Photo courtesy of Amaury Murgado.
You can't single-handedly win the "War on Drugs" as a patrol officer, but keen eyes and attention to detail on traffic stops can make an impact. The term itself might be a cliché, but combat is still a useful analogy for those of us on the front lines. For example, military concepts used to wage battle can be used by officers to affect the drug trade.
In Terms of War
One useful military term for drug interdiction is "lines of communication" (LOC). This refers to all the routes (land, water, and air) that connect an operating military force with a base of operations and along which supplies and military forces move. Drug cartels operate in certain protected areas (base of operations) and they have to move their product (supplies) before they can sell them. As patrol officers we deal with a major LOC every day: our highways.
"Interdiction" is another useful term. In the military, it refers to the act of delaying, disrupting, or destroying enemy forces or supplies en route to the battle area. Since our highways are our battle area, a properly conducted traffic stop becomes our primary method of interdiction. A simple traffic stop could very well lead to a disruption in a drug supply line. Get enough officers involved and you could put a serious dent in any illicit drug operation. It's simple: Drug dealers can't sell what they don’t have.
Sun Tzu said, "All war is deception." This is arguably the most important axiom you need to learn about interdiction at the patrol level. Drug dealers and smugglers don't advertise. Their job is to blend in and drive right by you. You need to peel away the layers of their story and get them to agree to a search of their vehicle. This article will give you some suggestions for how to do just that.
One of the major problems with traffic stops is many officers treat them with a closed mind. You pull someone over for speeding, write the person a ticket, and feel good that you have something to turn in to the sergeant at the end of your shift. But if that's your only mindset, you've missed the boat.
How would it look if in an adjacent county the vehicle was stopped again and another officer found the mother lode of drugs and money? Hopefully someone will point to a lack of experience and not laziness as the cause. An inexperienced person focuses on the violation, whereas an experienced person focuses on indicators displayed by the person and observed throughout the vehicle.
As an experience check, I spoke with two of my agency's premier drug agents. Between them they have 20 years of experience as drug interdiction officers and supervisors. Their suggestions will help bridge the gap between inexperience and those with experience. Their insights should help you improve your interdiction techniques.
Tips from the Pros
I periodically read many of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) daily interdiction summaries. Of the last batch I read (22 entries), half of the entries mentioned that consensual encounters led to finding drugs. The other half cited the use of drug dogs.
To me, that suggests that at the patrol level, interview techniques, curiosity, and a sense of urgency will prove productive. It also suggests that we need to improve upon and increase our use of consensual encounters. We need to learn to talk to, and not at, violators. If for no other reason, try to keep the dialog going to give you more time to be around the vehicle and to break down the person's story.
No detail is too small when you are looking for things that stand out from the norm. The best place to hide something is in the open because its where you least expect it. Cognitive studies show that if you don't expect it to be there, you'll glance right over it. Think about how many times you've walked by your keys when you've left them somewhere other than in your normal place. You need to slow down and remember drugs could be hidden anywhere.
Subject matter experts I consulted suggested that officers new to drug interdiction start exploring the following 15 tips as a way in:
1. Pay close attention to the details of the stories between passengers and driver. If they don't match up, something is up. Don't be afraid to ask probing questions.
2. Look for receipts that may show the chronological order of their activities. This will help confirm or deny parts of their story.
3. Look for fast food containers that may show they are traveling continuously with few stops. They are typically in a hurry to get where they are going and unload.
4. Watch out for religious artifacts. Many traffickers will place religious stickers on their car windows or place religious items on their dashboards. They figure that cops will leave religious people alone.
5. Pay close attention to behaviors like their wanting to exit the car immediately. This trick is designed to pull the officer's attention away from the vehicle. Splitting your focus reduces your effectiveness.
6. Look for windows that are not operational. This speaks to masking of odors or a vehicle that's laden with packages; in other words, they don't want you looking casually inside.
7. Look for people traveling with very small amounts of luggage. It's hard to understand you are on a family vacation traveling cross-country with just an overnight bag.
8. Look for people traveling that will always leave someone with the car during fuel or bathroom stops. Most traffickers do not like to leave their car unguarded.
9. Look for two cars traveling together. In most cases a lower level person is employed to drive the load car and the higher level person will drive the chase car. You'll spot the chase car coming up close every once in a while to check and see if everything is all right. It’s the same principle as the suspect who always touches his concealed gun to make sure it’s still there; it's a subconscious act.
10. Look for the small details when searching. Pay close attention to the areas of the car that can be used as potential hiding spots. Look for newer screws or bolts mixed with older ones. Look for creases in carpeting. Look for bulges in seats and headliners. Look for plastic pieces that don't quite line up.
11. Many traffickers try to mask odors. They will use large amounts of air freshener or perfume or smoke cigarettes to do so, especially right before the stop.
12. In lieu of religious paraphernalia, sometimes drug traffickers will plaster law enforcement stickers and slogans on their cars. This may include decals from different law enforcement associations, booster stickers, police shields, or sheriff's star decals. A couple quick questions should help you determine whether they are supporters or posers. For example, simply ask what the fee was to join one of the associations featured on a displayed sticker.
13. Multiple cell phones are another good clue. Many times there are different levels of leadership checking in on the package being transported; for example, the guy in charge where the load-car left from and the new guy in charge of accepting delivery when they arrive at their destination.
14. Watch out for people that are too nicely dressed. Most people that travel long distances travel in comfortable clothing and not their Sunday best. Like religious artifacts and police stickers, this tactic is meant to deflect your suspicion.
15. Learn the physical and psychological indications of drug use. A member of your agency who is good at DUI stops will help you. Users can also be traffickers.
These things in and of themselves don't really mean anything. Alone, none of them will lead you to an arrest. However, use them to dig deeper and create a drug nexus and it's the start of something bigger.
Use Your Head
These tips are mostly common sense and are not meant to be all inclusive. But they are a great starting point for anyone trying to go beyond a mere traffic stop. Officers who pay attention can find drugs anywhere. To be successful, you don't have to be working major drug corridors either. There are plenty of drugs to be found at the local level. Drug traffickers understand the major LOCs are being covered. They are using secondary highways all the time. And they have to get where they are going at some point, which could very well be a home in one of your neighborhoods.
I have worked with deputies who could find drugs in any sector that I placed them. Their secret was paying attention to detail and not being afraid to make the best of any consensual encounter. You need to do the same and stop thinking in terms of just handing out tickets in order to be more successful.
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has 25 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.
Border Patrol Seizes $2.3 Million In Pot
Hidden Drugs In Vehicle 'Traps'