Traffic stops are one of the most common activities any patrol officer performs. They are so common and create so many contacts that they are credited with generating more drug arrests than any other activity. That’s no surprise. But following that train of thought, they likely generate more warrants served, more weapons seized and certainly more misdemeanor violations than any other law enforcement activity. For all that, how much do we practice them outside of the academy and practical use?
Long ago, we stopped differentiating between “high risk and low risk” traffic stops because we realized we had no real way of identifying “low risk.” So now we differentiate between high risk and unknown risk. Given that, it’s just as important as ever that all law enforcement officers practice the basics of safety and risk mitigation during every traffic stop. Admittedly, while this author hasn’t pulled a traffic stop in over ten years and hasn’t had formal training on such in about 25, the protocols remain, and likely always will, the same: location, communication, safe disengagement.
Location refers to where you effect the stop. This has to be planned before you ever activate your lights or touch your siren. Unless you know every foot of roadway in your patrol area intimately, you’ll have to be a bit patient after you’ve identified the vehicle you want to stop before you stop it. In that time frame is when you should be communicating your location to dispatch, whether it be by radio or via your in-car computer and running the license plate of the vehicle you plan to stop. Thanks to the wonders of technology, running that plate can not only give you information on the validity of the registration and the basic information about the vehicle, but it can also tell you who the registered owner is, the status of their license and whether they have any open warrants. Depending on your system and software, you may also get officer survival/risk information back as well.
Pick your location where the target vehicle will have space on the shoulder to pull out of the roadway PLUS enough space for you to get out of your vehicle safely. Whether you plan to approach the driver’s side or the passenger side of the target vehicle, you need to protect your lane of travel while on foot. If there isn’t going to be enough shoulder but there are commercial parking lots, time your stop so the driver pulls into one of those or direct him to do so using your PA system.
Once the vehicle has stopped, make sure your vehicle is in optimal position and you have communicated your stop location to dispatch. Pay attention to the lighting. If it’s at all possible, you need to be able to see the driver and passenger in the target vehicle better than they can see you. If the vehicle has smoked windows, whether it’s daylight or at night, use your PA system to direct the driver to put the windows down. You need to be able to see into the entire passenger compartment as you make your approach.
In “the old days” there was the practice of pressing down on every trunk lid as you approached the driver’s window. This was done for two reasons: to make sure the trunk lid was fully latched shut and to leave your handprint on it. Long ago, it was a rare practice for criminals to have someone in the trunk; to pop up and shoot the officer on his approach. Thankfully that’s not the problem it was long ago but making a direct physical connection between you and the target vehicle was still a good idea. If the vehicle sped off or if, God forbid, the officer got injured/killed on the stop, there was a physical evidence connection between the officer and the target vehicle. In today’s world of dashboard mounted cameras and body worn cameras, that physical connection isn’t as important. Even without it, there is still evidentiary video connecting the target vehicle to the stop.
Communication refers to two types: Your communication with dispatch and your fellow officers, and your communication with the occupant(s) of the vehicle. Dispatch and your fellow officers need to know where you are and what you have. They need to know what the need is for backup. Set aside the fatal error of Tombstone Courage. It might sound cool to say, “One officer, one riot,” but it’s also suicidal. If there’s only the driver in the vehicle, then you only have one set of hands to watch. One occupant equals two hands. Four occupants equal eight hands. How good are you? Not that good. While manpower and distance in some places creates the reality that officers go without backup on some traffic stops, that reality should be avoided if it’s at all possible.
Communicate clearly with the driver and any occupants you have to address. “Coldly professional” is the best term to describe it. Courtesy is mandatory until the occupants of the vehicle make it useless, or worse yet, dangerous. Never sacrifice your officer survival protocols in favor of courtesy.
Safe disengagement usually occurs twice: once after the initial approach and once after the issuance. You have to approach to secure identifying documents, registration, etc. You have to approach the second time to return them and issue any citations or equipment repair orders you decided on. Each approach is as dangerous as the first. Avoid thinking that once you’ve approached the first time, every follow-on approach is safe. That’s nonsense. This isn’t paranoia. You have no idea what that driver (or other occupants) has done while you’re back in your patrol vehicle. Every approach is as dangerous as the first. Each disengagement is the same. You don’t want to turn your back on the driver or other occupants. You don’t want to back up to your vehicle in an unsafe traffic condition. The balance is something we all have to learn and we learn by doing.
It’s been said that the biggest threat to a safe traffic stop is the officer’s mental approach. “Routine” doesn’t exist and letting your guard down too soon is one of the Ten Deadly Errors; as is Tombstone Courage. Remember that more officers die performing traffic stops each year than any other activity. Treat them accordingly.