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Traffic stop safety: Tactics to keep officers safe

Traffic stops are one of the most common activities for law enforcement officers on patrol

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Traffic stops are one of the most common activities for law enforcement officers on patrol. They are the epitome of proactive, self-initiated policing. They are also, however, sometimes deadly. Officers can be struck by passing vehicles, dragged by a vehicle fleeing the stop, assaulted physically either with personal weapons (fists and feet) or by weapons up to and including firearms. In this podcast segment, Jim and Doug discuss the benefits of things like the passenger side approach and waiting for backup to arrive before even initiating the stop.

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Learn more about traffic stop safety or read a transcript of this episode of Policing Matters.

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policing matters transcript

Doug Wyllie: Jim, traffic stops are one of the most common activities for law enforcement officers on patrol. I mean, really, they are the epitome of proactive self-initiated policing. They are also, however, sometimes deadly, certainly dangerous, and absolutely every single one is different and it’s an unknown. There is a possibility, because so many traffic stops are conducted by so many cops, on so many days, that they begin to feel “routine.” The evil word, routine. But officers have been struck by passing vehicles. Officers have been dragged by vehicles as people try to flee the stop. They’ve been assaulted physically with personal weapons, like hands and fists and feet. Various other weapons, up to and including firearms.

There’s a couple of things I want to get into, but what are your thoughts on some of the basic safety things, and then maybe some of the more advanced safety tactics for traffic stops?

Jim Dudley: Sure, and the things I thought about were the things you’ve talked about – being dragged by a vehicle, being assaulted by the occupants, being struck by a car. So how do you avoid that? Well, number one, if you’re pulling a car over, you’ve got to be tactical in your approach. And that means even before you light them up. You put the plate out, you put your location out, you get back some information. You know, if you can. Light them up and choose your spot to pull them over where you are at an advantage. High ground if you’re on an incline or a decline. Under a light where they’re under the light, where you can light them up so that when they look in their rearview mirrors, all they see are lights and not you making your approach.

So, all those things said, you position your vehicle so that you’ve made yourself an accommodated lane where you can approach, and if somebody’s going to get that close, they’re going to hit your car before they hit you. You’re going to walk up with your due diligence and your caution. Maybe you’ve already got some information of who should be in the car, who the registered owner is, if the car’s stolen. Those kinds of things. If you’re out and there’s activity in the vehicle, you might want to let a supervisor or your nearest backup know so that they can start rolling your way.

As you make that approach, we were always taught in the academy, and this is like 1980, and I remember this to the day because we had some scenarios where if you didn’t put your hand on the vehicle to feel for motion within the vehicle, somebody would jump out of the trunk or the backseat. So, well, I haven’t stopped a car in six years now, but every time I’ve stopped a car, I put my hand on the car to feel for motion within the vehicle.

Curb your tires. If there’s a shooting, you want to get back to your vehicle, and that’s at least one more thing to stop skipping bullets or bullets from getting to you. You create the safe lane of approach if they flee. So, you’re up to the vehicle. Gosh, I’ve seen it so many times on these YouTube videos or dash cam videos. But there’s that instinct to reach in and grab for the keys in the ignition.

Doug Wyllie: Don’t do that.

Jim Dudley: Fight that instinct. Holy smokes. I can’t say it enough. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. And then you see them do it. And then they go for the ride along of their life.

Don’t grab a part of the vehicle. Don’t grab a windshield wiper, don’t grab the handle of the car. Get away from it and chances are, if you have a good pursuit policy, you’re going to chase them and catch them again. But follow your instincts. And you know, cops can be difficult in articulating what it is that they see or feel that raises the hackles, or the hair on the back of their neck.

Doug Wyllie: Right. The hinky factor.

Jim Dudley: Yeah. The spider sense. All those things. So, follow your instincts. You approach a vehicle, something seems out of sorts, there’s nothing to prohibit you from backing off, checking things out again, and re-approaching.

Remain calm. Call for a supervisor. Call for backup. If you do all those precautions, take care of yourself, number one. Remember your tactics. Don’t do things instinctively that might get you in trouble or hurt.

Doug Wyllie: Yeah. I have very similar notes that you had just mentioned. I’ll repeat, location, location, location. You have control over when you light them up, where you’re going to pull them over. And it sometimes seems to me, when I’ve watch some of these videos, and, you know, I haven’t interviewed the officers involved or talked with them or what have you, but it seems to me that they paid either no attention at all or very little, or were just throwing caution to the wind in some of the locations where you see some of these really bad things happen.

I like the passenger side approach. It takes the struck by vehicle not entirely out of the picture, but significantly out of the picture. In addition, you know, when you approach from the passenger side, you have the foreground in front of you. You have the backseat, you have the passenger seat, you have much greater visibility into the whole of the car, as opposed to just into that window between the end of the A and the B pillars. Right?

Jim Dudley: Right.

Doug Wyllie: So, your field of view is significantly enhanced from that. Now there are places, of course where the terrain won’t allow. There’s no room on the passenger’s side. You take what you’re going to get. You know, I’ve got a note here, there’ll all a box of chocolates. Right? You never know what you’re going to get.

And that’s the other point that I wanted to make, is that the traffic stop ... Timothy McVeigh was arrested at a traffic stop. You never know what you’re going to get.

Jim Dudley: Right? Great police work.

Doug Wyllie: Great police work. And, you know, we’ve seen felons taken off the street. We’ve seen all kinds of different arrests being made over what was initiated over a broken taillight or traffic violations. The stop-tional or the California roll or whatever.

Indicators as you’re approaching. Blinker lights remaining on. If they’ve forgotten to take the blinker light off, they’re probably thinking about, “What am I going to do during this traffic stop? What lie am I coming up with?” Right?

If they keep the brake lights on. Maybe they’re thinking about slamming it into drive and taking off while you get out of your car.

Jim Dudley: Right. Or reverse.

Doug Wyllie: Or reverse. Yeah, you see those reverse lights, that’s what you call a clue.

So, yeah. Those are some of the things that we’ve heard over time, and time over time, and time again. But, you see in these sometimes videos, you go, “What? Woah, what are you thinking? Don’t do it that way?” You know?

Jim Dudley: Yeah, yeah. No, but, you know, an isolated officer making their approach, they might be distracted. “What was that code again for running the blinking red light, the flashing light? What’s the code for the cracked windshield?”

Distracted on your approach, as you said, taking it too lightly. I can’t think of a time that I walked up to a car where I wasn’t worried about what was going to go on inside the car.

Doug Wyllie: Yep.

Jim Dudley: So as far as letting your guard down on a routine stop, if you’re doing it, don’t. And then the multiple or unexpected passengers seem to be the other wildcard.

Doug Wyllie: That’s a wildcard, yeah, yeah.

Jim Dudley: Yeah, yeah. And you could see these, if you watch the dash cam videos, the YouTubes. It’s usually allowing somebody to get an advantage by circling around or taking your blind side while you’re concentrated on the driver. And, you know, they’re painful to watch. You just see it. I mean, they’re like predators at the watering hole, right? You’re a deer taking a sip and a tiger or lion is circling around your blind side to make that pounce. And it’s a sickening feeling to watch. And you’ve just got to make the verbal commands, get people back in the car. Order them back in the car. If they get in the car and take off, so what? But to allow passengers out and then not be able to track them while you’re distracted with the driver, then that’s a big problem.

Doug Wyllie: Yeah. And the one other thing that’s sort of like complacency, or actually it really might be complacency, is that I’ve seen officers make the initial approach, take the driver’s license, take the registration, go back to the car, run it, and then be much more casual on the re-approach, when the re-approach is the one where it’s more likely you’re going to have a confrontation. They’ll have had time to prepare, plan, maybe possess some sort of a weapon. And then they’ve made the decision like, “Okay, now he knows I’ve got warrants. Now he knows XY&Z. I ain’t going back to jail.”

So when I see those casual-looking saunters up to the driver’s side vehicle, which I, again, wouldn’t recommend, making that re-approach, that’s a very dangerous period of time. And, you know, as Below 100 says, complacency kills. We have to remember that you remain vigilant all the way through the stop, even after you’ve wished them, “Merry Christmas, have a nice day.”

When you’re watching them roll out, then you can go, “Okay, it’s over. The stop’s over now.”

Jim Dudley: Yeah. No, and you make me think about things like weather conditions. Right? Your radio car is a nice, warm spot. It’s cold, it’s windy, it’s raining outside. Well, get uncomfortable during that car stop, because it doesn’t make sense to sit inside with your windows rolled up and your head down writing that tag when they can get the jump on you.

So, I’ve seen the evolution from, you know, propping your car door open with one leg and writing the tag on your steering wheel so you could still have a peripheral account for the vehicle and the driver, to writing the information on the back of your trunk with your vehicle between you and them, and taking glances up at the vehicle.

And, of course, these are all things while you’re a solo officer on that car stop. If you’ve got a partner, you’ve got to have that lookout.

Doug Wyllie: Yeah, yeah. I mean, then you’ve got contact and cover if you’ve got a partner. And, frankly, on a lot of the ride-alongs I’ve done, backup has arrived during the stop. And whether it was called or whether they just didn’t have anything to do at that time and they were in the same sector, they just kind of roll up and say, “Hey, you good?”

So yeah. Let us know what you guys do out there when you’re doing your traffic stops. Are there any interesting techniques or tactics that you use that you think helps keep you safer, that maybe you could share with the rest of the listeners here to the podcast? Send us an email to

Policing Matters law enforcement podcast with host Jim Dudley features law enforcement and criminal justice experts discussing critical issues in policing