Conducted with everything from sunny smiles to shows of force, thousands of traffic stops take place daily across America's highways and byways. These detentions are effected by officers whose tactics are often sounder than those of their predecessors and whose patrol vehicles sport state-of-the-art safety features. Yet the traffic stop remains one of the most dangerous aspects of police work.
Sgt. Steven Scholz, a training coordinator with the Charleston (S.C.) Police Department, says traffic stops factor prominently in the agency's recurrent training scenarios.
"We field many one-man cars, so many of our vehicle stop scenarios are oriented around one-man cars," notes Scholz. "One scenario might feature an officer who immediately encounters resistance upon first contacting the driver; another might end up dealing with a subject who exits the vehicle on his second approach and confronts him; finally, we test how that same officer handles two people in the vehicle when he has noted the presence of a firearm inside. By exposing our officers to such situations in a controlled environment we've found that officers react more quickly and in a more appropriate manner when such situations become actualities."
But there's one major problem with traffic stop training scenarios: They tend to be designed to have the participants stop at predetermined points. Often, the primary point of concern throughout these role plays is the officer's tactics once the stop has been effected-not where the stop takes place.
In a concession to move as many officers as possible through the same training scenario, other environmental concerns encountered in the field-the optimal place for an officer to effect a stop, for instance-can get short shrift. Sometimes, it comes down to supervisors and vigilant peers to set officers straight when a questionable detention site is observed in the field.
Site Before Citation
Sgt. André Belotto of the Los Angeles Police Department has found himself addressing such concerns throughout his career.
"Officers can get so tunneled in on the vehicle they're stopping that they're not thinking about anything else. They're turning on the takedown lights, keeping their eyes on the occupants of the car, then suddenly they realize, 'Maybe I shouldn't have stopped in front of the housing project here.' And when you are working a one-man car, the problem is even more prevalent because you have to do basically everything and you are not necessarily thinking about the most optimal places to stop the vehicle."
In a two-officer car, one of the responsibilities of the officer in the passenger seat is to choose an optimum spot for the stop. "This is where a radio car partner needs to speak up and say, 'Hey, let's wait a block or so,'" Belotto says. He explains that the reason for waiting can be to gain a tactical advantage. "Maybe the second officer tells the driver: 'I'll have a block wall on my side that I can take cover behind.' Or maybe there's a tree or telephone pole."
Belotto adds that often the job of the passenger officer or "bookman" is to discourage the driver from effecting a perilous traffic stop. "The cover officer basically has the responsibility of covering any threats inside the car; he is every bit as responsible as the driver officer for where the traffic stop takes place," Belotto explains. "He can always say, 'No, let's keep going. Tomorrow's another day.' The thing is we have to make it our time and place."
The bookman needs to be tactically aware of risk to the driver, and the driver also needs to be just as attentive to the welfare of cover officers. Patrol work is always a team effort, particularly when it comes to matters of officer safety.
For the one-man car, picking the right time and place is equally if not more important. But it's a lot harder. And when it comes to evaluating multiple officer safety concerns on his or her own, the lone officer may operate at a deficit.
"It isn't that two-man cars are always going to pick the safest spots in which to affect traffic detention," says Belotto. "But it does seem that one-man cars tend to pick the worst. I think this is because they don't have the advantage of getting all the information to make the right decision."
Even if you feel you've picked out an optimal location and allowed yourself corridors for walking up on a driver, it doesn't always work out.
Sgt. Dave Lawler of the Linn County (Ore.) Sheriff's Office says that next to his officer-involved shooting incident (See "Shots Fired," POLICE Magazine, October 2009), the scariest thing that ever happened to him was nearly getting hit on traffic stops. Once on a foggy night he had a close call that forced him to jump into a ditch. "I worry more about getting hit by a car on a traffic call than I do getting shot," he says.
To mitigate getting shot or run over, Lawler has been known to follow his gut instincts when it comes to the prospect of stopping cars, and-like Belotto-has been known to take an occasional pass.
"I'm not one for stopping every suspicious car," acknowledges Lawler. "If you get a hinkey feeling, don't make the stop. It's not worth it. Being in the middle of nowhere with your backup 45 minutes away and a carload of people with time to make plans-I don't like it."
Every cop encounters that hinkey feeling, but doesn't always act upon it. You subconsciously add up all of the variables: the number of occupants in the vehicle, the possibility of a tail car, the actions of all involved, the environment you're in, knowing that you're in a communication dead zone and possibly unable to raise backup on the radio.
"One of the things they try to teach in the California Highway Patrol Academy is to make traffic stops in safe and well-lit areas," notes CHP Officer Charmaine Fajardo. "If at all possible, officers should try to get the vehicles to exit freeways before stopping. Unfortunately, people don't always stop where you want them to. Fortunately, a lot of times officers know the area in which they're working. They know the best places to effect traffic stops. Usually, by the time our officers hit the lights, they have some idea about where they want to take the traffic stop."
The one variable that no officer can control is what the motorist will do when the flashing lights come on. Sometimes they do not stop when we want them to. They may not see us in time, or they decide to stop as soon as they do see us and suddenly hit the brakes at a place well before where we anticipated they would stop. Then there's those vehicles that will immediately start going over to the right before the detaining officer has any chance of merging safely with them.
"You can get the vehicle all the way off the freeway and on a surface street then have some vehicle lose control on a side street and hit them. The main problem isn't how an officer has conducted the stop. It's driver inattention," says Fajardo.