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Essential safety tactics for the four primary phases of a traffic stop

Each stop brings inherent risks and practicing and mentally rehearsing strategies to enhance safety is one of an officer’s most essential responsibilities

Virtually every law enforcement agency faces the challenge of teaching their officers tactics and strategies to keep themselves safe during the performance of traffic stops. Every officer who has completed a police academy has been shown the outcomes from traffic stops that resulted in tragedy. Unfortunately, because of the volume of traffic contacts that many officers make throughout their careers, it can be easy to fall victim to complacent tendencies that jeopardize the officer’s safety and the safety of the subject being stopped and their occupants.

This article breaks down essential safety tactics for the four primary phases of a traffic stop. These phases are sometimes recognized as the vehicle in motion, the initial contact, roadside investigation and the disposition of the encounter. Each of the four phases encompasses tactical opportunities to reduce risk and save lives with solid tactics and principles.

Phase 1: Vehicle in motion

The first phase of most traffic stops is frequently referred to as the vehicle in motion – precisely, the officer’s observations of a car before initiating the traffic stop.

There are a few tactics that can dramatically increase officer safety during this phase.

First, if possible, the officer should run the license plate through dispatch and get a return before advancing to the initial contact. A stolen vehicle or return of a wanted person is vital information that could change the approach altogether and almost certainly warrant the call for a backing officer to respond.

Choosing the location of the stop is another tactic that should be considered in this phase. There is no requirement to stop the vehicle at the exact spot where the violation occurred. However, following the car to a safer stop location gives the officer more time to run the license plate and determine a location that offers a more significant tactical advantage. These advantages include increased lighting, broader shoulders on the side of the road and closer proximity to major roadways, allowing for a quicker response time from backup officers.

Finally, during the vehicle in motion phase, the officer should try to observe things such as how long it takes the driver to respond to lights and sirens, and whether they activate or leave on their blinker. In addition, the officer should look for excessive movement in the vehicle and determine how many occupants are in the car. None of these things by itself constitute an imminent threat to the officer, but as two or more of these potential risk factors begin to accumulate, so should the officer’s awareness of the risks.

What we know: 95% of respondents to a Police1 traffic stop safety survey request the driver’s license, registration and proof of registration.

Phase 2: The initial contact

Phase two of a traffic stop is the initial contact.

Assuming the encounter is not a felony car stop in which the occupants are ordered to exit the vehicle one at a time at gunpoint, the following primary tactical consideration is the approach to the car.

Many officers choose a driver-side approach, while others frequently use a passenger-side approach. I believe a strategic combination of both styles is an effective strategy.

If most officers chose to use only one method, the effectiveness of that approach would decline. The fact that officers can use both options allows for some uncertainty on the part of a suspect in a vehicle who may have the intention to attack the officer on approach.

When approaching the passenger side, there is a greater chance of surprising the vehicle’s occupants with your presence. It generally provides enhanced safety to the officer from roadway traffic.

Approaching from the driver’s side allows for a more direct route, and with proper positioning behind the B pillar between the front and rear door, the officer can gain a visual vantage point into the car. This also makes it more difficult for the driver to engage the officer with a weapon without substantially turning their body. Furthermore, this will require the driver to hand over important documents outside the vehicle rather than causing the officer to reach into the car.

On a final note, the officer should make it a consistent practice to leave their dominant hand free of extraneous items so that they can draw their handgun quicker in the case of a deadly force threat.

What we know: 51% of officers told Police1 they touch the vehicle as they approach to leave their prints.

Phase 3: The roadside investigation

Phase three of a traffic stop is the roadside investigation.

For many stops, this phase can be as brief as a license and registration check, along with writing a citation or warning. In others, this could include standard field sobriety tests or a probable cause or consent search of the vehicle.

There are many safety tactics to employ during this phase, but the most important include calling for backup when needed and recognizing when running subjects from outside the vehicle is more advantageous than sitting in the patrol car. It is also critical to pay attention to the driver or occupants’ verbal and non-verbal body language clues.

What we know: Non-compliance is most likely and most dangerous during the investigation. Not following commands is the most common non-compliance behavior and is a red flag for danger.

Phase 4: The disposition

Phase four of a traffic stop is the disposition. This could mean anything from a warning, a citation, or an arrest of the driver or passenger.

In the case of an arrest, the officer’s awareness level should be the most elevated. If possible, a backing officer should be present.

Second, it is wise not to tell the driver of a vehicle they are under arrest while still in their car and risk them driving off rapidly. Instead, ask the driver to step out and speak with you at a safer location. This could generally be on the passenger side of the vehicle. Doing this will keep everyone on the scene safer from traffic while not affording the driver a direct route back into their car if they decide to flee the scene.

There are many other tactics and strategies officers have effectively employed over the years. Each stop brings inherent risks and practicing and mentally rehearsing strategies to enhance safety is one of an officer’s most essential responsibilities. Train hard and be safe!

What we know: Regular training is critical for high-frequency activities like traffic stops. Forty-two percent of Police1 survey respondents don’t receive annual training from their department. Read more Police1 articles on traffic stops.

Read about cops’ concerns regarding traffic stop safety, training and tactics

This article originally published, January 10, 2022, has been updated.

Tyson Kilbey has more than 25 years of experience in law enforcement, consisting of three years as a hotel security supervisor and 22 years as a deputy sheriff for the Johnson County (Kansas) Sheriff’s Office. He has worked in the detention, patrol and training divisions, SWAT and accident investigation units. He is currently a captain of the Training Unit for the Sheriff’s Office.

Tyson authored “Personal Defense Mastery,” a follow-up to his first book “Fundamental Handgun Mastery.” Tyson is a Jiu-Jitsu black belt under UFC Pioneer Royce Gracie. He has numerous defensive tactics and firearms certifications and has received multiple awards in competitive shooting and grappling. He is the Match Director for the Brandon Collins Memorial Shootout, a shooting competition named in honor of a deputy who died in the line of duty. Proceeds from the match go to charitable causes.