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The Hazards of Traffic Stops

Pulling over a motorist can result in a simple citation or a raging gun battle. You have to be prepared for either one.

October 19, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

Hostile Action

Proactive enforcement is part of police work, and the patrol stop is a staple to that end. But with traffic stops comes the potential for ambushes. Sudden attacks happen at any time and through many different means. Motorists have put their cars in reverse and hit the gas in efforts to deploy the airbags in an officer's car; other officers have been fired upon as soon as they lit up a car, approached on foot, or attempted to effect an arrest.

In Long Beach, Calif., a two-man unit activated its lights to effect a traffic stop of an SUV. The driver of the SUV immediately slammed the brakes and jumped out of the vehicle, firing through the patrol car's windshield with a laser-sighted gun, seriously wounding both officers.

In May, two West Memphis, Ark., officers who were working drug interdiction were shot and killed by two men with AK-47s on a busy interstate freeway. Two more officers were wounded in a subsequent shootout that resulted in the deaths of the killers.

A month later, two Florida officers attempted to handcuff a vehicle's passenger for a minor warrant. As they put their hands on the man, the suspect suddenly spun and fired with a handgun, killing both lawmen.

Mitigating every possible threat is well nigh impossible. As one retired Indiana State Trooper put it, "You can't walk up to every car with your AR-15 out, just because they have a taillight out. You're vulnerable to things like this, to somebody who jumps out and pumps a round into you."

Still, there's much to be said for taking time to identify threats ahead of time. Doing so may be a matter of recognizing behavioral red flags on the part of a vehicle's occupants, obtaining plate returns on vehicles before approaching them (or even lighting them up), or-as noted by Belotto and Lawler-taking an occasional pass.

Making the Approach

Your most vulnerable moment during any traffic stop is when you get out of your car and walk up to the violator's vehicle. But once a stop is made, it's only a matter of time before you have to make your approach. Lt. Rich McLane of the Bozeman (Mont.) Police Department would advise you not to be in a rush.

In 2006, McLane decided to forego listening to a return on the plate before contacting a motorist. As he made his approach, McLane was nearly shot in the face through an open driver's window. The driver's misfire afforded McLane the opportunity to shoot and kill his assailant. But these days, he takes his time in contacting drivers.

"Racing up to the window isn't going to speed up the resolution of the traffic stop, even for a non-violent situation," McLane reflects. "And [waiting a minute or two] isn't going to give a subject any more time to do something that they're already predisposed to commit. It's going to give you that much more time to prepare and react."

Tinted windows are also problematic, and officers have been fired upon from unseen threats beyond the veil. Windowside confrontations have resulted in shooting situations that might have otherwise been avoided.

One Chicago officer approached a car and smashed out a car window after the vehicle's driver failed to comply with orders. His actions precipitated a confrontation wherein a student athlete was shot and killed after he grabbed the officer's sidearm with both hands and it discharged.

One might reasonably ask why the officer didn't wait for additional personnel and a supervisor to respond to the location. Coming on the heels of the death of a fellow Chicago officer who was shot and killed with his own sidearm after opening the driver's door of a vehicle believed to have been stolen, the question becomes even more troublesome.

Stay Focused

Once you make contact with a vehicle's occupants, you will often end up either having the detainees remain in their seats or sit or stand outside the vehicle. In cases wherein an arrest is possible or a threat is identified, detainees are apt to be cuffed and placed inside the patrol vehicle.

Regardless of the manner of detention or arrest, a primary point of concern is the willingness of one-man units to allow themselves to become distracted by focusing on some peripheral-be it an MDT screen, a driver's license, or some other visual distraction.

Even the two-man concept of contact and cover can be undermined if you deviate from your appointed areas of responsibility to consult with one another. Often, one officer wants to compare notes with another-to get the backup officer's opinion on some matter, be it the authenticity of a driver's license or a possible return on the subject. Pay greater attention to the subjects of your investigative intentions than the minutiae incident to those detentions.

"The prevalent problem out here is that the cover officer isn't doing what he's supposed to do" says LAPD's Belotto. "His obligation is to do nothing other than to keep his eyes on the occupants of the vehicle. Unfortunately, these are the very guys often times you find looking at papers or running subjects on the radio. Basically, nobody is minding the store."

Jim Donahue, formerly of the Wayne County (Mich.) Sheriff's Office, finds that law enforcement has undermined its own through some of its training.

"One of the biggest issues that I see is that we've got officers who are being taught and have been taught for an extended period of time that after they make the stop they're to stand outside the vehicle if they're going to write a ticket, and to prepare the ticket while they stand outside the car," Donahue explains. "Statistics show that being outside of a police vehicle on a traffic stop increases the likelihood of a cop getting killed by 400 percent. The biggest risk is being outside of the damned vehicle."

To compensate, Donahue encourages officers to take precautions on the front end. And the main thing they have to work on?

"Situational awareness," he says. "Position the patrol car in a way so that you can see very clearly if the driver door even starts to open a fraction of an inch. Keep the windows down so you can hear the click of the door being unlocked. You've got to be ready to swing your door open and emerge from your car faster than the suspect can get out of his.

"You've also got to have good verbal skills because the minute that door starts opening, you've got to be screaming at him, 'Stay in the car! Stay IN the car! STAY in the car!' Where they get the drop on you is when they get out without you realizing it," Donahue adds.

On duty vigilance tends to be sharper for officers just out of the academy who have not been lulled into complacency by routine. Such vigilance allowed Seattle officer Britt Sweeney to survive a post-traffic stop ambush that killed her training officer. Her heightened sense of awareness allowed her to yell a warning and duck before a suspect opened fire on the two officers as they sat in their patrol car.

CHP officer Fajardo remains a realist when it comes to cops doing traffic stops. "When officers are killed, we're always asking if they could have done something differently. But often, they didn't do anything wrong in the first place. It's kind of like wearing a bulletproof vest. It's great that they're out there, but they're not going to stop every bullet. There's a slight chance that it's going to go under your arm or some other vulnerable spot and you can still get killed. It's kind of the same situation on traffic stops; you can do everything right and still end up dying."

Related Articles:

Duty Dangers: Ambush!

Duty Dangers: Booby Traps

Duty Dangers: Into the Hearts of Darkness

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Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Morning Eagle @ 10/19/2010 11:47 PM

More good adivce from the keyboard of D. Scoville. Hopefully lots of officers young and older are paying attention as traffic stops can turn ugly or deadly in a split second. I have long believed the term "routine traffic stop" should not be in the lexicon of trainers or officers. Period. Every one of them is different because people are different and you never know what other battles they may be fighting that could affect their reaction to you.

rso @ 2/6/2011 7:32 AM

You can do everything correct when conducting a traffic stop yet the driver passing you is the one who can do everything wrong. I stopped a vehicle in a 'turn-out', parked my patrol car as close to the road as possible and approached the violator. As I spoke to the driver, a van managed to swerve into me knocking me through the open window of the stopped vehicle and almost into the guy's lap. When I looked down the road, I saw the side mirror from the vehicle that hit me tumbling down the road. Thankfully, the mirror hit me in the back while I was wearing my vest and I was uninjured!

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