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Don’t be a drag: Considerations when attempting to control subjects inside a vehicle

Setting a compliance baseline at the beginning of a vehicle stop can help improve officer safety


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Traffic stops are one of the most common and dangerous interactions that law enforcement has with the community, but the repetitive nature of such stops can make officers complacent. Ongoing training in traffic stop safety can help combat this complacency. The PoliceOne Academy features several courses that address specific areas of risk including DUI testing and safety, motor officer safety and vehicle extraction. Visit PoliceOne Academy to learn more and for an online demo.  

By Sergeant (Ret.) Robert E. Bemis

It happens more often than you think, and a simple internet search will reveal the frequency. It is a rapidly developing situation that can lead to officer injury yet may not be initially considered as a threat. It occurs when a law enforcement officer attempts to restrain or arrest a subject seated inside a vehicle and is subsequently dragged alongside the vehicle as it goes into motion.

A fair number of officers are injured annually when reaching into a vehicle to attempt to remove an occupant or prevent flight. Others have been hurt when they were close enough to the vehicle to be either physically held by one of the occupants or become entangled on a portion of the vehicle as it is driven from the scene.

No one wants to see a violator get away. More important, no one wants to see an officer injured by someone using a vehicle as a weapon, intentionally or otherwise. (Photo/PoliceOne)
No one wants to see a violator get away. More important, no one wants to see an officer injured by someone using a vehicle as a weapon, intentionally or otherwise. (Photo/PoliceOne)

At the core of police work is the internal drive to catch violators of the law. How we go about getting a suspect into custody is situational. Our desired goal should always be to gain compliance verbally, but we know that on occasion, control will have to be achieved by physical means. Of course, going hands on carries with it a certain amount of risk to the officer, but with training, sound tactics and common-sense thinking, our risk can be reduced. The key to high performance almost always can be found in the mind of the officer on the scene.

Why officers need to work through the “what ifs”

When training law enforcement students for the street, I’ve stressed the importance of mentally considering the “what ifs” in a given scenario and how you would respond. Working through sudden changes in a fictitious situation might help you approach real-life incidents with a more common-sense solution, possibly overriding the tendency to react impulsively.

Some would argue that if we don’t train officers in vehicle removal techniques, it impedes an officer’s ability to arrest a non-compliant subject. While I agree that it is important to train the tactic of removing an arrestee seated in a vehicle, I also feel it is critical to balance the decision to use such a tactic against the totality of the circumstances. Questions to be considered as you ponder such a move include:

  • What is the objective you are trying to accomplish at that very moment?
  • What options are available to you prior to “breaking the plane” of the interior of the vehicle?
  • Does that option make sense tactically?

We exist in a world of moments where we need to constantly search for potential safety-related “red flags.” In many violent encounters, the subject gives pre-attack cues either verbally or non-verbally. As these indicators begin to build, so does the danger. When that danger presents itself, officers may only have fractions of seconds to choose a response. In the potential chaos that follows, how do we avoid inadvertently placing ourselves at greater risk of injury by acting out of emotion instead of training?

The compliance baseline

During a vehicle stop, officers can begin to evaluate safety risks within the first few minutes of contact with the operator by setting a compliance “baseline.” All decisions and actions moving forward are evaluated by the subject’s initial willingness to comply with the officer’s directions. Every subsequent action (or failure to act) potentially moves the level of danger off the baseline.

When debriefing students at the conclusion of scenario training, I like to take a few minutes to “walk” officers through this concept. I identify the initial moment of officer/subject contact during the incident and help them to use that to establish their baseline. I then guide them through the events that follow, stopping at each danger cue that may (or may not) have been perceived. Each time I ask the officer: “Did the danger level go down, stay the same, or go up? And then this happened….” This exercise helps students evaluate if they used the correct force option, or if they need to improve their tactics.  

One of the simplest methods to set the compliance baseline on your approach is to request that the driver turn the vehicle wheels toward the non-traffic side of the berm and turn off the engine. Now envision what you would do if the operator refused. Has your danger level gone down, stayed the same, or gone up? Non-compliance could indicate that your violator does not want to give up the ability to flee.

How to respond to non-compliance

When it becomes clear there is a certain level of non-compliance from your subject, what’s next? It’s important to act based on sound tactics instead of an emotional response. Consider the following:

  • What is the reason for the stop/investigation?
  • What is the severity of the crime?
  • Is the person under arrest?
  • Did I call for back-up? Can I wait?
  • What do I see? Are there multiple occupants, contraband and/or weapons?
  • Can the vehicle move right now? Is the vehicle engine running and is it in gear?
  • How can I gain access to the subject? Will I have to open a door or go through a window? If I must use force to enter, how long will that take?
  • Where am I standing? Can I get struck or caught on the vehicle if it suddenly moves?

Use the answers to these questions to form your response. If there is an opportunity to quickly seize the subject and remove that person without the vehicle going into motion, make the decision and commit. If all else fails, immediately disengage, seek cover and revert to your training in high-risk stops.

Beyond the traffic stop

Similar injuries occur to officers who are attempting to extricate persons following a pursuit. When the pursuit stops, either by crash or surrender of the operator, how many of us make that conscious decision to close the gap and forcefully remove the suspect(s) from the vehicle? Before you made that decision, were you certain that the vehicle was immobilized? On far too many occasions, we’ve seen pursuits temporarily stop, only to resume when the driver sees an opening. It could be at this point that an officer is struck and/or dragged.

Never place yourself in a position directly in front of, or to the rear of a vehicle that could go into motion. Aside from the immediate personal danger you could be in, think about what you may have to do to stop the vehicle. Would deadly force be an appropriate option? Consider the impact of your tactics on other officers at the scene. Will they be forced to act to prevent injury to you? Will any of these decisions withstand scrutiny later?

Remove the Emotion

We know that during high-stress situations a lot of things happen inside your brain. The physiologic changes that occur can have a direct impact on perception and motor skill performance. Anger and frustration can be factors that fuel our physiological arousal (adrenaline and fight or flight response) and may cause us to miss threat cues. Impulsive behavior induced by stress can lead to action without consideration for the consequences and is often rapid, premature and excessive.

Dr. Michael J. Asken, retired Pennsylvania State Police psychologist and author of “Mindsighting,” teaches techniques that can aid in preparing for a tactical response. Tactical performance imagery is a performance enhancement technique where an officer uses his or her imaginal abilities to create a simulation of tactical skills, responses or situations to maximize the quality of relevant physical, emotional and cognitive responses.

The exercise is usually effective using the first person/internal perspective, which is imaging what you actually experience (what you see in front of you, around you) but could be accomplished alternatively with the third person/external perspective (a view as if watching yourself or seeing yourself on a video monitor).

There are some keys to making mental imagery or mental rehearsal work well. The first is to image the scene or skill in all five senses. Think about what you see, hear, feel (both physically and emotionally), taste and smell. Using all five senses makes the experience more real.

The imagery should always be of a successful action. It is important to image alternate occurrences and even things being a surprise or going badly, but you never stop there. Always image what you might do in that bad situation (even if it is not a great choice) so you are prepared with some alternate action. Image (and feel) yourself in emotional control, smoothly and confidently executing your actions, even when faced with an inflammatory situation.

Final thoughts

No one wants to see a violator get away. More important, no one wants to see an officer injured by someone using a vehicle as a weapon, intentionally or otherwise. It is critical to consider this scenario and utilize techniques such as tactical performance imagery to help override the natural urge to “grab ’em” when you’re faced with a flight situation. Rely on the training you’ve received in high-risk vehicle stops, pursuit driving and decision-making. Set a compliance base line with your subject and respond accordingly with sound tactics when that person does not follow your direction.


About the author
Sergeant (Ret.) Robert Bemis retired in 2017 as a supervisor in the Operational Training Division at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy in Hershey. With over 30 years of law enforcement experience, Sgt. Bemis spent more than a decade as a trainer specializing in officer safety, self-defense and civil disorder tactics. He is the author of “Forged in Scars & Stripes: A Trooper’s Victory Over Critical Injury.” Sgt. Bemis is currently the director of training at NSENA VR, a virtual reality training solution for law enforcement and corrections.

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