Have an officer play a suspect who routinely aggresses the team.

     Training to maintain communication also can be done using the above scenario. Officers must keep each other in their periphery and communicate while engaging and giving verbal commands. Use a referee who has the authority to stop the scenario and restart it where it branched. This will encourage a healthy dialogue about vehicle stop options.

     When training to deliver efficient fire and avoid crossfire, it is recommended that agencies use a mannequin, two patrol cars and a barricade. The mannequin is placed at various points in front of the vehicles. For example, put the mannequin in the "cone of darkness" (just in front of the arresting vehicle) and shoot the simulated armed suspect in the vehicle while a cover officer has responsibility for the suspect on the ground. The barricade simulates various parts of the vehicle exterior that will block fields of fire.

     Officers training in this scenario will immediately find that shooting from cover, two car-lengths away, is a further distance than most will practice. This is also a good time to practice efficient use of cover and steadying oneself on a vehicular barricade.

Handcuffing

     Officers on duty generally carry only two to three pairs of handcuffs. During a high-risk stop or other operation that requires more handcuffs than the contact officer has on his belt, cover officers will pass them to the contact officer. For example, if a high-risk stop has a driver and three passengers, the contact officer uses either his projected voice or PA system to call persons out of that vehicle one at a time. After the first two are called out and handcuffed, other officers on scene must donate their cuffs in order to effectively detain more suspects.

     In light of this situation, there are a few things that wise officers do. First, if it is tactically unsound to pass cuffs to the contact officer, the officer has to rely on handcuffing resources at hand.

     If the agency also uses the kinds of handcuffs that look like big wire ties, they should be preloaded just like their steel counterparts. That is, the nylon cuffs should already be linked together with loops large enough to go over large hands but too small to fit over the head. This rule should not be compromised. Some agencies hang these things from the patrol car outside mirrors to keep them handy. If an officer is part of an arrest team in a civil disturbance, he can use a carabiner and carry a half dozen preloaded ones.

     After the dust settles, everyone switches out their handcuffs. We strongly recommend that officers color code their handcuffs so they get the correct set back. Some officers use colored wire ties on the links to mark their cuffs. Better: Get some of the brightly colored handcuffs from Hiatts to claim them easily.

     How do you put nylon handcuffs on a noncompliant suspect? That's easy — put the steel ones on first. This is why officers should always carry a minimum of two sets of cuffs.

     High-risk handcuffing is done with steel ratchet-type cuffs. Once these are on, one can slip the nylon style over the hands, even if the suspect is noncompliant. If this activity is done following any type of high-risk contact, the uniform of the day is a drawn firearm. All high-risk activity should be at gunpoint or TASER-point.

Clear the vehicle

     If a high-risk stop, or any stop, goes into a foot pursuit, there are a few things officers can do to prevent heartaches later. First, clear the vehicle. We are not just talking about clearing a suspect vehicle; the patrol car should also be unavailable to suspects. That is, things that could be used against an officer like a shotgun or an extra can of OC should be secured. The keys stay with the officer. Few things will cause more confusion and liability than a stolen police car.

     Second, clear the suspect vehicle. A quick sweep with a drawn handgun can confirm that no one else is in the car, and the officer can continue the foot pursuit. Even if backup units are arriving, the first officer that needs to walk or run near any part of the suspect vehicle must clear it.

     Obviously, another reason to clear the suspect vehicle is the potential for the suspect to leave weapons behind. It is not uncommon for suspects to ditch the gun before or during the run. It is logically better to let the suspect keep running and secure a firearm that might fall in the hands of a curious child. Arriving officers can do this in order to allow the initiating officer and backup to get in the chase.

     Third, if there is potential for the suspect to double back and reclaim the suspect vehicle, disable it according to policy. Obviously, the easiest way to do this is to pocket the keys.

Use psychology

     When initiating a stop, reach over and click on the passenger side spotlight. It doesn't hurt to have them pre-positioned. It also doesn't hurt to have the Police Explorer in the passenger seat working the spotlight. The psychology of two persons in the patrol vehicle works to the officer's advantage. Telling the suspects that there is a police canine standing by can also go a long way toward compliance.

     The Explorer (or any other passenger) should not be allowed to remain in the passenger door location during a typical high-risk stop. If done by the numbers, the patrol car is offset from the stopped vehicle so that the driver side of the patrol car offers protection from traffic. Anyone in the passenger side cannot put engine block between himself and the threat. Have the passenger move to the rear of the vehicle.

     Finally, the most effective thing officers can do during a high-risk stop is present a competent officer team, so suspects recognize that the likelihood of effective resistance is trumped. In other words, overwhelm the suspects with the threat of reasonable force to solicit their compliance.

     Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches at Hartnell College in Salinas, California.

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