In the 21st century, a lot has changed in our culture of policing, and it seems many law enforcement officers are slowly becoming less productive. There are officers all around the country who are only responding to calls for service, saying they are basically firefighters now and asking themselves when they are going to get some recliners in the briefing room. There are a myriad of reasons for this change. Some officers blame society, politicians and the media. Some of us officers have the mindset that most people still support the police. I believe this statement to be true regardless of the jurisdiction you’re in. However, I agree that if we make a mistake, the spotlight we will find ourselves in is bigger and brighter than ever. I also agree that every contact we have, every traffic stop we make, is an opportunity for things to go sideways.
We all became cops to do whatever we can to make a little piece of the world a better place to exist. We all have the things we like to make stops for and things we feel good about. It’s a pretty safe bet that getting guns, drugs and violent felons off the street are the gold standards for what we get out of a stop. We still want to make our part of the planet a better place, but we also want to keep our jobs and stay out of prison. So, we need to figure out how we are going to give ourselves the best odds of doing both while staying safe.
The first step is fairly easy: Every individual officer needs to study their jurisdiction’s laws and their agency’s policy and procedure manual, and get up to speed on case law. The second and final step is even more simple: Make more tactically sound stops. As officers, we cannot help but stare when we see the 1997 Buick Le Sabre with blacked-out windows, air fresheners in the window, leaking muffler, expired registration and, as the only functioning headlight, a hardware store flashlight taped to the fender. I am sure some of us could find even more and burn through half a citation book on that Buick. But ask yourself, would Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo or Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman be running drugs in a beat-up, run-down car? No, because they are professionals, and if we want to start getting more than ducks from the ashtray and a little bit of crotch weed, we need to start looking for professionals. The idea here is to reduce the quantity of stops and increase the quality of
For basic interdiction work, there are a few things you can determine from the vehicle itself. Professionals and high-level criminals want to blend in. They did not get where they are by sticking out like a sore thumb. The things you are going to be looking for concerning the vehicle itself are things like out-of-state plates and rental car status, especially a rental pick-up with a bed cover. The vast majority, and I mean 99%, of the reasons we need to stop cars are for the occupants themselves. We are not talking about racial profiling, but people profiling.
Find a fairly decent stretch of road where traffic is visible to you and you are visible to traffic. Yes, we are asking you to find a spot where you are visible to traffic. You want to see what happens when people see you. Most cars will continue on as if you weren’t even there. If someone is speeding, they will likely slow down, because this is normal human behavior. Once you spend enough time staring at normal cars that are doing normal things, random things will start to catch your eye. When you first start watching traffic, you will start to pick up on more obvious behaviors, such as the drivers slowing down when they were already traveling below the speed limit, or the cars that are weaving within and occasionally outside of their lanes because they are overly fixated on what you are doing when you pull out behind them. Eventually, you will start to key in on the behaviors of the occupants themselves.
Some officers have stated that it is almost impossible to see occupant behavior in the split-second you observe them. That is not the case. You do see the occupants, but you need to train your brain to process what your eyes see more quickly. It is the same concept in shooting fast, with acceptable accuracy. Instead of focusing on the dot or the front sight, you are focusing on the people in a given vehicle. Eventually, you will see if the driver had their hands at “10 and 2” with their eyes fixed straight ahead, because no one really drives like this. You will also notice the driver turning their head and sometimes even their body away from you, attempting to conceal themselves or simply not wanting to be near you. There are also nervous behaviors, such as the driver rubbing their face with their hand or taking a sip of a drink when they pass by. After watching thousands of cars with none of the occupants doing any of those things, you will pick up on this type of behavior instantly.
If you look for this type of behavior before initiating your stop, your odds of finding guns, drugs, wanted persons and people engaged in other serious crimes will greatly improve. When doing this type of work, remember that you are looking for criminal activity and signs of criminal activity. There is a lot of case law that supports making stops based on a lower standard than probable cause, including:
- Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U. S. 119, 125. P. 3: “Courts must therefore permit officers to make commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior.”
- United States v. Cortez, 449 U. S. 411, 417: “An officer may initiate a brief investigative traffic stop when he has ‘a particularized and objective basis’ to suspect legal wrongdoing.”
- Prado Navarette v. California, 572 U. S. 393, 402: “The level of suspicion required is less than that necessary for probable cause and ‘depends on’ the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act.”
The idea of stopping vehicles based on reasonable suspicion has been around just as long as interdiction work. However, there was never any solid training in this area. Most of the training came from interdiction officers themselves, who would simply share their secrets with other officers like them in the same area. Now this is starting to change. There are different classes around the country that are focused on teaching cops how to make better stops. In Illinois, there are different Mobile Training Units (MTUs), and each one has its own local “guru” teaching a class on how to get better results from traffic stops. There are also companies such as Street Cop Training that are taking their show on the road and on the national level. They are based out of New Jersey; however, they host classes all across the country.
Remember, we understand that safety is your number one priority. Make sure your stops are safe and you are well-versed in case law, in addition to policies and procedures put in place by your administration. If your agency prefers that you write a “PC” ticket, keep in mind that you can find a violation on virtually any vehicle if you follow it long enough. As you become more skilled at interpreting human behavior, you will start making better stops and searching more vehicles. Do not forget your traffic tactics and never ignore that feeling in your gut.