Keys to surviving high-risk traffic stops
On September 1st, 2009 Patrolman Chad Spicer and Corporal Shawn Brittingham of the Georgetown, (Del.) Police Department were on patrol when they heard a general broadcast detailing a shooting that had just occurred in the parking lot of a nearby McDonald’s restaurant.
They quickly located a Chrysler Sebring with 20-year-old Christopher Reeves at the wheel and initiated a short pursuit before the vehicle abruptly stopped in the Kimmeytown neighborhood of Georgetown. According to news reports, Brittingham and Spicer’s cruiser stopped alongside the suspect vehicle with the passenger door of the squad car next to the driver-side door of the Chrysler.
Reeves fled on foot but sitting in the rear passenger seat was Derrick J. Powell, armed with a handgun. Neither officer had time to exit the cruiser before Powell began firing on them, striking Chad Spicer in the cheek. The round exited below Spicer’s left ear and bullet fragments struck Brittingham in the neck.
Powell then fled on foot while a third passenger, Luis Flores, reportedly stayed at the scene and attempted to render aid to Patrolman Spicer, who later succumbed to his injuries after being transported to the hospital. Chad Spicer is the first Georgetown police officer to die in the line of duty and he leaves behind a young daughter, his parents, and a community in mourning.
Thankfully, Corporal Brittingham is expected to make a full recovery.
High risk traffic stops are extremely dangerous. Four other American police officers have been killed this year during traffic stops, two of them during known to be high-risk situations. One of the best ways to honor these heroes is to review them with the intention of remembering how we can keep ourselves safe under the worst circumstances.
- Criminals are unpredictable, so recognize that any high-risk stop is going to be an extremely fluid situation. As detailed in Chuck Remsburg’s book Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters, when stopping a vehicle occupied by known or suspected felons, call for back up, even if you’re in a two-man car. Try to advise dispatch of your exact location, direction of travel, and where you want the other units positioned.
- The positioning of your own vehicle is critical. Because the suspect vehicle may suddenly turn, leave the roadway, or abruptly stop, you need to maintain enough distance to safely maneuver or stop your vehicle while maintaining a visual on the suspect’s car if they begin to flee. If the suspect does hit the brakes suddenly, you should also stop and be prepared to reverse quickly, staying at least 30 feet back.
- Get your weapon (handgun, shotgun, or rifle) ready before you come to a stop and try to pull the car over in a place of your choosing. If you’re in a two officer vehicle, it’s the driver’s responsibility to position that cruiser to give each officer the equal opportunity to use that vehicle as effectively as possible for cover. If you’re by yourself, it’s a good idea to cant the vehicle to put as much of the engine block as possible between you and the suspect’s vehicle.
- Don’t get sucked into the thrill and the momentum of the situation; use time and distance to your advantage. Get to and maintain cover (which may mean staying in your patrol car) and be prepared to back up even further to keep distance between you and the threat. It’s our instinct to want to rush in, but don’t. And above all, don’t get trapped. As back up arrives, if lighting and cover allow, consider the use of a flanking officer to create a classic L-ambush situation.
- Use strong, powerful verbal commands to get the suspects to leave cover and come to you or a designated colleague. Once you think you have everyone in custody, have a tactical plan to safely clear the vehicle, including commands to unknown hidden suspects who may still be in the vehicle. Remember that time is generally on your side at this point, again, don’t rush in.
It’s been 39 years since the senseless murder of four young CHP officers during a high risk traffic stop in a restaurant parking lot near Newhall, CA. Remember the lessons learned from that terrible day and honor the sacrifice of all law enforcement heroes, past and present, by training, sharing, and working hard to keep each other safe.