Limitations of the passenger side approach
The passenger side contact remains an essential strategy for officer safety, but recognizing its limitations can enhance the odds in the officer’s favor
In Jefferson City, Missouri, a section of highway is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Trooper Dennis Marriott. Dennis was killed by a drunk driver while on a traffic stop.
The passenger side approach has become the preferred tactic for contacting vehicle occupants on traffic stops to reduce the risk of exposure to passing traffic. But not all safety problems are solved by the passenger side contact (PSC).
The element of surprise
A primary advantage of the PSC is that the driver and occupants anticipate the officer will step up to the driver’s side.
It’s a common experience of officers to watch the shock and surprise on the faces of those inside the stopped vehicle when a knock on the passenger window draws their attention. Contraband that was shifted to the center console or everyone’s right thigh to avoid a line of sight from the driver’s side window becomes visible. However, with the increasing use of PSC, this element of surprise will decrease over time, especially among “frequent fliers” who have a special interest in anticipating police tactics.
Officers using PSC will still enjoy the element of surprise in most contacts, but cannot continue to rely on the element of surprise as a primary tactical advantage.
Executing verbal commands to the driver from a PSC is potentially less effective than from just outside the driver’s window. Talking through the additional distance and barriers can increase the chance of miscommunication and non-compliance. A decision to order the driver out of the car will likely require the officer to reposition to the driver’s side and risk the hazards of losing the sightline advantage gained by the initial PSC.
Obviously if there is no space to maneuver between the stopped vehicle and confines of the roadway, a PSC is not feasible, but the temptation to avoid a driver side approach can result in an officer treading on unsteady ground.
The threat of being struck by traffic, especially in the case of a sudden need to disengage and retreat from a driver’s side attack, might be mitigated by the angled position of the patrol car and more defensible than the passenger side of the road.
The dangers of a lack of retreat space must be part of the calculation of the value of a PSC. Stumbling against a curb, down into a ditch, or from pavement to gravel or dirt can create a tremendous tactical advantage to the suspect vehicle’s occupants.
The criminal element may intentionally choose to stop in a position that makes a PSC awkward for the officer. Extra caution, expedited backup and loudspeaker commands for the driver to reposition to accommodate a PSC should be considered in any case where the suspect vehicle appears to be positioning to give the occupants a tactical advantage.
Police trainers must abandon training that is always conducted under ideal conditions of smooth roadways and daylight when orienting trainees to the PSC. There are many variables other than just going to the other side of a suspect vehicle.
Trainees should be given the opportunity to see what various approaches look like from the perspective of a driver, front seat passenger and rear seat passenger. They should be given the opportunity to attempt to maneuver an inert training weapon into an attack posture for the various approaches.
Night experiences are particularly important for trainees. Walking between the patrol car and the suspect vehicle for a PSC (or any reason, for that matter) creates the risk of being pinned between the vehicles if the offender backs up or the patrol car is struck from behind. At night the signaling of the officer’s movement from the shadow of headlights, or the officer’s illuminated flashlight, can cause a forfeit of some of the PSC’s tactical advantage. Walking around behind the patrol car will reduce the time that an officer can observe occupants of the suspect vehicle due not only to the moments when the patrol car obscures the suspect vehicle, but also by the distraction of the patrol car’s blinding overhead lights.
Assessing the footing and retreat space that an officer will have on the passenger side of a suspect vehicle takes a moment more time than what is more easily in sight with the driver’s side approach. The officer should pause before making the final approach to determine if he will be unsteady or limited in movement at the point of contact. Accessing cover and concealment is also different from the PSC angle. Lines of sight and field of fire will be different for PSC shooting scenarios, requiring practice in engaging in use of firearms from a variety of angles toward a driver or occupant.
Failure to gain compliance from the passenger side can complicate efforts at empty hand control or use of other compliance tools due to the distance and barriers between the officer and the driver. Mechanical failure of the passenger window or interference and hesitation by front seat passengers can disrupt the officer’s plan of contact and create tense moments.
Reducing officer deaths
Because of the hazards of being near the lane of traffic in a world where distracted and drugged drivers plague our roadways, the passenger side contact remains an essential strategy for officer safety. Recognizing its limitations can enhance the odds in the officer’s favor.