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Departments : Behind the Wheel

Playing it Safe With Vehicle Positioning

When a vehicle stop doesn't feel right, officers should get back, get cover and get a backup.

May 01, 1996  |  by Ron Paschall

In addition, non-verbal communica­tion is a life-saving tool in law enforcement. Be aware of a suspect's body language. Read the signs and act on them. Clenched fists and tightening muscles are all indicators of possible trouble. In all murders of California peace officers between 1990 and 1993, suspects used their strong hands to arm themselves and kill the officers. When approaching a van, make sure you can see the driver, his hands and upper body. If it feels wrong, it usually is wrong; get back to cover.

Dale Gregory, a corporal with the San Bernardino County. (Calif.) Sher­iffs Department's Advanced Officer Training Program. emphasizes that "'things can happen." San Bernardino's five-day officer survival school uti­lizes live-action scenarios to sharpen students' skills. To ensure realism, San Bernardino uses movie prop weapons and is now constructing a complete movie back-lot for training.

When it comes to report writing, some agencies encourage officers to use local restaurants: a few are even providing a special booth with phones for police use. Others advocate writing reports on-scene-before leaving.

However, officers should avoid writing reports in their patrol car, due to the environmental danger, says Gregory.

At night, when there's reduced visi­bility, personal awareness of surround­ings diminishes. In all cases, officers should avoid parking in areas that obstruct their view, or where a dome light illuminates them inside the vehi­cle. Many departments have started overlapping shifts, allowing the on­going shift to return to the station and complete their paperwork.

J.J. (Stoney) Saathoff, a law enforcement and security trainer in Southern California, recommends that officers patrol with a window down or partly open, since they'll be closer to the "outside" environment. Avoid the "bunker" mentality-the more com­fortable you arc, the less you are aware of movement around you. Saathoff also recommends that offi­cers make better use of body armor. Newer models are more comfortable and more concealed, and it's the sin­gle most effective piece of passive safety equipment that an officer can utilize. Many officers still do not wear a vest-why?

  • Have a Plan-Gregory recom­mends having a plan. If things go bad, know what you want to do and where you want to go. Both Gregory and Saathoff emphasize that officers are often not prepared for what happens on a call. On a vehicle stop, ask your­self where you should be-where is natural cover?

In an unknown or multi-vehicle stop, call for backup and maintain cover. Gregory advises that vehicle approaches are being made more often on the right side than the traditional left side. Reasons for change include avoiding vehicle traffic, having better access to possible cover on the right side and a better safety corridor.

In multi-vehicle stops, position your vehicle to the rear of the second vehi­cle and wait for backup. Never approach two vehicles alone: it is not good sense. When your additional unit arrives, have him "black out" on approaching. Secondary units should park to the rear or to the inside of the first unit (unless a high-risk stop procedure is going to be used). Most high-risk procedures have the secondary unit positioning to the left of the first unit, with sufficient distance between the two to open each vehicle's doors.

Vehicle stops pose the biggest problem in planning, so pick the loca­tion. Do not hesitate to use the PA system to direct the driver to a place that gives you the advantage. Illumi­nate the suspect; natural light­ing, street lights and spotlights can aid in putting you in the shadows.

Avoid an approach that takes you between your car and the suspect's. This is a kill zone; a few great cops have been badly injured and killed from drunken drivers striking the back of their patrol car, forcing it forward into the officer.

Utilizing a left or right approach uses the vehicle's blind spots to your advantage. Look inside; keep the suspect's hands where you can see them. If it does not feel right, get back, get cover and get a backup. Motor officers are advised that their best protection is not to the side of the bike; rather, use the length of the bike and take a position at its rear.

Finally, never forget about com­munications. Inaccurate, unmade and incomplete radio broadcasts were primary factors in nine Cali­fornia peace officer deaths from 1990 to 1993. It is important to use communications to your advantage. Four of the five officers killed while making traffic stops between 1990 and 1993 did not call their stops into dispatch.

Officers must use all their senses, knowledge and training every minute of every day. The only routine in this profession is routinely reminding your­self that officer safety comes first.

Ron Paschall is a retired U.S. Marine with 24 years in the law enforcement field. He is president of R. D. Paschall & Associates, a consulting firm that provides specialized training in the security, law enforcement and executive protection fields, as well as executive protection services.

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