5 simple rules for staying safer during a Terry stop
The Terry stop is a versatile law enforcement tool for officers, but we must be aware of the hazards in these contacts and use tactics to mitigate them
The investigative contact or Terry stop is a complicated interaction between a police officer and a citizen that – by the very nature of the contact – contains inherent officer safety threats.
In a Terry stop, the officer has developed a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is occurring and has decided to detain a citizen in order to further investigate the situation.
The detention may be a matter of informing the citizen that they are not free to leave, may involve a frisk for weapons, or could begin with a high-risk handcuffing procedure.
Let’s examine officer safety considerations with the decision-making process in this interaction.
Five questions to ask when conducting a Terry stop
There are several questions you should ask yourself when preparing to conduct a Terry stop:
1. What is the nature of the crime I’m interdicting?
If you believe you are contacting suspects in a crime of violence, the threat to you is elevated. Your justification for a weapon frisk is much greater.
2. Do I think the suspect is armed, or do I KNOW that the suspect is armed?
If you think a suspect you are detaining may be armed, then a pat-down for weapons is prudent. If you KNOW a suspect is armed, then the interaction has morphed into a high-risk contact. You should be contacting the suspect with your sidearm at low ready, and the suspect should be handcuffed before attempts to disarm are made. There is a big difference between thinking and knowing; when you know, recognize the elevated risk to your life and act accordingly.
3. What are the objective hazards of the contact?
By objective hazards, I mean hazards that are concrete (known) and measurable. Is the ratio of officers to suspect acceptable? Is there adequate illumination to see threats to your safety? Are you in a location in which there are additional people unfriendly to the police? Is there a crime of violence involved in the contact?
Use good tactics to counter objective hazards.
4. What are the subjective hazards of the contact?
By subjective hazards, I’m referring to more hazards brought to the situation by the individual officer. This type of hazard varies from officer to officer. Chronic injuries, poor marksmanship, poor control and defensive tactics skills, poor communication skills, damaged or inoperative equipment, lack of physical fitness and poor geographical orientation are all examples of subjective hazards that are brought to a given incident by an officer.
5. What type of behavior does the suspect exhibit upon contact?
Officers should make an assessment of potential resistance upon contact. Is the suspect preparing to flee? If they begin the “hurdler stretch” while you are introducing yourself, they may be preparing to run. Are they taking a bladed stance (or some type of stance indicating hostile intent)? Is the suspect crowding your personal space? If you are seeing problematic behavior, you should confront the behavior immediately. Don’t make the mistake of fatal rationalization.
Use a Control Hold
When the decision to frisk is made during a Terry stop, physical control should be established prior to the commencement of the pat-down. Both hands should be secured in some type of control hold at a minimum.
I see many officers and trainees try to short-cut this part of the process by beginning the pat-down without establishing a control hold. I advocate the Modified Faulkner position (pictured in the article), wherein the suspect is controlled via finger lock with their hands behind their back.
Many prefer the suspect to have his hands interlaced behind his head. Whatever your technique preference, a control hold or position should be used to place the suspect at a disadvantage prior to the start of the pat-down.
Optimally, you should have a cover officer present at the start of the contact. Depending on the realities of staffing in your jurisdiction, however, this is not always possible.
In the event you are beginning the pat-down alone, it is even more important to use a control hold. You may want to handcuff the suspect at the beginning of the detention – however, you must then make decisions with the Fourth Amendment issues regarding use of force and Miranda.
In summary, the Terry stop is a versatile law enforcement tool that can be used to great effect by officers, but we must be aware of the inherent hazards in these contacts and use tactics to mitigate them.
Make a threat assessment and take steps to mitigate the objective and subjective hazards.
This article, originally published 05/28/2014, has been updated.