Traffic stops: New ideas on positioning, movement, and safety

A new study by Force Science Institute is the first of its kind to systematically and scientifically evaluate officer responses to deadly threats encountered during a “routine” traffic stop

A couple weeks ago I wrote that “officers spend a lot of their time in (and around) vehicles, so getting into gunfights near cars is pretty common.” 

With that in mind, I want to call your attention to an excellent new study from Force Science Institute entitled “The Influence of Officer Positioning on Movement During a Threatening Traffic Stop Scenario.” 

The study primarily sought to examine the influence of officer position relative to the B-Pillar of a vehicle on tactical responses to a lethal threat in a traffic stop scenario, with the secondary purpose of observing the responses, reactions, and movements made by the officers... To say the least, the findings are fascinating...

The “Mitigation Zone” or MZ is an area where the officer is at a position of reduced risk because the configuration of the vehicle being stopped impairs or restricts the driver’s visual access or weapon alignment on the officer. (FSI Image)
The “Mitigation Zone” or MZ is an area where the officer is at a position of reduced risk because the configuration of the vehicle being stopped impairs or restricts the driver’s visual access or weapon alignment on the officer. (FSI Image)

Starts with the Hands
Upon reading the new FSI report, I connected via phone with Dr. Bill Lewinski, a behavioral scientist specializing in law enforcement-related issues — Bill Lewinski is also the driving force behind all Force Science Institute research. 

“Control of the subject’s hands was the most-critical element that we could find for officer safety,” Lewinski told me early in our discussion.

“Controlling of the hands is really critical, and you don’t have to be rude about it. Many of our officers who were able to gain control of our assailant’s hands did so by very positive, assertive persuasion.”

Lewinski offered examples like: ‘Sir, for my safety and yours, please place your hands on the steering wheel. Thank you very much.’ and ‘Sir, I’d like to see your hands please, thank you very much.’ 

“These simple commands are persuasive in gaining cooperation without ordering people: ‘Hands on the steering wheel!’,” Lewinski said.  

Speaking of hands, Lewinski addressed one concern about where the subject’s hands should be placed — the steering wheel and dashboard are good, the ceiling is not. 

“There were some [criminal gang members] here in the Minnesota area that actually had guns placed in the sunroofs. So when officers told them to put their hands on the ceiling, the officers were actually directing them to where they kept their guns,” Lewinski said. 

Positioning and Movement
“No matter how an officer positions [himself or herself], their position alone does not guarantee safety from an assault within the vehicle,” Lewinski said right up front. 

That being said, there were some observable differences in officers safely moving to what FSI calls the mitigation zone (see the image to the left) at the rear of the vehicle. Those differences stemmed from both officer’s initial positioning (driver’s side versus passenger side) as well as the path taken by the officers toward that mitigation zone.

First off, it appears that the closer the officers moved in relation to the vehicle — moving parallel to the vehicle, instead of arcing out — seemed to let them get to that mitigation zone more quickly. 

“Most of the officers arced out in reaction — many officers went parallel to the vehicle, and reached the mitigation zone faster,” Lewinski told me. 

“If the officers had this in mind as they approached the vehicle, and then the assault started, they appeared to be able to engage in that movement as part of their reflexive withdrawal,” Lewinski said.  

Furthermore, analysis revealed that the point at which the participants drew their weapon had an influence on the amount of time it took to reach the mitigation zone. Officers who first disengaged and then drew their weapons seemed to be more successful in the scenarios than those who had tried to draw and then move or who drew and moved simultaneously.

Lewinski added that a passenger-side approach — depending upon the circumstances — potentially has the highest probability of being the safest approach for protection against assaults from within the vehicle. 

One reason the passenger-side approach could be the safest is the finding that from the driver’s position (in an assault to an officer on the passenger’s side) “the driver cannot continue to track the officer without bumping into the headrest and other obstacles inside the vehicle.”

While we know the passenger-side approach can also potentially provide some protection against environmental factors (such as being struck by an approaching vehicle in the roadway) the passenger side has its own set of potential dangers.

Notably, Lewinski cautions that threats may exist from both the front passenger seat and the back seat of the vehicle while utilizing that passenger-side approach. 

Two Interesting Outliers
Force Science Institute researchers spend a considerable amount of time comparing an officer’s memory of their critical incident simulations with the actual sequence of events in those simulations. 

This study was no different, as the team videotaped (using a special camera positioned overhead on a scissor-lift) and debriefed the participants after the fact, enabling comparison of the officers’ memory of their path of travel and their actual path of travel as seen on video.

“Not surprisingly, officers scrambling to survive in that type of situation aren’t paying attention to other irrelevant things like where they’re travelling, where in their path of travel they drew their gun, where in the path of travel they shot from,” Lewinski explained. 

“In the realm of life, as they’re trying to force a response forward, those things are not important. So they’re not remembering things that civilians might expect them to.”

One thing that was a surprise, Lewinski said, was the speed of the officers’ initial response. 

Even though they were remembering their response beginning at one point, their reflexive response captured on that computer-aided movement analysis videotape indicates that they were reacting much earlier than they remember. 

“Many said they first realized they were under threat when they saw the gun presented toward them. We did a computer analysis of movement — using modern technology, tagging their body parts to analyze their movement in comparison to the initial assault of our assailant — and the officers started to move almost at the same time as our assailant initiated his movement.”

It’s possible that they were subconsciously reading something which alerted their brain to danger — which then initiated a physical reaction — even before the conscious brain could compute a thought about precisely what that danger was. 

Another notable observation, Lewinski told me, was a small set of officers whose startle response was markedly different from the rest.

While the vast majority of the subjects had a reflexive startle response to recoil backwards, away from the threat, there was a small number — three officers — “who moved forward and tactically engaged by pushing the gun aside, drawing their own gun, and controlling the gun of the assailant before it fired at them,” Lewinski said.

Those three officers moved forward to control the weapon from very close range — and we’re talking no more than two or three feet — and were able to suppress the threat before the assailant’s gun went off, “while the remaining 90 participants were often shot multiple times,” the study said.

“That’s not something we’re advocating for general instruction,” Lewinski stated, “primarily because we’re not certain how successful it would be. 

“We just recognized that it was a successful strategy in this encounter, and that we need more research on that.”

Yes, Doctor, we certainly do...

Conclusions and Additional Information
First and foremost among my conclusions is this: If you don’t already get the Force Science Newsletter, you should sign up immediately — FSI is required reading.

Further, I want to reiterate the three specific conclusions I took from reviewing the study and subsequently speaking with Dr. Lewinski. 

1.)    As Dave Smith (J.D. ‘Buck’ Savage) famously said, watching and controlling the suspect’s hands is paramount to ensuring officer safety
2.)    When terrain and circumstance permit, a passenger-side approach might afford a safer path to the mitigation zone at the rear of the vehicle
3.)    Moving forward toward the threat, when you’re near enough to quickly close distance and neutralize the assailant, is a potentially viable option

Finally, I want to thank Dr. Bill Lewinski — and all my friends at Force Science Institute, including Chuck Remsberg, Scott Buhrmaster, and Patricia Thiem — for their ongoing (and incredible) work in the pursuit of better understanding the dynamics of deadly-force encounters. 

We need much more research on the fundamental stuff that cops do, and FSI is the driving force behind putting science toward what the line officer does every day on the street.

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