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The one simple question that can improve traffic stops

This approach is sure to make the community, your administrators and supervisors happy


Like any good cop, you’re always looking for ways to improve how you do your job. There is one question that can reduce citizen complaints, change driver’s behavior and improve your effectiveness on the street.

Kirk Hensley of the North Carolina State Patrol uses and teaches this method and has seen improved citizen interactions and more cooperation during traffic stops, resulting in greater seizures of contraband and wanted subjects.

Hensley starts his traffic stops with an introduction. Unlike most officers, instead of saying, "Good morning, I’m Trooper Hensley," he uses his first name, "Good morning, I’m Kirk Hensley."

While the concept sounds simplistic in its execution, understand that there is a great deal of scientific research that lies at its core. (Photo/Coolcaesar via WikiCommons)
While the concept sounds simplistic in its execution, understand that there is a great deal of scientific research that lies at its core. (Photo/Coolcaesar via WikiCommons)

He does this for several reasons. By using his first name, he attempts to reduce the barrier created when we place a title in front of our name. Instead of seeing an officer in uniform, drivers see him as another human being. By humanizing yourself, you can cut down on the likelihood of assault – it is easier to assault a uniform than a person.

Then, instead of stating the reason for the stop, Hensley asks the driver a question. He doesn’t ask the usual, "Do you know why I stopped you?" Many experts suggest that question isn’t the best start to a traffic stop because it places the driver on the defensive and puts the officer in the position of inquisitor.

Some people are proponents of immediately following up the reason for the stop by asking, "Is there any legal justification to why you are (fill in the offense)?" Hensley believes this continues to place drivers in a defensive, reactive mode as they attempt to rationalize or justify their actions. Instead, he asks them a personal question.

"Are you OK?"

He does this to accomplish several things:

• He places himself in the position of being a helper rather than the role of prosecutor or persecutor. 

• Drivers generally do not expect an officer to show concern for their personal wellbeing during a traffic stop. 

The question serves two purposes:

• It helps to defuse any resistance from the driver’s perception of how the traffic stop will be conducted and its purpose.

• The surprise of the unexpected approach will create a condition of cooperation, even during concealed interrogation, leading to greater cooperation if the stop evolves beyond just a traffic infraction.

By asking the question, "Are you OK?" it allows drivers to drop their guard, which may be up because they don’t want a ticket, have an outstanding warrant, or are hauling contraband. The question leads drivers to believe the officer’s focus of concern is on their personal wellbeing and not on a continued police investigation that may lead to a ticket or incarceration.

It also allows a driver who has a legitimate (at least in their mind) reason for the driving infraction to voice it to the officer. Reasons like, "I am speeding because I just got a call that my husband has been involved in an accident," or "Sorry, I was swerving in my lane. I’m a little distracted because I just found out my mom has terminal cancer." While rare, allow drivers to explain the personal reason for the infraction. This verbal exchange can enhance a driver’s positive feelings toward the officer since he or she has been given an opportunity to express their reasons to an officer who they see as empathetic and caring.

As the conversation continues during a criminal interdiction stop, the question regarding the driver’s condition can continue when the officer sees signs of nervousness. For example, "Are sure you are OK? You’re shaking and sweating. Do you have a fever? Are you sure you aren’t sick?"

By pointing out the signs of stress, the driver who is trying to conceal them will feel greater stress knowing that the officer sees them. By choosing to continue questioning the driver’s wellbeing versus taking an accusatory strategy, ("I know you're lying because you are shaking and sweating and that means you’re up to something") the driver is more likely to continue answering your questions and give permission to search the vehicle.

One of the key factors in any investigation is getting suspects to talk. Everyone likes to talk about themselves. By showing an interest in them, you can use their desire to talk to your advantage and use it to take the conversation in the direction you want. As any good investigator knows, building rapport is critical in gaining information.

By utilizing this concept Hensley has seen several changes in the results of traffic stops he’s conducted, as well as those by officers he trains. First, there has been a decline in complaints from motorists. He feels if you show care and concern for someone they have less reason to complain. Second, there’s greater cooperation of suspects during criminal interdiction stops, resulting in more seizures of contraband and more arrests.

While the concept sounds simplistic in its execution, understand that there is a great deal of scientific research that lies at its core. While there is not enough space here to get into the details, I highly recommend Hensley’s training, available through Safetac.

This approach is sure to make the community, your administrators and supervisors happy.

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