2 traffic stops, 2 very different outcomes

What made the life-and-death difference between two traffic stops on the same offender?

This is a story of two vehicle stops conducted on a single offender with murder on his mind. One resulted in an officer’s slaying, the other did not. 

What were the differences that made the difference?

The encounters are described in a study of deadly threat situations conducted by a research team of Anthony Pinizzotto, Edward Davis, Shannon Borher and Benjamin Infani. The team’s findings were presented in the "International Journal of Police Science and Management." 

A Cop Killer Speaks

The two cases were a minor part of that report, but they carry a major message for patrol officers.

In an interview with researchers, the offender – an ex-con – described himself candidly as a “predator” who habitually carried concealed weapons throughout his adolescence and adulthood. 

On the fateful night that an officer running radar pulled him over for speeding, he was transporting felonious amounts of marijuana and cocaine – and he had an outstanding warrant for parole violation.

He figured the officer knew about the warrant and if the drugs were discovered, the suspect thought, I’m in for a long time. He mentally set himself to look “for an opportunity to assault the officer who stopped” him.

As soon as the officer activated his overheads, the suspect pulled to the roadside and stopped. Watching in his rearview mirror, he saw the officer “get his hat on and pick up something [his ticket book] from the seat” as he exited his unit. “He wasn’t watching me,” the offender noted. And he continued to “not look at me” as he made his approach. 

Closely tracking the officer, the suspect took a gun from under the car seat. “I believed I could get him before he knew I had a gun,” he told the researchers. He was right. 

“As the officer arrived at the driver’s side window,” the study team reports, “he was shot and killed before making any statement to the driver.” 

He died with his service weapon still in his holster.

One week earlier, another officer had made another nighttime traffic stop on this same offender, that time for a malfunctioning brake light. Earlier that night, the suspect had committed an armed robbery and, as in the later case, he had a gun under the front seat.

When he saw the emergency lights, he delayed pulling over for two blocks, waiting, despite the officer yelping the siren, until he reached a darker area with fewer streetlights. When he finally did pull over, “the officer was looking directly at me and was talking on the radio. I knew he was watching me, so I didn’t move” toward the hidden gun.

[RELATED: 2022 guide: Traffic stop tactics and training (eBook)]

When the officer got out of his unit, he “had his hand on his gun,” the suspect said. “I knew he could pull his gun faster than I could get to mine…so I decided to wait and see what was going to happen.” 

Immediately upon approaching, the officer told him to stay in his car and keep his hands on the steering wheel “in a voice that I knew he meant what he said.” 

As it turned out, the officer ultimately just warned him to “have that light fixed” and sent him on his way. 

Granted, the officer apparently ignored an opportunity for some criminal-patrol probing and thus failed to detect the criminal significance of the violator he’d stopped. Had he done so, he might have saved the next officer’s life. But by the same token, he failed to become the victim of a subject who was fully prepared mentally to kill him.

Critical Differences in Behavior

The researchers point out some critical differences in the two officers’ behavior. 

  • The officer who escaped unscathed “was not distracted from observing the actions of the driver” – not when he was calling in the stop, not when exiting his unit, not during his approach, and not during face-to-face contact. Start to finish, he “continued to watch,” the team says.
  • Likely in response to the driver’s hesitancy in pulling over, “he placed his hand on his weapon while approaching the stopped car.”
  • In addition, he “strengthened his position of authority by immediately issuing a command [with] manner and voice inflection [that] convinced the driver not to try to retrieve his gun.”

As to the officer who was slain: 

  • He had stopped a number of cars that night and had issued a series of citations, all without incident. Was he lulled into complacency, forgetting that every stop is at least a stop of unknown risk?
  • “Was it possible,” the researchers asked, that he “reduced his level of awareness because of the appearance of immediate compliance” when the offender promptly pulled over and stopped?
  • The street-savvy offender noticed that the officer did not use his radio to call in the stop. Fellow officers said he tended to do so “only sporadically,” depending on how busy he was. Was he given to shortcuts of convenience that compromised good tactics?
  • The offender told the researchers: “I was sure I could get away with this [the officer’s murder] because he didn’t look like he was paying any attention to what I was doing.”

Sear that into your memory.

“The balance of power can shift back and forth between the officer and the offender in street encounters,” the researchers conclude. “Many officers and offenders have stated that they attend to the behaviors and statements of each other in assessing their next move” in the deadly dynamics of life-or-death encounters. Aware of this, officers must maintain control of the encounter from before physical contact is made with the offender until physical separation is complete.”

Anthony Pinizzotto is the former senior scientist and clinical forensic psychologist with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Edward Davis is a retired detective lieutenant with the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Police Dept. and a former FBI criminal investigations instructor. Shannon Bohrer is a retired sergeant with the Maryland State Police and former FBI firearms instructor. Benjamin Infanti is a police officer with the Prince William County (Va.) PD. Pinizzotto and Davis are former instructors for the Force Science Institute.

Article updated September 9, 2017

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