04 August 2016

MCS Officer Survival - Traffic stops, how we teach them

We spend most of our time responding to calls.  When you are responding to some calls for service, you never know what you are getting into.  Good officers will use their "down time" (not being a slave to the radio) to make self-initiated pedestrian and car stops.  Car stops are notoriously dangerous because of offenders and traffic.  What makes them so dangerous is that we keep making driver side approaches because it is what we are taught.  Never mind the fact that they make zero tactical sense.

Way back in September 1991, I was attending the US Army Military Police School at Ft. McClellan AL.  I was 18 and had been around law enforcement for most of my life because my Mother was a communications officer.  While in MP school, I was taught to conduct traffic stops the same way I had seen it performed alongside the road and during ride a longs hundreds of times, with the officer approaching the driver's side window.  In my head I knew that it made much more sense to approach the passenger side because-


  • It kept you out of traffic.
  • The easiest way for an offender to fire on you is with the gun in his right hand resting against his chest, invisible to you until you are at the window.
  • The front driver's compartment was obscured by the offender's body.
Even with zero road experience, I promised myself that when I got to stop cars on my own I would never use a driver's side approach unless I was ordered to or there was an environment factor beyond my control.

The first traffic stop I ever conducted was in January of 1992 and upon making contact with the driver through the passenger side window I detected the strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from his breath.  My second clue that he may be intoxicated was when he handed me a hot dog instead of his license. This is when I figured out that if they thought you were coming to the driver's side they already  rolled their window down.  If you surprised them on the passenger side, they had to roll down the window.  That cross breeze gave me the probable cause to get in the car at least dozens of times in my law enforcement career, if not hundreds.  I knew I was onto something and had to explain it to other MPs who wanted to know what the hell I was doing.

Fast forward and I found my self working for a municipal agency.  Prior to that, I attended the Baltimore City Police Academy.  One guess on what they taught for traffic stops....driver's side approach.  I went with the flow knowing I was going to do it my way anyway.

Over the next decade, I would conduct literally thousands of traffic stops along Rt 40 between Baltimore and Philadelphia.  I never did traffic to write tickets, and never got into speed enforcement.  The reason was that I found the conversion rate from speeding stops arrest to be very low in comparison to equipment stops. Things such as headlights, taillights, and my favorite of all time..tag lights.  I was looking for wanted subjects, guns, drugs, and DWIs. Eventually, I found myself in the special operations unit.  If we were not detailed to anything else, we were doing interdiction.  In 2004 alone, I stopped over 1100 vehicles.  During this time, I was also a field training officer.  Below is how I taught traffic stops then and how I teach them now as part of our two day Total Officer Survival Course.

You decide the location of the stop-  too many officers activate their equipment too early.  Before I thought about hitting my lights, I always tried to have vehicle and registered owner information.  This is when you start building a case.  Maybe the driver fits the physical description of the owner and has a warrant or is suspended.  Be calculating, start running scenarios through your head, and decide where to conduct the stop.  Don't rush.  When you rush, you miss things. As a rule, I tried to stop cars outside of residential neighborhoods for two reasons-
  • Less chance of people walking up on the stop. 
  • Less chance of someone having an elevated position on me, ie; window.
Use light to your advantage-  these tactics will work during daylight, but they really "shine" at night.  In the academy and since then in in-service, you have probably been told to stop the vehicle in a  brightly lit area such as a gas station or at least under a street light.  I always did the exact opposite.  Unless it is day light bright, the only thing the ambient light is going to do is put shadows all over the environment.  Instead, I would stop vehicles in the darkest location possible, thus allowing me to control all the light and use it to my advantage. Here is how I did it after calling the stop-

  1. Activate your overheads.
  2. Once vehicle stops, turn on your high beams and spot light.
  3. Aim your spotlight at the driver's side mirror.
At this point, you could have a marching band behind your lights and they would only be able to hear it.  Being overwhelmed with lights severely decreases their ability to be able to plan an attack.

Begin to set the tempo-  be slow and methodical.  The slower and more calculating you are, the easier it is to spot any danger signals.  Don't rush, but don't spend too much time sitting behind the wheel either.  They know that light is on your side so can easily exit the vehicle and just fire towards the light.

Exit your vehicle-  Open the door and put one foot on the ground.  We all know that this is one of the most probable times for them to take off and start a chase, so take a few seconds.
  1.  Exit your vehicle and close the door loud enough for them to hear it.  Hang  onto the handle for a second in case they take off.
  2.  Move to the rear of your vehicle and get behind it.  Often officers sit in the  driver's seat for a bit to watch the actions of the occupants.  The problem is  that like we said, the spotlight is a bullet magnet.  Not to mention it is easy  to get rushed behind the wheel.  If you are not driving, sitting in the vehicle  is a bad place to be.  Instead, we take a few minutes to watch the occupants  from the rear of our vehicle.  This gives you mobility, distance, and strong  cover.   If you are in a cruiser, you can see them over the roof and under the  light bar.  If you are in an SUV, you can look through your windows.  Behind the wall of light, you can look from the sides too, preferably the  passenger side to keep you out of traffic.  I cannot tell you how many times  from this position my spidey sense had me call for another unit.  Remember  to trust your intuition before you get clarity.  It could save your life.
The approach- when you are ready, walk up to the passenger side of your vehicle.  You can open and slam the passenger side door if you like.  It would leave them to conclude that you are a two man unit.
  1.  Walk up trying not to cross in front of your lights.
  2.  Put all five fingers of your left hand on the trunk or hatch and push down.  This puts a good set of prints on the vehicle and ensures that it is secure,  meaning nobody can pop out on you.
  3.  In a vehicle occupied by only the driver, wait to see if they are looking out  their window.  If you need to knock on the passenger side window startling  them, then you are doing it right.
  4.  You should be using your flashlight to look for "hands" on all the  occupants. 
  5.  If at this point you get a hinky feeling, you can also call across the vehicle  to your make believe partner.  If people believe you have the angle on  them, they will be less likely to attack. 
Writing a citation or getting the driver out-  if possible, I always preferred to write citations on the trunk of my cruiser.  Kept me mobile, with strong cover, and not where they would expect me.  If I was getting someone out of the vehicle for questioning, I would bring them to the back of my vehicle as well.  They no doubt have a connection to the other occupants so with them behind the wall of light, there is less of a chance of the other occupants shooting in that direction.  If there is going to be a fight, let it be away from traffic and not between the two cars.  You can have them stand at your rear passenger side wheel and hand you information across the trunk, using the trunk as a physical barrier.


What about a two man patrol-  when operating a two man patrol, little changes, except that you both exit to the rear of the car.  After they both observe, the officer on the passenger side does the approach.  The driver stands behind his taillight.  This gives the driver the ability to engage the suspect vehicle with gunfire if needed without being in a crossfire, which is often the case when both officers approach at the same time.

Remember, it is all about being methodical, having a a way to do things, and keeping the offender off balance.  An off balanced offender is one who is less likely to do something that would result in you using force.

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