Vehicle stop and checkpoint tactics: A safety mnemonic

If the criminal element is on the freeway, chances are pretty good that someone from Border Patrol is likely to encounter it


When I tell people what I do for a living, most people assume that I spend my shift tracking illegal immigrants across barren dessert landscapes, through rugged mountain passes, and dusty backwoods locales. That’s precisely what many Border Patrol Agents do — truth be told, I spent the first seven years of my career doing just that. Most people don’t that a good number of Border Patrol Agents spend our shifts patrolling some of our nation’s busiest and most dangerous freeways — both in terms of traffic accidents and fatalities — seeking out and arresting potential terrorists, smugglers of narcotics, and illegal immigrants. Also in that mix of subjects are a significant number of wanted felons, bail jumpers, and prison escapees.

Basically, if the criminal element is on the freeway, chances are pretty good that someone from Border Patrol is likely to encounter it.

Border Patrol Agents not only conduct the ‘routine’ vehicle stops that most of us associate as the backbone of uniformed law enforcement work, but the just-as-effective checkpoint operations as well. In point of fact, the Border Patrol has for several decades maintained the largest and most complex checkpoint system anywhere in the world. Further, a majority of the significant domestic case law that has arisen from checkpoint operations, which in turn has allowed local agencies to operate their own for various anti-crime/public safety efforts, was a result of arrests made at Border Patrol checkpoints.

But it is the inherent principle of dangerous unpredictability on our nation’s freeways, the incessant flow of potential terrorist threats, narcotics, contraband, illegal immigrants, and felons, all driving at high speeds, that negates the entire concept of “routine.” Add to that a heady mix of ‘average joe’ motorists all hell-bent on commuting from ‘point A’ to ‘point B’ in as little time as possible, and viola, you’ve got a real problem.

Even on a ‘routine’ vehicle stop in which all of the pre-stop behavior indicators are the same as the five other stops you made that day — subsequently resulting in successful probable cause arrests of any violator(s) and/or the seizure of any contraband — it is that sixth (read: current) stop you need to be thinking about. If I/you/we get just a little lazy, or paid a little less attention, wham... I/you/we end up on the bottom side of a melee or thrown into nearby lanes of traffic, or take a round in the vest (hopefully).

ComSACC
Given the chaotic nature of freeways in general, some trusted partners and I felt the need as FTOs to teach our trainees a way to conduct themselves during a vehicle stop that could be more easily remembered, incorporated, and utilized. I also figured that since the government was big on acronyms, what could a new one hurt? That’s when I came up with ComSACC. It stands for Communications, Sidearm, Approach, Command, and Control.

To most of us, these tactical benchmarks are ones that we all strive to achieve in greater measure than not — the more benchmarks that we achieve, chances are, the more successful we are and the more safely we operate. ComSACC is primarily designed to be initiated just before an officer/agent exits the patrol vehicle and in a utopian society it would flow in a precise order. However, given all that we know about vehicle stops, it’s sometimes difficult to ensure such a precise order when dealing with an imprecise public and even more imprecise flow of traffic. That said, the successful completion of as many of these tactical benchmarks as possible, is better than not.

For single officer/agent patrol vehicles, this mnemonic is used by that lone officer/agent. If partnered up and/or a second, third officer/agent arrives, then cover officers/agents typically will take over and assist with Command and Control.

Communications
1.)
Ensure that the portable radio is turned on and working before leaving the patrol vehicle. I’ve made the mistake a few times in my career — as we all have — and suddenly discovered that the battery is INOP. It’s a poor time to find out as you’re approaching your first vehicle of the day.
2.) Ensure that your location/suspect vehicle information is clearly relayed to dispatch. It’s relatively simple: direction of travel, nearest intersection/off ramp/exit, license plate (if visible), general make and color of vehicle. Enough said on that.

Sidearm
1.)
Have a good grip on the backstrap of your sidearm and be ready to unsnap, unlatch, unhinge, etc. your particular holster. Some of us may even choose to go ahead and unsnap, unlatch, unhinge, in advance! Regardless, when drawing the sidearm is necessary, give yourself every opportunity to be quicker out of the holster and on target.
2.) If the above ‘unsnap, unlatch, unhinge” is not what you want to do — or are prohibited from doing for a variety of reasons — at least be ‘empty-handed’ in order to establish a firm, quick draw of your sidearm. If you’re holding anything in your strong side hand besides thin air, it’s a tactical error.

Approach
1.) Right side — passenger side — is the right side. Barring, of course, any limitations to approaching the right side of the vehicle, such as close proximity to a K-rail, embankment and/or drop off, heavy vegetation/brush/scrub, never approach from the left side (driver’s side).
2.) The oncoming flow of vehicle traffic at your back is one of the greatest dangers any of us faces. It’s also a threat that most of us never see coming until its too late, due to its approach from the rear of our line of sight. Right side approach greatly reduces this threat, as well as puts more sheet metal/carbon fiber between you and a potential threat. Retreating to cover is also, in most cases, more easily achieved.
3.) Attempting to create a reactionary gap in relation to an impending vehicle accident and/or attempt of the suspect vehicle’s driver to assault you with their vehicle, is better accomplished on the right side, away from the oncoming flow of traffic.

Command
1.)
If a driver exits upon stopping and approaches, don’t command them back into the vehicle. Command them to keep their hands in view and request an additional unit. Don’t allow them to access the inside of the vehicle without your specific command and observation.
2.) If more than one occupant exits upon stopping and approaches, put your patrol vehicle in reverse and increase the gap. Command them to keep their hands in view and request an additional unit. Don’t allow them to access the inside of the vehicle without your specific command and observation.
3.) Always position yourself so that the driver and/or other occupants have to turn their heads to look at you, until you’ve commanded them to keep their hands in view unless commanded to do otherwise. Also, any telegraphing of body motion (reaching/hiding) is more easily seen when someone’s head is turned at an angle looking over the right or left shoulder. I’ve often found that their eyes turn to the side that they’re reaching to.
4.) Asking for identification/documents should always involve the driver and/or occupants sticking their hands out the window to you, not you reaching inside the windows to them.

Control
1.)
Never search the vehicle and/or the trunk of the vehicle alone. Always wait for an additional cover officer/agent.
2.) Never allow the driver/occupant to physically open the trunk and/or search inside the trunk for ‘identification.’ You do that.
3.) Never stand between the hood of your vehicle and the rear bumper of the suspect vehicle. The fatal pinch point is obvious.
4.) If the driver and/or occupant(s) are outside the vehicle, don’t let them stand around, hands in their pockets; have them sit on the ground/curb, with their hands in their laps.
5.) When sitting anyone in the back of your patrol vehicle, pat them down first. Otherwise, you might find a nice surprise waiting for you.

Rocket science? Obviously not. Relatively simple? You bet. Of course, we all have our own particular methods, honed by academy and FTO training, as well as our own collective experiences. This method is by no means all inclusive, but it represents a good number of tactical benchmarks that have not only served me in good stead, but others as well.

About the author

Thane Gallagher is a senior law enforcement officer who has worked in various patrol assignments throughout his career, from this nation’s rugged back country locales, to pavement laden urban highways. In addition to his enforcement duties, he’s also a certified EMT and Field Training Officer. As an FTO, Gallagher (along with his partner) developed a more modern tactical approach and training model to teach newer personnel how to conduct highway interdiction operations. For three years, Gallagher was assigned as a Task Force Officer within a gang/narcotics unit. As a Task Force Officer and in addition to the usual investigative caseload, he was often consulted by other federal and local agencies for guidance and investigative support on a wide variety of immigration, identity theft, and document fraud issues. He’s currently assigned to highway narcotics interdiction, within a special operations group. Concurrent with this assignment, Gallagher also helps train officers from various local agencies to conduct this specialized operation, by combining the application of industry standard field tactics with the analysis of behavioral indicators in the motoring public. 

Gallagher served four years on active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard, while assigned to patrol various locales from the Bering Sea on one of the service’s largest high endurance cutters, to the Channel Islands off of Southern California on small patrol boats. Gallagher not only specialized in search and rescue operations, but he became a certified Maritime Law Enforcement Officer (Boarding Officer) early in his military career, which is where he first whet his appetite for enforcing the law. Gallagher participated in and/or led as the primary officer, hundreds of boardings throughout his Coast Guard career, making arrests for everything from boating under the influence, to narcotics smuggling on the high seas, to poaching and/or unauthorized fishing in protected waters, to felons in possession of firearms.

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