Policing rural America: Lone officer vehicle contacts
As we look back on our nation’s history we think of lawmen of the early days, the lone officer riding horseback from town to town to keep the peace. If you work in a rural area you probably feel the same way at times. It can be no fun being out there alone.
As a result we learn our own tricks to keep ourselves out of trouble. Grabbing the microphone on your portable and talking to your imaginary backup in front of your suspect may have kept you from a fight or two. Out of radio range quite a bit? That’s why you have that voice-activated recorder in your shirt pocket. If the worst happens, that “black box” can document quite a bit of information about your last contact.
What about stirring up the gravel a bit as you follow that suspicious car down those dirt roads? Your backup can follow those fresh tracks and find you. There are administrative headaches that can make the job a bit difficult for us also, like working with small town district attorneys and judges or that sheriff who says, “That stuff doesn’t happen here.”
These are all issues worthy of discussion, so please e-mail us your concerns, tips, and questions relating to rural law enforcement and we will create a forum that will help us maintain our tactical edge in this unique environment. Meanwhile I want to begin our discussion with something that every officer in rural America has to face: Lone officer vehicle contacts.
Every officer out there has conducted a traffic stop. Sort of a routine task, most times resulting in the issuance of a citation, sometimes an arrest, and every once in a while...trouble.
For the lone officer, several obstacles make things interesting when conducting the “routine” traffic stop. Things like terrible radio communications and being outnumbered most of the time. Think about who we are likely to be stopping, farmers, loggers, hunters, anti government types, general criminal offenders, campers etc. It is likely a knife, gun, axe, or some other weapon is in the vehicle.
When handling the stop alone (or with backup several miles away) we should be looking for and obtaining every bit of information we can — from the moment we see the vehicle right up through the completion of the stop. Even though we didn’t say it during our job interviews, we love nothing more than to mash that gas pedal down and spin around to catch our suspect vehicle. However, that is also what people expect us to do and I question the tactical advantage of the “cop spin.” When dealing with these contacts alone, we should be taking every step we can to give ourselves the advantage. We need to “read” the stop before we make it. Paying some attention to these minor details can give us a tactical advantage.
We should be looking for stuff beyond the basic things like license plate numbers, number of occupants, etc, and the reaction of the occupants when they see you. We have all seen the “slam-on-the-brake-and-rubberneck” response as people go past us in the opposite direction. But what about the occupants that all stare straight ahead like you were not even there? Could this be someone hoping that if they don’t look at us, we don’t look at them? As the car goes by we should be looking in our rear view mirror for that little lane deviation as they try to look in their rear view to see what your response is because that behavior can be a small piece of information we can use. At this point, is it necessary that we get to the vehicle fast and make our stop? In some cases absolutely, however there might be a more tactically sound way to make our stop.
A Little Deception Goes a Long Way
In police and military tactics, the element of surprise is a winning tactic. Is there a way that we can use the terrain or other factors to catch up to the vehicle without them knowing until the last minute? In rural America we have the luxury of seldom losing cars in traffic and the ability to follow vehicles for miles and stay within our jurisdiction.
Can we go right on by let them get around the next corner or over the hill and then slowly catch up to the car? What about the dusty dirt road, we can ride behind the dust until we decide we want them to see us. I have worked for two agencies that installed switches to turn off our brake lights, allowing officers to slow to a crawl after meeting a vehicle without the suspect detecting that we were interested in them. Worked great.
With a little practice and ingenuity it is not too hard to “come out of nowhere” and make your stop. Your driver might tell you he just saw another officer a few miles earlier, or with some smooth talking you can convince your driver that the “other officer” saw the violations, thus creating the illusion that you have backup close by.
Once we catch up to our suspect vehicle, we should be paying attention to the occupants, any furtive movements, lane deviation, failure to immediately stop, or a short burst of speed while we are trying to catch up obviously will put us on alert. Something I have found through experience is that when your suspect vehicle speeds up, something is getting tossed out, when it slows down for some distance before stopping, something is happening inside (like concealing something or trying to grab something). I often find contraband, especially weapons on the passenger side. It seems that human nature is to move this stuff as far from where the driver expects the officer will be, anticipating a driver side approach. This is certainly not a hard and fast rule, but it is something to keep in mind, as I have opened several passenger doors and found firearms there.
As far as the approach, I have no preference and will utilize the driver and passenger side approaches depending on the circumstances. If I am alone at night making a stop and things feel not quite right, I will do a passenger side approach and leave my flashlight off. More often than not I walk up to the passenger door and find the occupants waiting for me to walk up on the driver’s side. This often gives me time to really look over the vehicle as I usually have a few extra seconds to look inside while making this approach.
If you are a hunter you know that in the woods you’re not looking for the entire animal you’re pursuing — instead you’re looking for parts of that animal between the trees in the forest. Similarly, we need to be looking for “parts” of weapons and contraband during the approach, gun stocks, bullets, bullet boxes, knife sheaths, hunting clothes, hatchet handles, etc. Know what is likely to be in the vehicle before you ask. Using this approach I often have to knock on the passenger window to get somebody’s attention because they expect me to be at the driver’s door. Once again, the element of surprise puts us a step ahead of the suspect.
As we make contact, think about using phrases that involve the words “we” instead of “I.” Things like “The reason we stopped you tonight is” or “We’ll be right back with you.” Give the illusion that you are not out there alone. If one of those rubbernecking drivers who slows to a crawl as they pass your location is a four-door sedan or plain SUV past, give a quick wave and grab your portable without pushing the button and saying something like “everything’s okay here” or I’ll meet you up the road when I’m finished here” I always figure these pretend backup officer tricks have one of two effects, either the suspect feels you have a partner officer with you or close by, or that you are a little nuts. Either way, it might make them rethink an attack.
If we have reason to believe there is some sort of illegal item in the vehicle, that’s when things can get interesting. The question is, how does one officer search a vehicle and its occupants?
The answer is of course, VERY CAREFULLY!
We will use the scenario of a consent search. I drive a pickup truck, with no cage, that contains a rifle, shotgun, and several items that could be used as weapons. I don’t want to put bad guys there unless I have to. Because of this, the tactics I use are probably going to be the worst case scenario.
By now we have ID’d all our suspects and we have a good idea of who we are dealing with. When getting people out of the vehicle, the driver is the person you will want to speak with first. Once you get consent how can you secure them? I have found the rural population to be extremely resistant to handcuffing for reasons other than an arrest. That is a call for the individual officer to make on site. As the lone officer do you want to be arguing with someone about handcuffing while you have several other unsecured occupants in a car five feet away that may or may not contain weapons or drugs? Again, a decision you will need to make based on experience and the situation in front of you.
We just don’t work in a perfect world.
If the decision is made to not handcuff some or all of the occupants, I prefer to have the occupants sit on the hood of their own car facing away from me. This works to my advantage several ways. It faces them away from what I am doing, lengthening their reaction time for an attack, any movement requires them to get off the car, which I can feel if I’m paying attention. I also have vehicle’s open doors to slow down an attack. Lastly, I’ve put the occupants as far from my own vehicle as I can because for most of my area my portable radio does not work and the last thing I want is anyone between me and my squad’s mobile radio if things go bad.
If I find anything illegal, I don’t hold it up and ask them about it — I simply place it in my pocket and continue the search like nothing happened. If I am satisfied I have the illegal items and weapons and keys secure from the car, I will let the occupants one by one get back into the vehicle. I’ll bring the driver or vehicle owner to the rear of the car so I can talk with them about the illegal items and take them into custody. Many times the arrest can be made without the other occupants even knowing. If I need to arrest a second person, the process starts all over again. I get them out and bring them back.
Is this textbook tactical training? Absolutely not, and obviously there are several things that can go wrong here. In a perfect world everybody should be handcuffed, secured in the backseat of the squad or babysat by another officer (or two) while the search is conducted. If you have that ability, great use it every time you are in this situation.
But for you officers who are out there alone in remote areas, this is meant to get you thinking. Think tactically about the stop you are about to make. Use each and every advantage you can, slow things down and surprise them a few miles up the road after they let their guard down, notice that shell casing on the floor while you knock on the passenger window to get their attention, and make them think you are not alone out there.
These little things that catch our suspects off guard — no matter how insignificant they seem — put us in control, and that is what gets us back home at the end of our shift.