Traffic Stop Safety – Part I

Although police officers are killed more in other encounters each year “Traffic stops” are found to be the one thing officers do each day that scares them the most. Not many officers are willing to admit to the fears associated with traffic stops but they are real. It doesn’t matter if it is during the middle of the day or on a dark street at night; they make you anxious. It might be because police officers are conditioned from their early training and just like you, influenced by what is caught on film and shared on Youtube and Facebook. In the academy we see videos in “Officer Survival” classes of people jumping out on routine stops and gunning down unsuspected officers. We see officers walking up to cars and being shot in the face through the open window without warning. The images and stories stick with us as veteran officers share their experiences in the field training program. It is the reason officers place their hand on their gun as they are approaching; to lessen the reaction time to an attack. Let’s face it, in most violent encounters officers are always behind as action (of a suspect) is always faster than the reaction (of the officer).

I don’t know where you work, but could you imagine having a job function where people tell you there is a possibility of death and you place yourself in that position ten times a day. It’s nerve racking… In my career I was fortunate enough not to have any of my traffic stops turn into deadly encounters, but I’ve had many challenging ones in which there were weapons in the cars or on the person being stopped. In twenty years I have probably been involved in fifty (50) vehicle pursuits, and the same approximate number of people running from the car or resisting an arrest causing a physical confrontation (use of force). Now, I’ve stopped close to a thousand people with no problems and only wrote tickets to 20% of them; I let their attitudes dictate my decision. Yes, you can talk your way into a ticket.

Remember, officers are human and have emotional responses dictated by anxiety, fear and everyday stressors that go along with life; just like you. So here we are… Each nervous and both involved in a moment in time where we expect the other to bring us harm. It is the setup for an emotional perfect storm. What do we do?

I want to explain things you could do to make the traffic stop safer and control some of the anxiety to make it a successful encounter. The setup for the traffic stop is important because more officers are killed by traffic accidents than anything so do the following:

  • Put your turn signal on to acknowledge you have seen the emergency lights.
  • Pull to the right and curbside as quickly and safely as possible (if there are parked cars to the right attempt to pull beyond them or into a parking lot).
  • Pull under a street light if possible but do not drive for a long time trying to find a well lit area (if you are nervous or don’t think it is a police car call 911 on speaker phone to verify but pull over).
  • Do not get out of the car unless requested to do so through the officers loud speaker (PA) or by the officer at your window (I understand there are still some state police officers that call you back to their car but wait for them to do so).
  • Take a deep breath and try to relax because you will be dealing with your own anxiety and fears (you too are conditioned by media, movies, the internet or negative experiences from the past).
  • Place your car in park, take your foot off the brakes and turn the car off if you can remember to do so (officers have had people pull away from the traffic stop and lead them on vehicle pursuits so it makes the officer more anxious when your brake lights are on).
  • Turn your interior lights on and roll all your windows down; especially tinted windows (officers are afraid of what they can’t see. They will feel less afraid if they see that you have no problem preparing your car for their visual scan for dangers).
  • Turn off your music or turn the volume down so you can prepare to communicate.
  • Do not search or reach for anything (if you have passengers control their movements as well).
  • Keep your hands on the steering wheel and have your passengers place their hands on the dash or high on the seats in front of them with palms showing (officers are taught that the hands is what will KILL you so they are more comfortable when they can see them.)

In conclusion, this is the best way to set up a traffic stop to let the officer know you care about his safety in turn making the stop safer for you. To see how to interact when an officer is at your window see “How Citizens Can Make Traffic Stops Safer – Part II”.