The traffic stop is something officers do across this country every day, and yet we are still unable to find a line of attack to defeat the number of officers lost from performing this essential function. Is it because of our tactics, which have become so commonplace that even the average citizen could mimic our actions? Is it our inability to read the warning signs by failing to assess the vehicle, occupants, location, actions, or dialog? Is it because we have become so complacent due to the frequency in which we execute this function?
Perhaps it is all of the above or none of them. One thing is certain, we are losing officers at an alarming rate and unless we begin to rethink why we do what we do, we will continue to add names to the wall.
Make Assessments, Not Assumptions
There is no such thing as a “low risk” stop. Let’s face it, unless we have foreknowledge of the occupants or the pedestrians we interact with, every stop must be considered an ‘unknown risk’ until it is investigated further. So we must first do an assessment. What drew our attention to the vehicle, occupants, or even pedestrian? Was it for some minor infraction, suspicious activity, or a felony in-progress? Based on our assessment we must then formulate a strategy that is consistent with the assessment.
In our minds we may be stopping the driver of a vehicle for running a red-light, when in reality they may be fleeing the scene of an armed robbery they just committed. Our assessment is inconsistent with the realities of the situation. See? No such thing as a “low risk” stop. Let’s remain on guard until we have had the chance to either confirm our initial assessment or the circumstances rise to an advanced level—“elevated risk” or “high risk” — but never “low risk.”
Circumstances that may rise to the level of an elevated risk may be:
• Computer hits on the plate/vehicle, owner, or occupants
• Suspicious vehicles, occupied or not
• Suspicious persons, multiple occupants, tinted windows, erratic driving/behavior
• Any other situation that’s causes the officer to feel something is afoot
If, based on our assessment, we determine that this situation goes beyond unknown and into the realm of elevated, then shouldn’t our tactics rise to a higher level of vigilance?
Instead of doing a traditional standard approach, perhaps we execute a “blindside” walkup on the passenger side. If the vehicle has tinted windows tell the driver to either roll down the windows (day), or extinguish his lights and turn on his dome-light (night). Maybe we do not approach at all but ask the driver to exit (walk-back) with paperwork in hand and conduct our interview back by our cruiser to maintain a tactical advantage. Whichever tactic we choose to perform, it should be in order to keep the driver/occupant/pedestrian off balance and confused so that they are forced to react to us instead of us reacting to them.
Making Felony Stops
If, based on our assessment, we determine that there is likelihood that we or others will be assaulted, injured, or killed, then the situation has risen to a “high risk” stop and a felony stop should be conducted. The manner in which you conduct a felony stop may vary depending on where you work in the country, however generally speaking we want to have a coordinated plan to extricate the occupants from a vehicle. Whether that means calling them out one by one and placing them on the ground, or calling them all the way back to our cruisers, we want to have a systematic approach that maximizes officer control and safety.
Under stress, officers will resort to what they know — this can be a good thing or bad thing, depending on the degree and caliber of training. In either case, we need to remain fluid and flexible in our application of the process and not get tied down by dogma. Suspects may not be able to put their hands-up, they might not be able to exit the vehicle. The primary officer may not always be in the best position to order suspects out, suspects may not comply with all of your commands. As long as officers are maintaining their areas of responsibility, the suspects are complying to the best of their ability and the situation is contained, the outcome is likely to be successful. Don’t get caught inside the box and watch for falling into repetitive commands that are not productive (feed-back loop). Remain flexible and always have a plan B in place if things start turning south.
Make it Home, Every Shift
When conducting a traffic stop or pedestrian encounter, the assessment is not only critical, it should be on-going. Don’t make false assumptions based on previous experiences. Each encounter is unique and must be given its due diligence in regards to assessing the circumstances and the players involved. If the circumstances merit back-up, then ask for it and ask early. Most offenders who have either assaulted or killed police officers knew or believed the officer was alone at the time of the assault. Make sure we are backing each other up and using sound tactics that provide us the best tactical advantage and positioning.
Remember, we lose almost twice as many officers each year to accidental assaults than felonious assaults, partially due to our positioning and awareness. We may not be able to eliminate officer casualties, but maybe, by properly assessing what we are truly facing, using proper tactics and positioning we will be better prepared in our response.