5 basic principles for conducting a safe traffic stop

Regardless of how long you’ve been doing traffic stops, no two are the same

Today may be your first day on patrol or it may be your 20th year. Regardless of how much time on you’ve got, the odds are good that on your next shift, you will do one of the most statistically dangerous activities known to law enforcers: the traffic stop. 

Regardless of how long you’ve been doing traffic stops, no two are the same and they aren’t routine until the driver is in the wind and you’re moving on to the next detail.

And no matter how long you’ve been doing them, it’s always good to remember five basic concepts to a safe car stop. 

1. Location
I’m continually amazed how an average citizen becomes a mouth-breathing, slack-jawed yokel as soon as the lights and siren go on. All conscious thought and common sense leaves them and they forget the most basic of laws, and that is to move to the right and stop. 

Consequently, they may just straight stop their scofflaw-mobile dead in the middle of an interstate or intersection.

You don’t have to get out and deal with them. Most of the time they can be prodded to a safer location with a simple command delivered via your vehicle’s P.A. system.

The bottom line is this, if you don’t like where they are, move them to where it’s safest for you.

2. Approach
As a professional car stopper with eight years on two wheels under my belt, I have one simple technique that has allowed me to surprise occupants of a vehicle time and time again. Whilst they gander out the driver’s side waiting for me to sidle up — I sidle a lot… it’s kinda my schtick — I suddenly appear on the passenger side.

The closer it gets to Halloween, the more tempting it is to lean close to the window and yell “Boo!” to see the reaction and get a quick laugh.

The point isn’t my ninja-like abilities to sneak up on folks. This tactic gives me a fantastic opportunity to check out the interior of the car, any occupants inside and every last one of their hands. I frequently use the passenger-side mirror, particularly in a solo-occupied vehicle, to get a peek at the driver’s hands. 

It’s the hands that kill us, friends. Never forget it.

I shudder every time I see a beat cop bebop up to the driver’s side of a vehicle with nary a care in the world and hang his rear end into traffic as if he’s waiting for someone to take it off for him. 

The passenger-side approach beats the driver-side nearly every time.

3. Awareness
After going to all the trouble of picking a good spot to conduct your stop and walking up to the passenger side of the car, why would you go back to your vehicle and bury your head in a cite book and never once look up, even ever so briefly, to make sure everyone is still in the car? 

Have you ever been scratching out a rag and suddenly the driver is standing next to you holding his insurance? I have and it isn’t reassuring.

Your cite book isn’t the only guilty party. You have your MDC, your cell phone and your radio. They all vie for your attention. Make no mistake, none of them need your attention as much as the subject in the vehicle in front of you. 

I know you can handle most things without the aid of dispatch in today’s tech-heavy world. Personally, I stay off the air as much as possible, but if I can’t get the information I’m looking for in a matter of seconds, I ask for it over the air or request a cover unit so I can focus on the intel I’m trying to obtain. 

Your attention needs to be divided as little as possible. You can crush that candy during lineup.

4. Re-approach
Quick! Name everything your driver has picked up while you were back in your squad — or if you’re as lucky as I am, sitting on your motor — running him out. Not exactly sure, are you? Exactly. 

Your re-approach should be just as cautious as your initial approach. As aware as we’d all like to be, we simply can’t know everything. The re-approach is just as dangerous as the first. Again, the use of the side mirror — regardless of which side you decide to approach on — is key. 

Don’t walk past the B-pillar until you can confirm empty hands and no threat. Just because someone has all happy-go-lucky when you first contacted them does not mean they haven’t had time to ruminate on what a jerk you are for stopping them in the first place.

5. Cut ‘em loose
After you’ve wished them a swell day, don’t just turn your back and saunter back to your vehicle. Give them a glance back every few feet to make sure they’re doing what you’d like instead of trying to get the drop on you.

These five basic steps are the basic framework of your average traffic stop. Countless repetition hardwires these habits and they soon become second nature. Now stock up on those cites and make this motor officer proud.

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