Even though most of you know there is no such thing as a routine vehicle stop, that mindset still persists among some officers and it needs to be eliminated from our thoughts. All vehicle stops are inherently risky, and thus should be divided into just two categories: unknown risk and known risk. No vehicle stop should be considered low-risk, as it is never possible to gauge beforehand the level of danger involved. Unknown risk vehicle stops can quickly evolve into known risk if a driver or passenger attacks you.
Unknown Risk Stops
It is the unknown vehicle stop where officers are most likely to assume compliance and treat it as routine. Don't forget the basics when it comes to vehicle stops and make safety a habit. The following are some basics of unknown risk vehicle stops that we must make habitual.
Making the Stop—When initiating a traffic stop, you should have knowledge of the terrain and take care when choosing the best location for the stop. Where to make the stop is one of the things that you can control in most situations. For example, you should be cognizant of such things as traffic congestion, hills, curves, fog, road conditions (shoulders, bridges, construction, etc.), the neighborhood, lighting, and available cover away from your squad car.
You should be familiar with your emergency equipment and your department's policy for vehicle stops. It is important to understand how to use lighting properly, including overhead lights and spotlights. Prior to making a vehicle stop, it is crucial to have as much information as possible, which can easily be obtained by either the squad computer or dispatch.
As a rule of thumb, your squad car should be positioned 10 to 15 feet behind the stopped vehicle and offset by about 3 feet to the left. This gives you a safety zone in which to walk and stand while approaching the vehicle. However, circumstances dictate the tactics employed, so they may vary depending on the individual situation.
Approaching the Vehicle—You should check for approaching vehicles as a safety precaution before exiting your squad car. Keep your eyes on the vehicle and its occupants at all times. Remember that this is an unknown risk and not a "routine" vehicle stop. When exiting the vehicle, close the door without slamming it.
Don't forget the obvious. Keep your gun hand free, which means that if you are holding a flashlight you should use your weak hand. Walk forward and stay close to the squad car, and once in front of it, move into the safety lane. Be patient when approaching and consider three different observation points:
- The trunk, which you should observe to ensure that it is secure while you make an initial observation of the interior of the vehicle
- The rear passenger door, making sure to check the rear seat and floor area (begin looking for secondary violations such as seat belt-related infractions, open alcohol, drugs, and weapons)
- The driver's door. Stay far enough back that if the driver's door opens, you are clear
Observation point three is the most critical. You should observe the driver and continue inspecting the vehicle. Again, remember the obvious: Make the driver turn and talk to you, take documents with your weak hand, avoid transferring the flashlight to your strong hand (tucking it under your arm is an option), and begin your verbiage for the vehicle stop.
Returning to Your Car—Return to your squad car to complete all paperwork. When returning to the squad car, keep your eye on the violator and/or passengers, while being aware of other traffic. Once at the squad car, remain watchful of the violator and/or passengers while completing the paperwork. An easy way to do this is to hold the paperwork high on the steering wheel, so your eyes face forward.
Returning to the Stopped Vehicle—When returning to the stopped vehicle, carry as little as possible. Review the three observation points and look for any changes. Once back at the stopped vehicle, go through your normal verbiage and issue the paperwork, while keeping your strong hand free. Make it clear to the driver when they are allowed to pull back into traffic. Remember, you are responsible for your safety as well.
Known Risk Stops
When making a known risk vehicle stop, there is likely to be information available to you at the time of the stop that creates a sense of immediate danger of death or great bodily harm or which simply raises the risk level above an unknown risk stop. Examples of these circumstances include stolen vehicles, vehicles or occupants in connection with forcible felonies, or vehicles containing subjects armed and dangerous.
Depending on the level of known risk, you will decide whether to approach the vehicle or to have the occupants come to you. Circumstances always dictate tactics. For the purpose of this article, we will consider a known higher risk vehicle stop in which you and other officers will have the occupants come to you such as stopping a suspect believed to be armed and dangerous.
Making the Stop—When possible, stops should be coordinated beforehand with backup officers so that all those involved are utilizing the principle of mass and are on scene when the stop is initiated. The officer initiating the stop should position their vehicle further back than that of the unknown risk vehicle stop. For example, the officer may wish to position the squad car 20 to 25 feet behind the suspect vehicle and should ensure that it is parked in the most tactically advantageous position available and uses all available lighting to their advantage.
Officers' Coordination—Depending on the location, backup officers may choose to position their squad cars behind that of the officer who initiated the stop, either to the right or the left, and possibly blocking off the roadway completely for the safety of citizens. Once the vehicle has been stopped, the officers need to exit their vehicles and get behind cover. One logical location for cover is behind their own squad cars, where they have the engine block between them and the suspect vehicle.
Once officers are in position, it is important to work together and know each officer's individual responsibilities. For example, officers should ascertain which of them is responsible for managing the suspect or suspects as they are ordered from the vehicle, who will cuff and search the suspect or suspects, and who is responsible for maintaining cover while observing the vehicle for any other movement.
Giving Commands—The officer giving the orders should give loud and clear commands or use the PA system, ensuring the instructions are coherent and concise in order to guarantee that they are understood by the suspect or suspects. As soon as possible, it is important to set context. For example, after asking to see the driver's hands or asking the occupants to exit the vehicle with their hands up, it is important to be clear about the situation in its entirety by saying something like, "I have reason to believe that you are armed. If you make any sudden movements other than those that I tell you to make, I will consider that a direct threat to my life. Do not make any sudden movements or fail to follow any commands that I give you."
Suspect Management—The officer should then order the suspect toward the passenger side of the squad car. Once the suspect is about halfway back, order them to stop and turn around, while you are looking for weapons. Then, have the suspect continue to the back of your vehicle or to a designated location where officers can handcuff the suspect, check for weapons, and place them in a squad car. No more than one suspect should be dealt with at a time. If there are other occupants, the same procedure should be followed, one at a time. Officers should always assume there are others in the stopped vehicle. Commands should be given several times before approaching or attempting to clear the vehicle.
Here are the basic rules of thumb for suspect management during known risk vehicle stops:
- No more than one suspect unsecured out of the vehicle at any time
- Make them come to you while you remain behind cover
- Move them to a tactically advantageous position for your arrest team to secure and search them (think about lighting)
- Cuff then search the suspects before placing them in the squad car
- Designate officers to maintain control of the vehicle while suspects are in custody
- After all known suspects are completely secured, tactically approach the vehicle and search for additional suspects (see one, think two)
As with all tactics in police work, there is never a definitive method of action, as there is always more than one way to accomplish the same goals safely. We should also keep in mind that circumstances dictate tactics, and we must have the ability as police officers to think on our feet and use all of our training, experience, and common sense to accomplish our goals and remain safe in every situation.
Dr. Michael Schlosser, Ph.D., is the director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute, and the Institute's lead control and arrest tactics instructor. He retired from the Rantoul (IL) Police Department as a lieutenant.