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.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Conducted with everything from sunny smiles to shows of force, thousands of traffic stops take place daily across America's highways and byways. These detentions are effected by officers whose tactics are often sounder than those of their predecessors and whose patrol vehicles sport state-of-the-art safety features. Yet the traffic stop remains one of the most dangerous aspects of police work.

Sgt. Steven Scholz, a training coordinator with the Charleston (S.C.) Police Department, says traffic stops factor prominently in the agency's recurrent training scenarios.

"We field many one-man cars, so many of our vehicle stop scenarios are oriented around one-man cars," notes Scholz. "One scenario might feature an officer who immediately encounters resistance upon first contacting the driver; another might end up dealing with a subject who exits the vehicle on his second approach and confronts him; finally, we test how that same officer handles two people in the vehicle when he has noted the presence of a firearm inside. By exposing our officers to such situations in a controlled environment we've found that officers react more quickly and in a more appropriate manner when such situations become actualities."

But there's one major problem with traffic stop training scenarios: They tend to be designed to have the participants stop at predetermined points. Often, the primary point of concern throughout these role plays is the officer's tactics once the stop has been effected-not where the stop takes place.

In a concession to move as many officers as possible through the same training scenario, other environmental concerns encountered in the field-the optimal place for an officer to effect a stop, for instance-can get short shrift. Sometimes, it comes down to supervisors and vigilant peers to set officers straight when a questionable detention site is observed in the field.

Site Before Citation

Sgt. André Belotto of the Los Angeles Police Department has found himself addressing such concerns throughout his career.

"Officers can get so tunneled in on the vehicle they're stopping that they're not thinking about anything else. They're turning on the takedown lights, keeping their eyes on the occupants of the car, then suddenly they realize, 'Maybe I shouldn't have stopped in front of the housing project here.' And when you are working a one-man car, the problem is even more prevalent because you have to do basically everything and you are not necessarily thinking about the most optimal places to stop the vehicle."

In a two-officer car, one of the responsibilities of the officer in the passenger seat is to choose an optimum spot for the stop. "This is where a radio car partner needs to speak up and say, 'Hey, let's wait a block or so,'" Belotto says. He explains that the reason for waiting can be to gain a tactical advantage. "Maybe the second officer tells the driver: 'I'll have a block wall on my side that I can take cover behind.' Or maybe there's a tree or telephone pole."

Belotto adds that often the job of the passenger officer or "bookman" is to discourage the driver from effecting a perilous traffic stop. "The cover officer basically has the responsibility of covering any threats inside the car; he is every bit as responsible as the driver officer for where the traffic stop takes place," Belotto explains. "He can always say, 'No, let's keep going. Tomorrow's another day.' The thing is we have to make it our time and place."

The bookman needs to be tactically aware of risk to the driver, and the driver also needs to be just as attentive to the welfare of cover officers. Patrol work is always a team effort, particularly when it comes to matters of officer safety.

For the one-man car, picking the right time and place is equally if not more important. But it's a lot harder. And when it comes to evaluating multiple officer safety concerns on his or her own, the lone officer may operate at a deficit.

"It isn't that two-man cars are always going to pick the safest spots in which to affect traffic detention," says Belotto. "But it does seem that one-man cars tend to pick the worst. I think this is because they don't have the advantage of getting all the information to make the right decision."

Dodging Cars

Even if you feel you've picked out an optimal location and allowed yourself corridors for walking up on a driver, it doesn't always work out.

Sgt. Dave Lawler of the Linn County (Ore.) Sheriff's Office says that next to his officer-involved shooting incident (See "Shots Fired," POLICE Magazine, October 2009), the scariest thing that ever happened to him was nearly getting hit on traffic stops. Once on a foggy night he had a close call that forced him to jump into a ditch. "I worry more about getting hit by a car on a traffic call than I do getting shot," he says.

To mitigate getting shot or run over, Lawler has been known to follow his gut instincts when it comes to the prospect of stopping cars, and-like Belotto-has been known to take an occasional pass.

"I'm not one for stopping every suspicious car," acknowledges Lawler. "If you get a hinkey feeling, don't make the stop. It's not worth it. Being in the middle of nowhere with your backup 45 minutes away and a carload of people with time to make plans-I don't like it."

Every cop encounters that hinkey feeling, but doesn't always act upon it. You subconsciously add up all of the variables: the number of occupants in the vehicle, the possibility of a tail car, the actions of all involved, the environment you're in, knowing that you're in a communication dead zone and possibly unable to raise backup on the radio.

"One of the things they try to teach in the California Highway Patrol Academy is to make traffic stops in safe and well-lit areas," notes CHP Officer Charmaine Fajardo. "If at all possible, officers should try to get the vehicles to exit freeways before stopping. Unfortunately, people don't always stop where you want them to. Fortunately, a lot of times officers know the area in which they're working. They know the best places to effect traffic stops. Usually, by the time our officers hit the lights, they have some idea about where they want to take the traffic stop."

The one variable that no officer can control is what the motorist will do when the flashing lights come on. Sometimes they do not stop when we want them to. They may not see us in time, or they decide to stop as soon as they do see us and suddenly hit the brakes at a place well before where we anticipated they would stop. Then there's those vehicles that will immediately start going over to the right before the detaining officer has any chance of merging safely with them.

"You can get the vehicle all the way off the freeway and on a surface street then have some vehicle lose control on a side street and hit them. The main problem isn't how an officer has conducted the stop. It's driver inattention," says Fajardo.[PAGEBREAK]

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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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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