What a near-fatal encounter taught a Fla. cop about traffic stops

Speaking to a room full of trainers at the 2015 ILEETA conference, Wagoner told a room full of officers about the night that could have been his last

Somewhere near the middle of his 12 hour shift, Cape Coral (Fla.) Officer Dave Wagoner stopped to send his kids to bed and kiss his wife goodnight. It would have been a fitting final memory for Wagoner’s family if gang member Yousel Rivera had accomplished his intent to kill.

Speaking to a room full of trainers at the 2015 ILEETA conference, Wagoner joined survivors Cole Martine, a wounded SWAT team member from Pierre, (S.D.) and Lt. Brian Murphy who still carries the lead and scars from the infamous 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, (Wis.) to tell their stories.

Wagoner was on his nightly hunt for criminal activity when he noticed an expired license plate on a car being driven by a nervous female. Choosing a safe spot, he signaled the driver to pull over and approached the driver’s side of the car. The dash cam recorded the officer contacting the driver, then walking to the passenger side to talk to Rivera who fired three shots into Wagoner.

Bruised from the shots that hit his Armor Express ballistics vest, and bleeding from the gut shot that missed the protection of the armor, Wagoner fell back. From his supine position on the sidewalk he fired seven shots at the fleeing gunman and radioed a vivid description to responding officers.

Wagoner, awarded a medal of honor and purple heart of valor, humbly reviewed the lessons learned as veteran officers listened intently to his account.

1. Observe the driver’s position as well as movement

One of the cluster of cues sending warning signs to Wagoner was the female driver with a male passenger, sometimes indicating that the male had license problems and previous police contact. Wagoner noticed that the backrest was laid far back but the driver was rigidly upright. During the contact, the driver shifted her position – possibly to better hide her passenger’s gun or to provide him with a clear shot at the officer.

2. Note unusual tension

Drivers being pulled over are almost always nervous, but Rivera’s driver was stroking her hair, sitting rigidly, and her hands shook noticeably. The passenger was not making eye contact toward the officer and, when asked a question, was slow in answering. Hesitation or very simple answers can indicate that a person is highly engaged in thought when planning an attack or escape.

3.  Don’t let your focus make you lose focus

Many theories course through an officer’s thoughts when something seems out of place. Wagoner was concerned about both occupants and thought perhaps evidence had been tossed from the car. He was looking on the ground while going from driver’s side to the passenger’s side, and was trying to interpret the behavior of both inhabitants. This may have distracted him from observing  the presence of a gun.

In an incident like this, it might be best to take a safe position to observe, plan, or call for assistance rather than immediately approach the vehicle for more questions.

4. Watch the hands – your own!

Because the car that Wagoner had stopped sat low, the officer balanced himself with his dominant right hand on the roof of the car to lean over and look in while getting the license and registration. This created  vulnerability and slower access to his firearm. While moving around the back of the suspect’s car to the passenger side, Wagoner unconsciously moved his flashlight to his right hand while holding the license in his left hand. This was to facilitate his search of the pavement for evidence that the occupant’s movements led him to believe might be on the ground.

It might also be a habit that other officers have when shifting to a passenger side approach for a better look inside the car.

5. Have an exit plan

When Wagoner was shot, he instinctively stepped backward. The car had stopped near the curb and there was only a little pavement on which to walk. Wagoner’s heel hit the curb on the first step and caused him to fall backward.

It’s unknown whether he could have moved more quickly out of the kill zone if had been on the sidewalk or ordered Rivera out of the car to come to him, but he had a limited choice for disengagement with his retreat path obstructed by the high curb.

Rivera was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole in September 2013. Wagoner returned to duty seven months after the shooting, but the father of three stated at Rivera’s sentencing that the incident would change his and his family’s lives forever.

Now is the time to consider your survivability based on your own habits on traffic contacts. Oh, by the way – you are wearing your vest aren’t you?

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