As I write this article, one officer in Phoenix Valley is injured and another is dead. The first, a DPS officer, had his patrol vehicle struck from behind while conducting a traffic stop. Thankfully, he’ll survive. The second, Phoenix Police Officer Travis Murphy was tragically shot and killed while attempting to locate and apprehend a suspect who fled an attempted traffic stop. Although the circumstances surrounding both incidents were vastly different, the commonality between them is that vehicles, traffic violations and enforcement actions were involved.
As I mentioned in Part I of Surviving Traffic Stops, conducting vehicle-related enforcement activities causes one of the highest frequencies of officer-
related injuries and deaths. Sometimes, it’s the actual violator, as in Officer Murphy’s case, that’s the root cause. In other cases, as with the DPS officer, an individual unrelated to the traffic stop caused mayhem by plowing into the officer’s vehicle. The danger is out there, and we must protect ourselves in every manner we can.
Get What You Need the First Time
As I mentioned in the Part I, one element of a successful stop is command presence. It begins from the moment you initiate the stop, and every action you take from that point on can help to ensure or detract from gaining compliance and cooperation from the violator. Once you’ve decided to make your approach and make contact with the driver and any occupants, take the time to clearly roster all the information you need from each individual in the vehicle. Remember: The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that you have the right to identify each person in the vehicle, so do it.
I’ve found that many occupants of vehicles seem to be content to travel the world with no apparent physical identification. As we also know, not everyone we deal with has the purest intentions. Oftentimes, it can be a ploy on their part in hopes you won’t discover their identity. There are opportunities to dig deeper, and this is a good time to slow the traffic stop down.
Again, you control the stop, not vice versa. Example: One evening, I conducted a traffic stop where the driver, a young female, purported to have no identification. She provided me with a DOB, descriptors, address and approximate age that all seemed to be consistent. As was my practice, I ran her license and criminal record based on the information she provided. Unfortunately for her, the information she provided me was that of her sister who had several outstanding warrants at the time. I arrested her based on knowledge she provided, and she didn’t protest.
Ironically, once I arrived at jail, a deputy recognized the subject from previous contacts, and it was determined her actual identity revealed even more warrants. Thus, I booked her on those, plus myriad other charges, like obstruction. The point: Asking the questions up front and digging till the answers were revealed made the difference between simply writing a ticket for no license and a trip to jail.
The same goes for each individual in the vehicle. If they say they have no identification, ask for all of the basics, plus any addresses of residence. If needed, ask if they’re on parole or probation, and if so, who their PO is. Ask them how they know the other people in the vehicle. Ask what you need to ensure that, when you walk back to your vehicle and begin to run locals and NCIC on them, you aren’t missing anything.
The same goes with the driver and the necessary paperwork for the vehicle. If the registration or insurance doesn’t match the driver, ask why. Again, you set the tone of the stop, and your thoroughness in the beginning will let the occupants of the vehicle know you’re in control. It will also alert you to any inconsistencies in stories, excessive occupants with no purported identification and unusual body language or nervousness.
This all contributes to officer safety issues and allows you to determine the need to request additional officers at the scene. Many times, upon contacting the driver and occupants the first time, I figured out that someone in the vehicle had warrants. My demeanor didn’t change externally. I appeared to conduct business as usual. My message was clear, authoritative and presented from a physical position of advantage.
Remember: If you appear nervous, it’s a sign you’re losing control of the stop. Keep your cool as you gather information, and begin a checklist of what resources you’ll need to complete the stop. Obviously, if a threat presents itself, you must address it immediately, but barring that, take your time and get what you need. The last thing you need is to have to walk back up to the vehicle again because you forgot to ask for insurance proof, etc. Each time you contact the violator, the chance for non-compliance increases.
Better to Sweat than Bleed
When I worked in the southwest as a trooper, I worked swing shift in a summer climate that routinely made the surface temperature of the asphalt and concrete near 170 degrees. It wasn’t uncommon for shoe treads to melt if you stood in one place too long. Fire trucks would actually start to sink into the asphalt on the hottest days because the surface would get gooey. Hot? Yes! But the fact is, even on the hottest days, I conducted my traffic stops while standing outside my car. Why? Because I saw too many patrol vehicles struck from behind and officers who were sitting in the driver’s seat like ducks. Other times, a violator would hop out of their vehicle and begin to walk back toward an officer, mostly to provide information or to ask a question. The officer was stuck in a tactical disadvantage by sitting behind the wheel.
No matter how hot or cold it is outside, you’re absolutely compromising your safety by conducting traffic-stop business from the driver’s seat: You can’t react to threats around you from that position. Instead, stand on the passenger side, front door open, in a bladed position where you can both keep an eye on the violator and approaching traffic and watch pedestrians from behind. This is a great position that allows you mobility and good sight lines of what’s occurring. It also allows you to retreat away from your vehicle should you see it’s going to get hit; find cover if the violator comes out aggressively; write the citation; conduct criminal records checks; and so forth. You’ll also be able to address threats immediately.
There are times when it’s raining or snowing and shelter is needed. A compromise solution is to sit on the edge of the front passenger seat, with your right leg out of the vehicle, your center rear view mirror adjusted to allow you to see approaching traffic and regular scanning. This isn’t ideal, but it will provide you some cover from the elements and quick egress if needed. Remember: If you’re in a position of reacting to a situation, you’re already one step behind the violator and trying to catch up. Place yourself in a proactive position outside the patrol vehicle, on the side of the vehicle away from passing traffic, and stay out of that driver’s seat.
In Sight When Writing the Cite
This sounds basic, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen officers writing citations where they were so focused on what they were writing that they allowed an individual to walk right up to them without noticing. I’ve even seen situations where the officer didn’t even notice the violator was out of their vehicle and halfway back to them before raising their eyes.
This has been especially problematic with the introduction of electronic citation books that require a stylus input and precision maneuvering. Add in the glare from the sun and an officer’s attention can quickly become absorbed by the tiny little screen. Remember: No cite is worth your life, so ensure your cite book/electronic pad are positioned in a way that allows you to look over the top of it frequently to scan, both ahead of you and around you. Things can change quickly.
Example: I was assisting another trooper on a stop late one night where the violator had been stopped for speeding. The driver was a young kid in a company delivery van. As my compadre began to write the citation, the delivery truck began to rock side to side, and we began hearing a loud banging noise. It was so loud that we could hear it above passing traffic and our engine idling.
The cause? The driver literally had a meltdown as he sat in his truck and began to slam his fist against all sides of the interior. He then got out of the truck and began walking back toward us in a highly agitated state. Because we were both on high-alert after hearing the disruption, I began to order the driver to stop as he walked toward us. He ignored my commands, so I withdrew my Taser, and it was the bright red light on his midsection that caused him to stop. We proned him out and took him into custody without incident, and he ultimately went to jail. The point: Any stop can go from zero to crap in a heartbeat, so you must maintain situational awareness at all times.
Shifting your focus from cite book to violator vehicle and back requires your eyes to do a lot of adjusting in a short period of time, so account for that by tactically evaluating the situation before shifting your gaze to the cite. If in doubt, get another officer there. Regardless, you should never be surprised by anyone approaching you. You must always be ready to chuck the cite book/machine to the ground and engage any threat immediately.
Concluding the Stop
This guide isn’t a primer on conducting high-risk extractions, warrants, DUIs or felony stops. For our purposes, we’ll assume that nobody got froggy on you, that you cited the driver for the violation, that they had correct and valid paperwork and that all occupants of the vehicle checked out. (You did run everyone in the car, if legal in your state, right?)
Assuming you don’t need to arrest anyone, the remainder of the stop is the conclusion. But before you walk back up for your final approach, take a moment to reassess the situation. Has everyone in the violator vehicle remained calm the entire time? Are there any other vehicles in the area suddenly? (I’ve had it happen where someone in the car calls mom or dad, friend, etc., to the scene during the stop.) Assuming all is copacetic, approach with the same tactical considerations but with the caveat that the first time you approached, it was to identify, inform and gather information. This time, you’re bringing something that isn’t going to make anybody very happy. Still, most people respond positively, or at least cooperatively, to a polite, no-nonsense attitude that conveys respect and is intended to gain compliance. Once you reach the vehicle, and the driver knows they are being cited, their focus usually shifts to the punitive process and resulting adjudication.
This article isn’t a primer on selling the citation, but take time to clearly identify why you’re citing them, relating it to a concept they understand. It also may be a good time to tell them all the things you could have, but aren’t citing them for. This can help deescalate potentially noncompliant attitudes. Clearly explain the remedies for the citation, request a signature, give them their copy and ask them if they have any questions.
Most importantly, never allow them to engage you in contesting the citation. Explain their option to see a judge and request a signature. In some states, refusal to sign means a trip to jail. In others, the officer may write “refusal to sign” on the signature line and give a copy to the violator. In my case, jail for non-compliance was the outcome, so usually delivering that nugget of information to a protesting motorist was enough to gain compliance. In either case, maintain command presence throughout the stop by not losing control at this point.
Request compliance, obtain it, deal with it if you don’t and be done with the stop in a clear and concise manner. Once concluded with a copy of the citation delivered and paperwork returned, thank them for their cooperation and return to your vehicle in a tactical manner. I usually remained outside my vehicle until the violator had driven away in case anything arose that needed addressing.
Traffic stops are one of the most dangerous things you can do as a police officer. Depending on the type of environment you work in, they may or may not be a part of your daily routine. Hopefully, the tips provided in this two-part series will help you stay safe when conducting business on the side of the road.
Calling All Trainers!
Visit www.lawofficer.com/molnar for a training guide on safe traffic stops.