When conducting traffic stops, we all get complacent. They become a routine part of the job. We have all heard the saying, “routine is deadly,” but those words, like so many other words from the academy, are only a faint echo somewhere in the back of our minds. This is especially concerning when it comes to traffic stops. They are regularly listed as one of the deadliest call types for law enforcement each year. If we want to change that, we need to do better.
Depending on the agency, we are either on 8s, 10s or 12-hour shifts. What is the rush to flip our lights on and jump straight into this stop? We need to start thinking ahead and planning to ensure there are as many variables as possible in our favor. There are so many things we do not and cannot know before we make a stop. We cannot be sure who is in the vehicle. We cannot be sure of how many occupants are in the vehicle. We do not know if those occupants are armed. We cannot know if those occupants have just committed a crime that we are unaware of. All these unknowns put us in a position of distinct disadvantage. It is human nature to ensure that we are in the most advantageous position possible in anything we do. Survival is the most basic human instinct. It is the reason those hairs on the back of your neck stand up from time to time. So, what can we do to turn those odds back in our favor?
There are so many things we do not and cannot know before we make a stop.
The very first thing we should be doing is running the registration on the vehicle. Let’s check and see if the registration is valid, who the registered owner is and where the vehicle is registered — make sure that the vehicle is not stolen or wanted. That is basic, but why not take it a few steps further? Run the registered owner and check their driver’s license status, check “in-house” to see what involvements the vehicle and registered owner have had with law enforcement in the area. The moment your patrol car pulls behind a vehicle, the occupants know who you are and what you are about. Why don’t we take the time to do a little homework and try and find out not only who owns this car but what they are about by finding out what this car has been stopped for in the past, who was in it and who they are by running their criminal history.
Once we have done some research on the driver or vehicle owner, we need to decide where this stop is going to take place. There are a multitude of different factors to consider when picking the location for a stop. Some of the common factors are the number of people present, if those people are known to law enforcement, traffic, lighting and weather. Ideally, you will want to choose a location that is well lit, out of the way of traffic and will limit the possibility of interference from people who are not associated with the stop.
Next, call out your stop a few blocks ahead of where you plan to stop the car. For example, if you give dispatch your location and vehicle description ahead of time, such as, “SouthCom, 426 Traffic, Lincoln Highway and Western Avenue on a silver Buick, Illinois registration ABC123,” this makes your stop a lot smoother and simpler. The fact is, you never know what is going to happen when you hit your lights. The vehicle could flee, shots could be fired, or the occupants could exit the vehicle and flee on foot or rush your patrol car. It is way easier to key up on the radio and yell, “shots fired,” “vehicle fleeing eastbound” or “get me units,” than it is to attempt to get all the information of the entire stop, location and what went to hell out all at the same time. We must remember, as cops, we are multitaskers. We can absolutely do more than one thing at a time, but we are also human. Let’s get the talking out of the way before it’s time to fight.
Once you have made the stop, sit in your car for a minute and watch the occupants. If you have made enough traffic stops, you have a good idea of what “normal” behavior is. You may not be able to fully articulate it right away, but if something just seems off, call for a second unit. Sit back and watch a little longer, see if you can key in on what it is that just doesn’t seem right. When you are watching them, you are observing their behaviors, learning more about the occupant(s) of the vehicle and leveling the field just a little more.
When it’s time to approach the vehicle, approach on the passenger side. Most officers are still doing the driver’s-side approach. This will potentially catch the occupant(s) off-guard, keep you away from traffic and permit you to see more of the driver. If the windows are tinted, have the driver roll all the windows down before walking past. Now that you have a clear view of who is in the passenger compartment of the vehicle, use the pillars for cover. On a passenger vehicle, the “A-pillar” is the pillar that is on the front face of the front doors, nearest the windshield. The “B-pillar” is the pillar that is on the rear face of the front doors and front face of the rear doors, if applicable. The “C-pillar” is on the rear face of the back doors. Sports utility vehicles, station wagons and vans may have a “D-pillar,” which would be the pillar at the rear corners of the vehicle, nearest the cargo doors or tailgate. No part of your body should ever cross the B-pillar unless you are physically fighting with or extracting an occupant. If there are occupants (who are not small children) in the backseat of the vehicle, it is advisable not to cross the C-pillar. There is no reason people in the backseat cannot be the middleman and pass items like a driver’s license and proof of insurance between you and the driver. Staying back and using the pillars for cover not only offers you protection, but it also gives you the ability to see the occupants of the vehicle clearly while they have to strain to see you.
The final and possibly most important thing you can do to conduct the safest possible traffic stop is by managing your backup. Anytime there is a second unit on your stop, whether it is your partner, an assisting officer who showed up or even a supervisor, there is no reason for them to leave the suspect vehicle when you do. When you walk back to your patrol car to run the identification the occupant(s) gave to you, they need to stay with the car and keep their eyes on the occupants. They are keeping everyone safe up there. When they are at your passenger window, they are not only failing to keep their eyes on the occupant(s), but they are also distracting you and placing you both in danger.
We must keep our minds open to the possibility of violence at any given time. Too many officers are seeking to gain control over a situation for no other reason other than to exert control. The idea is to make sure the control you have gained actually serves a purpose. These tactics are designed to give you every possible advantage, place a potential threat at every possible disadvantage and control as many variables as possible. They are not a guaranteed recipe for success, but they will greatly increase your chances of going home at the end of your shift.