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7 ways to maintain safety around a suspect’s vehicle

While there isn’t a safe place to stand when dealing with vehicles, there are tactics you can use to reduce risk

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All of us at some time have found ourselves standing in front of a running motor vehicle with a driver seated behind the wheel.

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If you haven’t seen the video of Officer Patrick McCarty of the Carroll (Iowa) Police Department being thrown from the hood of a speeding vehicle resulting in him breaking his back, you can find it below. Unfortunately, incidents where officers are injured by a suspect’s vehicle, occur far too often around the country. In 2021 the FBI LEOKA statistics show that six officers were killed by vehicular assault.

The defense attorney for McCarty’s assailant pleaded for leniency for his client at trial rightly claiming that the officer, “wasn’t trained” to do what he did. The attorney of course is correct. Yet all of us at some time have found ourselves standing in front of a running motor vehicle with a driver seated behind the wheel. Despite our training. I believe human beings are hardwired to stand facing a threat, which contributes to this unfortunate situation.

Let’s look at some ways to make interactions with suspect vehicles safer.

1. The safe place to stand when dealing with vehicles.

There isn’t one. Research conducted by Chris Lawrence showed that anywhere you stand near a vehicle – front, back or side – places you in danger of being struck by a vehicle. The only time you aren’t in danger of being struck by the side of a fleeing vehicle is if the vehicle drives straight ahead. If it turns, you can be struck by the side of the car or hooked on a bumper as it leaves the scene.

How far away do you need to stay away from the side of the car to be safe? There is no easy answer. It depends on the wheelbase and turning radius of the specific vehicle and whether it is going forward or backward. If a door is open on the vehicle that area increases.

2. Have an escape plan.

If you find yourself on the side of a car the obvious escape is to back away from danger. If you are on the driver’s side, that may put you into oncoming traffic. Whenever possible use a passenger-side approach. If you are in front of a vehicle you might think that moving to the side is your best option. Research indicates that moving forward at an angle to get to the side of the car on the inside of the turn may be a safer option.

3. Have the driver AND passengers exit the vehicle.

You can order the driver of a car that you have lawfully stopped to exit the vehicle (Pennsylvania v Mimms), as well as any passengers (Maryland v Wilson). Unoccupied vehicles rarely run over police officers. In the above-mentioned case, the suspect was initially a passenger in the front seat. Once the driver was removed, he slid over into the driver’s seat.

4. Turn the car off and take possession of the keys.

Vehicles that can’t start don’t go anywhere.

5. Get them out of the car THEN tell them they are under arrest.

Whenever possible remove the suspect from their vehicle before giving them the bad news. If they flee now, it’s a foot pursuit. Make sure that they are far enough away from their vehicle to prevent a dash back into the car as occurred in the Kim Potter shooting. The closer you get them to the seat they will occupy during transport to jail the less distance you will have to move them if they resist.

Some officers prefer to do the arrest process at the front of their car so that it is captured on dash cam. If your squad car is struck from behind by another vehicle while doing so there will be a video of the consequences of your choice. Officer safety shouldn’t be dictated by a camera angle. Stay out of the crush zone.

6. Don’t grab vehicles or suspects inside vehicles.

Another human tendency is to try and grab ahold of those things that try to escape from us. You cannot stop a moving vehicle by grabbing hold of it or its occupants. You will lose the tug of war.

7. You are NOT a Stop Stick.

There is no way to avoid ever standing in the path of a moving vehicle. It is a part and a danger of our job. A Stop Stick by its design must be run over to serve its intended purpose. Standing in front of vehicles that may flee or are fleeing is an invitation to take on that role. When deploying Stop Sticks against a fleeing vehicle my advice is very simple: If you can find cover that will stop a vehicle going 120 mph as you deploy the sticks, go for it. If not, don’t.

By understanding the dynamics of vehicles, the nature of your job and your own human tendency to step in front of them you increase your personal safety. Stay safe.

RELATED: Incident analysis: Learning lessons from officer’s hood ride during traffic stop

In February 2014, Duane Wolfe retired from his career as a Minnesota Peace Officer after more than 25 years of service (beginning in 1988). During his career, he served as a patrolman, sergeant, S.R.T., use of force and firearms instructor. He was a full-time law enforcement instructor at Alexandria Technical & Community College in Alexandria, Minnesota for 28 years. Duane has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Bemidji State University and a Masters Degree in Education from Southwest State University.