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Risky Business: Tips on surviving the so-called low-risk traffic stop

By Dave Grossi

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By now, most law enforcement officers have had a chance to examine the FBI's 2005 Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Summary. And again, it reveals some disturbing trends. In 2005, 149 law enforcement officers died. A partial summary indicates 64 officers died from shootings, 66 from vehicle accidents and 14 from heart attacks. The remaining numbers include deaths from an assortment of fates, such as edged-weapon attacks and drowning. When you dissect the deaths-by-shootings category and look at those 64 officer murders, the single largest group, 14 officers, were fatally shot while conducting traffic stops. The second highest death-by-shootings category, 12 officers, was from domestic disturbances, a category always at or near the top of the list.

Twenty-five years ago, Calibre Press, Inc. co-founder Chuck Remsberg, in his acclaimed text Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters, wrote, "Few patrol events seem more ‘routine' than vehicle pull-overs, yet in an average year 12 percent of officers killed are shot while detaining motorists." And while we've shown a little improvement in that figure, clearly many officers still approach vehicle and traffic stops as routine.

Word entries in my dictionary proceed alphabetically from "route" (a way to get to a destination) to "roux" (a cooked mixture of hot fat or grease and flour). In other words, there is no such word as "routine" in my police vocabulary. That word was removed from my mental dictionary when I pinned on my shield and strapped on my Sam Browne. The quickest way for a street cop to get into a hot, greasy mixture of gunfire or violence is to think of traffic stops as routine. In fact, viewing anything in police work as routine causes officers to grow complacent, and as any good street cop knows, complacency kills. 

Low-Risk Stops vs. High-Risk Stops
Generally, we can divide traffic stops into two broad categories: low-risk (or un-known/investigative) stops and high-risk (or the old "felony") stops. Time and space won't permit an exhaustive dialogue on tactics or vehicle positioning diagrams for these types of stops, but of the two types, in my humble opinion, the low-risk or investigative stop is by far the most risky.

While this may fly in the face of conventional teaching, the reason I view low-risk stops as the most risky is fairly simple. During high-risk vehicle stops, the involved officers generally know what they're dealing with, be it an armed robbery suspect, a violent criminal wanted for a serious crime or an escaped, dangerous felon. As such, the officers usually prepare mentally and tactically for a violent response and take appropriate measures. However, when making a low-risk or an investigative/unknown stop, such as to pull over a motorist for a minor traffic offense or to check out an occupied (or presumably unoccupied) suspicious vehicle, you really don't know what you'll encounter. You're stopping someone you know almost nothing about.

I divide low-risk stops into two sub-categories: traffic stops and investigative/unknown stops. While the 2005 Law Enforcement Officers Killed Summary doesn't divide the 14 deaths that occurred during traffic stops into these two distinct areas, today's street cops need to operate from these two different mindsets. You must vary your tactics depending on the type of low-risk stop you make.

Some tactics will always apply for both traffic stops and investigative/unknown stops, such as calling out your location, vehicle tag number, make, model and color of the vehicle, and the number of occupants. If you have an MDT, punch in the plate number before you get out of your vehicle to check for any wants, warrants or holds on either the vehicle or the registered owner. But at some point, the tactics for traffic and investigative stops should begin to differ.

Tactics For All

Low-Risk Stops
For all low-risk stops, both traffic and investigative/ unknown stops, visually inspect the trunk lid for subtle threats, such as a punched out trunk lock (remember the D.C. sniper incident). Also inspect the rear plate for bug residue, which indicates a possible stolen front plate off of another vehicle. Heavily tinted window glass should always increase the pucker factor, as should hands not kept fully in view as you make your approach. Vans, especially those with blacked-out or no rear or side windows, always pose a special problem on any traffic stop simply because the officer-to-subject ratio remains an unknown. Remember: Contact/cover principles always apply to any vehicle stop.

Remember to roll down your windows, unlock your doors and turn up your portable radio before you exit your patrol car. Of course, to conduct any vehicle stop, your flashlight and expandable baton should be on your belt instead of in your car when you exit. Some officers always keep their driver-side door open, too, in order to add to the safety-lane cushion in locations where the shoulders of the road are narrow or nonexistent. (Note: Again, you can discuss any complaints made by passing motorists later on in the comfort and safety of your boss's office.)  If you have a take-home car  you can modify slightly, consider placing some red/white reflective tape on the inside of the door.

Investigative/Unknown Stops
Always request a backup on all investigative/unknown stops. Also, strongly consider making passenger side approaches, and remember to approach by walking around the rear of your car, not between your squad car and the offender's vehicle. For nighttime stops, make tactical use of your spotlight and blind out the rear and side-view mirrors of the suspicious vehicle. (You, and your boss, can deal with the complaints later.) Clearly, you wouldn't normally employ these tactics for a minor traffic offender, but you should make them mandatory for all nighttime investigative/unknown stops.

On most traffic stops, you'll have the luxury of picking and choosing your location, but that may not be the case on investigative or unknown stops. You may get a call about a suspicious vehicle (either occupied or unoccupied) at a certain locale. The risks inherent in such a call can run the gamut: a despondent person wanting some quiet time, a solo daylight residential burglar casing a house, a drug dealer hawking his wares in a vacant parking lot or an armed get-away driver waiting for his accomplice to exit the local Stop 'n Rob. None of these subjects will be happy to see you pull up.
If you can pick your stop location, pick well-lighted areas that will enhance your visual acuity and are accessible to your backup unit but clear of other traffic dangers. Also consider one with a safe backdrop for shooting and taking cover (should the defecation hit the ventilator). If you don't like the location your violator chooses, use your PA to direct the motorist to move up a few yards to one more advantageous, using language such as "Please pull up to the convenience store parking lot" or "Please pull into the shopping mall parking lot."    

When checking out stationary suspicious vehicles, you may not have much choice in location. In densely populated, high-crime areas, backup becomes even more important, and one backup unit may not be enough, even if you're part of a two-officer unit. Get backup first before committing to your approach. Even with a backup present, communicate with your partner before you both exit your respective squad cars. Observe what's going on in the suspect's vehicle for a few seconds before you get out, but when you do get out, get out fast. Don't linger any longer in the fatal funnel or kill zone than necessary. These terms refer to the area of your driver-side door, where the offender knows you must exit and can control with hostile firepower. Most patrol car configurations (radio consoles, MDTs, laptops, shotgun racks) don't allow for passenger-side exits by the driver.

Final Precautions
Finally, remember the end of the stop. If your stop involved the proverbial little old lady who ran the stop sign, the soccer mom who didn't know it was a 20-mph school zone or a student who was focused on the morning's calculus test, keep it polite and professional. Keep any lengthy dialog to a minimum if issuing a ticket — no need to rub salt into the wound. If you're only giving a verbal warning, remain firm but friendly. One cardinal rule: Never let your guard down until the violator or the suspicious subject has left. Watch the vehicle as it pulls away and until it's far enough down the street from the stop location to no longer pose a threat.       

Back in 1980, shooting deaths from traffic stops made up about 12 percent of all officer murders. Today, we see some improvement, but we're still losing about 10 percent of our brother and sister officers during traffic stops. That's too many. Remember: Low risk doesn't mean no risk. And there's no such thing as routine in police work. Stay safe.

Dave Grossi is a retired police lieutenant from upstate New York now residing in southwest Florida. For 12 years, Grossi was the senior instructor for the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminars. A private trainer and consultant, Grossi testifies frequently as an expert witness in defense of police officers.

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