One of the most important officer safety tactics I learned in the police academy

Fifty years ago I was taught that the right-side approach on a traffic stop is the safest – and that message is just as relevant for recruits today

“Golly gee, Mr. Peabody – let’s set the ‘wayback’ machine 50 years and take a look at what CHP instructors were teaching Gordon Graham at his initial academy training in 1973!”  

Yes, it was 50 years ago and there I sat listening to several CHP officers who were training me on “how to do the job.” One of my favorite instructors was Sergeant Leo Schussman. He was funny as heck, irreverent and could use nasty words as verbs, adverbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives and all the rest – and all in one run-on sentence. To add to the color of this piece, he was constantly “snorting” – loudly clearing his nasal passages in reverse. But he was a valuable instructor and taught me something that allows me to be writing this today.

“Right-side approaches are much safer than left-side approaches – and if I ever see you walking up on the left-hand side of a vehicle, I will personally run you over for being stupid!”   

That was his message and he “snorted” that line regularly during our training regarding safety on traffic stops.  

He pointed out that on a right-side approach you have no passing traffic and that right-side approaches give you more concealment.  

“Remember that 90% of people are right-handed, so it follows that 90% of cop killers are right-handed and if you walk up on the left-hand side the subject can hold that gun in his dominant hand and as you get close he can throw the door open and shoot you dead and you have no cover, no concealment and passing traffic. 

“If you make a right side approach on the same ‘person’ (he did not say person, but Madame Editor would take out the “A” word if I put it in – or perhaps I should be more clear with the “AH” word with several adjectives preceding it), he can either use his non-dominant hand – or he will spin with his right hand – and that gives you a bit more reaction time.  If I ever see you walking up on the left-hand side of a car, I will personally run you over.”  

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

We were taught that 50 years ago and 40 years ago when I started giving talks to cops, I regularly mentioned the words of Sgt. Schussman! But I was shocked to see that most cops in allied agencies were walking up on the left-hand side of stopped vehicles. I recall addressing a major law enforcement training organization decades ago – academy directors from around America – and I asked the group “How many of you still teach your cops to walk up on the left-hand side?” – and almost every hand went up! I laid out the words of Sgt. Schussman – and I thought I was very clear.  Five years later I was addressing the same group, and I asked the same question, and almost every hand went up again! Well, as long as you have ALWAYS DONE IT THAT WAY, I guess it is okay.

I am aware that there are many writings in this “playbook” on officer safety – and some of the authors are very smart and will talk about things that are very complex. But “back to basics” – right-side approaches are much safer than left-side approaches.  

During the 20 years I was a very active motor cop, and then sergeant working the street, I missed death a dozen times because I was standing on the other side of the stopped vehicle.  

Let me close with this. One of the joys of having taught cops now for 40 years is getting emails from people who attended some lectures and they learned something and want to say thanks – and I have been fortunate to have received thousands of such emails/calls over the decades. I got one a few years ago from a student of mine in the Cavenaugh DUI School that I have taught at now for 30 years. It went something like this:

“Dear Mr. Graham. I am writing this email to you because I can. I was in the Cavenaugh DUI school when I was a brand-new cop in the early 90s and you talked about the importance of making right side approaches whenever possible and practical. I had never given that any thought but what you said made sense, so I started making right-side approaches at traffic stops. I am in my last year as a cop. Yesterday I stopped a car that stopped well off the roadway and I walked up on the right side of the vehicle and during my chat with the driver another vehicle came off the road – wiped out the left side of my patrol car and the car I had stopped. I am writing this email to you because I can.”

Thanks, Sergeant Schussman, wherever you are, and thanks to all of you who are doing the job today for your ongoing work in keeping America safe.

An excerpt from this article appears in 23 on 2023: A police leadership playbook. To download your free copy, click here

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.