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Mark Clark

Mark Clark

Mark Clark is the public information officer for a law enforcement agency in the southwest. He is also a photographer and contributor to POLICE Magazine.
Patrol

Picking Your Stops (and Keeping Them Stopped)

Carefully choreograph your traffic stops as much as possible to minimize danger.

October 10, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

If patience is the virtue by which police are going to be evaluated in the hereafter, I fear for their celestial well-being. Some cops are in such a rush to get a car stopped that they'll let the driver they're attempting to detain dictate where the traffic stop will take place. Worse, they'll allow suspects to choreograph what happens once the cars have stopped.

Bad Location

Given the opportunity, suspects will lead you as far off the beaten path as possible, or at least to a location that provides them a situational advantage.

Example: A day shift deputy finds a vehicle's driver taking an inordinate amount of time to pull over, and when he does, it's beneath a darkened overpass. It occurs to the deputy that perhaps the vehicle's occupants are angling to get him in an area that will offer few witnesses to whatever surprise they have planned for him. He elects to wait for backup and have the people exit the car, rather than approach the vehicle himself. After the men are successfully detained away from the vehicle, a search of it finds a number of firearms inside.

Remember: You pick when and where they're going to stop. If they don't stop until your vehicle and theirs are in a relatively isolated area, don't approach the car until you have sufficient backup on scene. The driver can pitch a bitch about the imposition all he wants, but has nobody to blame but himself.

If you do find yourself in such a situation, you're probably going to have some time waiting. Make repeated commands over the P.A. to get the driver to do what you want him to do. And if you suspect something bad is in the air, tape these commands. Such evidence can go far to display both your attempts to get compliance and their refusals.

And things can go south in a hurry. Watch those telltale brake lights. More than one suspect has put a car into reverse and hit the gas with the intention of activating the officer's airbags.

The Approach

If you do make the approach, make sure whatever ambient lighting there is works for you, and not against you. Don't cross in front of your headlights or spotlamps at night.

Regardless of which side of the vehicle you approach, you want to minimize the threat of your getting struck by a passing vehicle. Take full advantage of the road shoulder by getting at least the vehicle you're stopping as far to the right as possible.

Vulnerability

Another thing to watch for on traffic stops: Leaving yourself or your patrol car vulnerable.

One Pasadena, Calif., police officer attempted to stop a driver who suddenly abandoned the car on foot. The officer likewise left his patrol car to go in foot pursuit of the suspect, who circled a nearby house and returned to the officer's patrol car which he then stole. The theft of a patrol car carries with it the collateral threat of a suspect arming himself with a shotgun or AR-15 stored inside the vehicle.

One practice that can go a long way toward preventing such problems is not leaving your car keys in the patrol car in the first place. Many officers do so in anticipation of having to suddenly jump back in the car should the driver take off. Unfortunately, for many officers—particularly those in major metropolitan police departments—any ensuing pursuit will probably be cancelled by the watch commander, anyway. Overall, I don't see how the relative worth of leaving keys in the car with the ignition running is worth the risk of your detainee or someone else hopping in the ride and taking off with it.

Traffic stops are inherently dangerous. Let's try to do everything possible to keep them from becoming more so.


Comments (7)

Displaying 1 - 7 of 7

David Moore S-55 @ 10/10/2008 9:14 PM

Great Officer Safety Article! This is vital safety information on TIME & Distance!! It is all about Tactics and where - when stop is made. On a corner, or passing lane of freeway, probably not a good idea and should be avoided wait to engage. If offender stops there use (PA) to move to a safer or better location. How long before they pull over once emergency equipment engaged and running from you for a reason (Usually not Good)! “Prefer rolling wants and warrants added safety on potential issues history where possible, and the availability of backup can be determined prior to stop.” Visual notes of excessive bugs on a rear plate, constantly turning heads or zombie like appearance, etc), Hits on all areas for solid (FI)…Reactionary gap-positioning, traffic, cover units, good communications –always writing down vehicle information on note pad and a copy same information on person (I won’t go into reasons). But most importantly control what you can while you can – (knowing the area -have a plan what if, and practice)…

msumpterjr @ 11/9/2008 8:21 AM

I agree with David that was a great article, it really helped me get a better understanding on how to conduct a safer traffic stop. I will apply this into my future training. If everything goes good in the Academy. Thank you again for the article.

smithma @ 11/16/2008 12:02 AM

I was once told by a training officer that the driver (suspect) dictates the location of the stop, and I openly disagreed. I added that the PA was a great tool to gain compliance, especially for a location change. I had a guy, that I pursued on foot after a traffic stop and he doubled back on me and left in his car. This guy had a Felony Speeding to Elude conviction and had apparently learned from it. (I took my patrol car keys with me, learned from a friend of mine that works for a different agency, so he couldn't have gotten mine) Now it is being taught not to pursue pass the suspect vehicle, for the threat of ambush of other occupants, or ambush in the course of the foot pursuit. It is just hard to fight the instinct to chase the person running!!

INDIANA_RESERVECOP31 @ 11/30/2008 2:43 AM

I love this article, I work as a Reserve Deputy Marshal in a small town of about 500. I try to always think ahead of what could go wrong, the worst case sanario if you would. Even though my stops are few and far between. I always look for new ways of improving my traffic stops, and my fellow officers are glad to give me advice. I have always loved this approach to a car I stopped one night (advice given to me by one of my fellow officers) : I stopped a vehicle for speed through town. At first I thought the car wouldn't stop. The vehicle finally pulled over, I was already thinking the worst. I exited my patrol car, I drive a 93 Chevy Caprice Classic, so I knew I had pleanty of cover if things went south). I walked around the back of my car, keeping the suspect vehicle in sight, and approached from the passenger side and made contact with the driver. It turned out to be an elderly man on his way home from the Hospital. He right away knew why I had pulled him over and was very sorry. I let him go with a verbal warning, advised him to have a safe night and sent him on his way. The driver was cought totaly off guard. He was expecting me to approach him from his side and not the passenger. From the passenger side, I had perfect line of sight from the glove box to the driver. He wasn't even looking from the passenger side, he was fixed on the driver's side of the vehicle.

daniel.deaton @ 12/29/2008 1:17 PM

This is great information for a guy just getting into Law Enforcement! Thanks

dscoville @ 12/30/2008 1:23 AM

Thanks, Daniel. Just remember to pick the brains of the old timers as much as possible. I can't tell you how many times things communicated to me both formally (in training) and informally (windshield conferences) saved my bacon. I hope those just starting out such as you and msumpterjr have a long and safe careers, and will help those that come on the job long after :)

EagleFive @ 12/30/2008 4:08 AM

I found this to be an informative article. However, one question comes to mind - wouldn't it be easier to lock your doors upon getting out? I try to make a habit of it all the time (traffic stop or not) and in so doing, prevent anyone doubling back and taking my patrol car. Also, I found that when working at night and approaching from the driver side, this tactic causes you to be back lit by the patrol car. When I approach, I do so from the passenger side as this provides a clear view of the interior w/o occupants notice as mentioned by Indiana_ReserveCop31. And I agree with using your PA more frequently to issue commands. That is a tool that few remember to use unless on a felony stop. Just remember, YOU control the stop!

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