Single Officer Traffic Stops

Almost every officer who has worked the street has done more traffic stops than any other task we provide.  From the first few days in an FTO program throughout our careers we will each, individually, complete this task literally thousands if not tens of thousands of times.  We have been preached to that “there is no routine traffic stop” and “every traffic stop is a potentially deadly situation”.  We all know this to be a fact, but we also know that after hundreds of times with no negative outcomes, it does, in our minds, become routine.

I clearly remember my Police Academy days when we were “trained” to conduct the traffic stop.  This “training” essentially consisted of us, as new recruits, being shown all the different ways we could and would be killed during a traffic stop.  I remember watching the recruits as we conducted traffic stop after traffic stop in the parking lot of the academy, and with each iteration the recruits would progressively become more aggressive.

The new recruit who walked up the vehicle and introduced him or herself quickly became the stealth ninja who all but climbed over the trunk of the vehicle with weapon in hand, shouting at the yet unidentified driver.  In my mind, I believe that we are training officers to die at every traffic stop, or to approach each and every vehicle as a felony stop with weapons drawn.  As we went through the training, the lessons that were taken away were simply this:

1. Everyone in a vehicle wants to kill you and will do so.

2. No one will give you their actual name and will always provide a false ID.

3. Every vehicle has a drug crazed maniac in the trunk with a blue knife and this individual wants nothing more than to cut you.

4. Every traffic stop ends when you shoot the driver and the passenger and chase the man in the trunk across the parking lot, leaving your squad car unlocked and running.

Of course as we read through this we can all say, “That’s ridiculous” and move on to the real world.  But what about the new recruit who knows nothing except “they taught me in the academy”.  I am in no way attacking what is being done and taught in the Police Academies across the nation beyond what I have pointed out as a potential problem.  Our Academies are always trying to do more with less and must teach “worse case scenarios”.

With this understanding of the limitations of the Police Academies to train our officers, it is our implied responsibility to train ourselves and our officers with the real world balance.  Most of the time we can assume that our new officers and veterans alike will be on their own, in the dark, stopping an unknown vehicle multiple times each shift.  How do we prepare ourselves and them for this moment without creating officers who will run up to the minivan window with weapon drawn and drag grandma through the window because she didn’t hear him or her.

Real World Training

Traffic stop training within our departments is some of the easiest, most cost effective training we can conduct.  We already have the resources, the knowledge and the hard learned lessons that can be shared.  So what is required?

1.  A Squad vehicle

2. Officers

3. Real world experience

4. A parking lot

This can be a great experience for your newer officers to learn from the veterans.  Simply run scenarios.  Let your new officers experience a traffic stop where the driver simply signs the citation.  I know, this sounds like a new and innovative training technique, why do we think so?  Use your veteran officers and their personal experiences in these scenarios.  If your veteran officers have personally experienced something, it’s likely that your newer officers will see something similar.

Use the “crawl, walk, run” method in training.  Grabbing an officer and throwing as much as you can at them without giving them the tools to succeed is not training.  Talk through, walk through, and operate.  Let your officers talk through traffic stops.  Walk the group through and while doing so, identify potential danger points and lessons learned.  Allow your officers to practice multiple “real world scenarios”, even yes, deadly situations.

Mental imagery

Think through scenarios.  Our minds are incredible machines that we don’t use enough.  It is proven that without the outside senses such as touch, smell, sight, our mind does not know the difference between fantasy and reality.  What this means to us is that we can literally conduct hundreds and thousands of traffic stops in our minds without ever getting out of the car.

I was taught in Little League baseball that as the batter approached the plate, it was my job as the shortstop to know what I was going to do if the ball came to me, what I would do if the ball went to the third baseman and many other possible scenarios.  I thought through all these possible scenarios before the ball was hit.  Do the same things in your vehicle before you ever step out on the traffic stop.  What if the passenger gets out and runs what if the driver tries to drive away, what if I see a gun?  Have a plan before you get there.

Who to stop

This can be dictated somewhat by your particular department policies and procedures.  Most importantly listen to your gut.  In a rural area like I work in there are times when my closest back-up is as far as 30 min away.  This comes into my decision making process on a back road with no lighting and a suspicious vehicle with blacked out windows.  You do not have to stop every suspicious vehicle you find.  You certainly don’t have to do so in an area where you will be alone.  Set up the stop and choose wisely which vehicles you choose to stop, based on your advantage not theirs.

Where to stop

Choose your battleground wisely.  It becomes very easy to focus on the vehicle that you are about to stop and trying to count people, trying to judge the intent of the driver, watching for something to be dumped.  Look around before you initiate the stop.  Pull the vehicle over where it is most beneficial to you.  Look at things such as lighting, neighborhood, and escape routes.

When to stop

Be aware of when you initiate the stop.  I learned early that, while it looks really cool to “hit the lights and dive for the median”, this is not necessarily the best option.  It generally works better to ensure that you can get behind the vehicle before initiating the stop.  This sounds like common sense, but I have watched traffic stops turn into pursuits simply because the stop was initiated before the officer was ready.

Before you get out

Think it through, run the “what if’s”.  Watch the vehicle.  Many times I have gotten indications of something heinous simply by watching the passenger attempt to stash or hide items.  I have even watched drivers switch out right in front of me.  There is no race to the car after the vehicle is pulled over.  Take a minute to ensure that you are prepared.  CHECK FOR TRAFFIC!!  We have some really cool devices on the doors of our vehicles that are designed specifically for this purpose.  Check the mirror, check it again, and then open the door and take a look.  Get into a habit of doing the right things.  Practice getting in and out of the vehicle.  Get into a routine so that you don’t forget something.  Check the mirror, turn on handheld (if needed), ensure recording device is on, wipe the Cheeto’s off your shirt, etc…  practice does NOT make perfect but PERFECT practice does.

TELL SOMEONE WHERE YOU ARE!

This is a common mistake that can lead to disastrous results.  Nothing is more frustrating than to hear one of your fellow officers screaming into his radio at that “really scared octave” and you don’t know where he is.  I remember driving like a madman all over town one night trying to find a female officer who was obviously losing a battle quickly and we responding officers only found her by the grace of God.  A few minutes on the side of the road with a violent subject can become a lifetime, especially if your back-up can’t find you.

Approach

What’s the hurry?  If the individual in that vehicle has evil intentions, an extra minute is not going change his or her mind or give them more opportunity.  Waiting for the plate to come back could save your life.  It might be important to know that the vehicle you are approaching, was just used in a violent felony, or is stolen.

Be professional

Some simple self grooming will go a long way to portrait a professional.  If your shirt has chocolate and taco sauce down the front and you have a dip in your gum so big that you are drooling brown goo down your chin, you do not look professional.   It can be a little tough for the driver to respect you when your fly is open in their face.

Be polite

Use the term Sir or Ma’am, not “hey there snapper head”.  While you may be tempted to use phrases like “what do you think you were doing?” this is not only unprofessional but is irrelevant to the traffic stop.  Tell the driver why you pulled them over.  I personally do not use the question format of “Do you know why I pulled you over? because, as a driver, my first thought would be that if this officer doesn’t even know why than I’m not going to tell him.  Introduce yourself and explain to the driver why you pulled them over, and ask them for the required documentation.  When you have the information you need to call the driver Mr. or Ms. Whomever.  Again, only if we show respect can we expect to receive it.

A little Please and Thank You

When asking for information or giving instructions, say please and thank you.  You have nothing to prove and a touch of politeness will save you a lot of trouble in most situations.  You will know how important this is when your Chief gets a call from someone you ticketed, just to compliment your professionalism.

Treat everyone the same

When your recorded traffic stops are shown to a jury back to back, will they show consistency?  Is there any reason whatsoever for anyone to believe that you have a prejudice against anyone because of age, gender, race or even social status.  Make sure you treat the driver of the beat down two door Ford with a different colored roof with the same respect you give the Jaguar driver.

Give clear directions

If you want the driver to stay in the vehicle, say so.  No one can read minds.  When you return to your vehicle with the driver’s information, tell them what is going on and what you want them to do.  If you don’t tell them what you expect, what can you say when they get out and walk away to “have a smoke”?

Make decision to cite based on action not attitude

People ask me all the time how to keep from getting a ticket and I tell them, I usually know whether I am going to cite the driver before I ever get out of my car.  Of course even I have fallen into allowing a driver to “change my mind” when I didn’t intend to cite.  If you can make the decision before hand there can be no question as to your motives later.  I have even gone so far as to say to myself (into my mic) whether I was going to cite the driver or not prior to approaching the vehicle, just to have it on tape.

Have a nice day

When you have completed your business with the driver, send them on their way safely.  I generally use the phrase, “please drive safely” or during deer season I will encourage them to watch closely for crossing deer.  Do not tell the person to “have a nice day”.  This can be construed as rude at best and downright unprofessional at worst.  Remember, you are the professional in this scenario.

Officer safety must always be foremost in your mind during any citizen contact and especially with the traffic stop.  Do not lose your professionalism by overreacting.  In our profession, we walk the razors edge of being prepared for the worst while still treating the citizens with respect.  Believe it or not, everyone is not trying to kill you.  Worse, there are some who will.  When we find that we have nothing to prove, and believe in what we are doing, we will truly be the consummate professional.

Written and submitted by Officer  Corey D Roberts
Officer Corey D Roberts is full time Police Officer and twice deployed combat veteran. Corey is an NRA Law Enforcement Select-fire Instructor and held the positions of Training Officer and Tactical Commander for a Multi-Jurisdictional Emergency Response Team. Corey is also qualified in Police Precision Rifle. Corey D Roberts is not licensed to give legal advice and before implementing any training program in your area, check with your department legal advisors.

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