Don't Reach for the Keys

Reaching into a vehicle and taking the keys to prevent a suspect from driving off is a tactical error that has sent many an officer for medical treatment.

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Photo: Carla Blazek, Tumbled Bones PhotographyPhoto: Carla Blazek, Tumbled Bones Photography

As you read this article, somewhere there is a law enforcement officer on a traffic stop who is contemplating the idea of reaching into a vehicle and taking the keys to prevent a suspect from driving off. This is a tactical error that has sent many an officer for medical treatment.

I am not here to second-guess or be critical of any of you who have taken this action. I have done it, and I have gotten away with it. But I was lucky.

Not every officer who has made this move has been so fortunate. You can find many accounts of officers being dragged and injured during traffic stops on You should read these as cautionary tales, cautionary tales with the singular message of think twice before reaching for the keys.

What usually happens in these situations is that an officer, either angered by a driver's refusal to comply with a simple request to turn off the car, thrilled by the excitement of an arrest, or after realizing that the driver is intoxicated and might be experiencing a "mental stall," decides to take action. He or she reaches into the car to turn the ignition off and more than likely becomes entangled in the steering wheel. The driver then pushes his or her foot on the accelerator and the ride begins.

Tactical Points

There are a number of tactical considerations we should remember when considering what leads officers to make dangerous mistakes at traffic stops.

Stop and count how many vehicle stops you have performed in each of your normal duty shifts. Have you allowed these vehicle stops to become routine or mundane? Have you lowered your tactical guard or awareness?

Now ask yourself how many times you have performed a hazardous maneuver and gotten away with it. After each traffic stop, always do a review of your actions to refine your tactics and repel bad habits.

If a driver at a traffic stop does not respond to verbal direction, he or she may be panicking, may be under the influence of alcohol and or drugs, or in some cases unknown to the officer, may have committed a crime or crimes and is willing to do anything to escape. If an officer reaches for the key and leans his or her body into the car, that officer may be trapped by the suspect or entangled inside the car and dragged.

Here's how ill-considered the key-reach move is. It is difficult enough to try to take keys out of your own ignition from outside the door with your car sitting still. Go out to your car and try it. It's not easy, and it's even more difficult when you are reaching across a hostile driver.

And it's getting even more difficult. Some new cars have ignition switches that resist a straight pull of the key. For example, removing the keys may require a sequence of push and pull motions. And many new vehicles have keyless, push-button ignitions. In these cars there is nothing for an officer to grab but the shifter or the steering wheel.

Leaning into a driver's car at a traffic stop also makes an officer very vulnerable to attack. The officer's head is within close proximity to the subject and the officer's center of gravity is uncontrolled, which is how some officers have ended up with their bodies hanging out of open windows as they get taken for a wild ride.

Wearing Hazards

Another issue is your department's uniform and appearance policy. Most departments have a jewelry policy that states officers may wear no more than one ring per hand and a watch and one bracelet per wrist. I am not anti-bling, but I do recommend that you be careful with jewelry on the job. Large rings can be particularly hazardous. If you reach into a vehicle while wearing one, it can catch on one of the mechanisms in the driver's area, which could pin your hand until your finger is skinned or traumatically amputated. A new product that you may want to wear on the job is the line of silicone wedding and blue line rings from Qalo (

Even the paracord rescue/survival bracelets that many of us wear can be a tactical hazard. These multilayered braided bracelets offer some tacticool appearance plus several yards of paracord for survival. Paracord is great. It has a breaking strength per strand of 550 pounds, far more than your body weight. So if your paracord bracelet becomes entangled, you are trapped until the buckle breaks or the incident is over and you can extract yourself. Note: These bracelets can also be a bio-hazard nightmare; the braiding traps all kinds of nasty bits and bio-ooze from the job.

Reacting and Responding

Officers who find themselves with their arms trapped inside a vehicle as a driver drags them down the road have microseconds to react.

One of the most common reactions of officers being dragged is to draw their firearms and attempt to shoot the drivers.

This move is problematic on several levels. Let's look at them.

Don't think that just because this is a point-blank shot that it will be easy. It is quite difficult to retrieve and shoot a gun accurately when you are being dragged down the road.

Also, if you shoot the driver, you may actually make your situation worse. By disabling the driver, you have now created an unguided missile. The car will keep going and possibly crash into something with you still trapped in the window.

Other officers who are cover officers during the incident may feel that they should fire at the moving vehicle. This could disable the driver. The cover officer may even hit the officer he or she is trying to rescue.

And as with everything we do these days, you have to consider the legal consequences of you or your cover officer shooting at the driver.

It's likely you will be able to legally justify shooting the driver, but it will be very hard to justify shooting someone else. What if you hit a passenger? What if you hit another driver in another lane? What if you hit a pedestrian? Before you fire that weapon be sure of what is behind your target.

Regardless of justification, in today's atmosphere, your actions will be over-analyzed by the media and the so-called experts and anyone injured in the incident will likely sue.

If you get sued and the case goes to court, what many plaintiffs' attorneys will do is "segment" or break down the incident into a number of steps and they will find one of the steps you took wrong. They will say this one step was wrong because it is against the law, against standard operating procedure, or against the national standard of "acceptable" tactical training. They will bring in experts to remind you that you were taught in a felony traffic stop class to use your car's loud speaker to hail a vehicle occupant. This tactic may not be applicable in your situation, but it will cloud the judge's or the jury's view.

Remember, the attorneys, experts, and media will have weeks to pore over actions you took in microseconds. And whether the standards, policies, or training they introduce in the court is your department's or not, the plaintiff's attorneys will find something to validate their stance and use it against you. This is one line of reasoning that does seem to have an effect on the jury; somewhere in this world what you did could have been wrong. Be prepared for such legal attacks, which will portray you as using poor tactics or making bad decisions. They will argue your poor tactics placed you in a position of danger, which had negative outcomes for their client. I do not like this argument, nor do I agree with it, but it's what the lawyers will do to you.

Not a Good Idea

Many bad things can happen when an officer reaches into a car to grab the keys from the ignition. So I will say it is not a good idea.

And while I do not like to state that a police officer should never employ a specific tactic, as we never respond to the same identical call twice, I will say that reaching for the keys should be considered very carefully before you do it.

After all, do you want to trust your body and possibly your life to the irrational thinking of a driver who has already disobeyed a lawful order to turn off the car and hand you the keys, after being stopped for a traffic violation? Think twice before you reach into that window.

William L. "Bill" Harvey is a 35-year police veteran now serving as a chief of police in south-central Pennsylvania. He is on the advisory board of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and is a POLICE magazine advisor. He can be reached at

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