Techniques for dealing with the difficult traffic offender
To avoid being ticketed, the difficult driver will engage in a disjointed combination of negotiations, rebuttals, compliments and insults
There are so many possible outcomes awaiting a police officer when he or she hits the lights to make a vehicle contact. This training article concentrates on contact with traffic offenders who are difficult, but not resistive or combative.
Contacting the driver with caution and a greeting
For safety’s sake, maintain a position behind the door post throughout the contact on either the driver’s side, or the passenger’s side of the vehicle (your tactical choice) and keep the driver seated in the vehicle, unless there are investigative priorities requiring you to request they exit the vehicle.
As you contact the driver, consider having them place their hands palms up on the steering wheel. With that compliance confirmed, use a standard greeting to break the ice and immediately inform them of the reason for the stop: “Good morning. I am Officer ------------ of the ------------ Police Department. The reason I stopped you is you were traveling 42 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone. Is there any reason (or justification) for you to be traveling at that speed?”
This one sentence greets the driver, introduces you and your authority, and informs them of the reason for the contact. Their response will often include a reason that may make the stop unique and memorable so you will recall it in the event you have to go to court. For example, the driver might explain, “I know I was speeding, but my plane got in late and now we are running late for my niece’s wedding. I am supposed to give a reading at the ceremony.” Make sure you document the response given.
Question: Given this statement, would you cite or warn this driver?
Whenever any driver becomes one of those few who are memorably difficult, forgetting the contact will not be an issue.
The difficult driver
The difficult driver, who does not become combative or resistive, will identify themselves as people who:
- Are very important
- Pay your wages
- Know the chief, sheriff, mayor and/or many police officers who are nicer than you
- Sincerely believe you have many more important things that you could be doing other than stopping them
- Wonder why you aren’t out catching real criminals
- Believe you stopping them is one of the many reasons people don’t like cops today
- Did nothing more than what everyone else was doing
- Are a victim of your harassment
- May be rude, obnoxious, insulting
- May offer you a bribe. (If this happens, this is a felony. Call back-up and arrest them.)
Because of your stop, they are:
- Being made late for the most important moment in their lives like a test, an interview, or a meeting
- Going to lose their remaining points on their license
- Going to be ruined financially
- Going to wet their pants unless you release them to find a bathroom immediately
- Now inevitably going to be killed by their parents.
To avoid being ticketed, the difficult driver will engage in a disjointed combination of negotiations, rebuttals, compliments and insults while they argue their case. Here are 10 tactics that may help you navigate through these nearly insufferable stops.
Note: Remember, during this contact and all contacts stay alert for any developing threats.
1. Keep the camera running to show the contrast between their rudeness and your courtesy.
Difficult people tend to believe everyone else is difficult. Therefore, throughout the contact dial up the courtesy. Your courtesy will serve to markedly contrast and highlight the rudeness of the difficult driver when the recording is reviewed later.
2. Avoid the loop.
Difficult people tend to throw off the rhythm of your contact and officers who are not careful will find themselves in a “loop” repeating themselves. For example. “I stopped you for speeding…I stopped you for speeding,” or, “I need to see your license...I need to see your license…”
Avoid the loop.
3. Be decisive.
Whatever the cause for the stop, decide on your course of action as soon as possible and inform the driver of your decision to cite or warn. The decision is yours so do not allow the difficult person to annoy you into not issuing a warning you intended to issue, or intimidate you into not issuing a much-deserved citation.
It is not always possible to know what decision you are going to make prior to the stop, because sometimes legitimate circumstances discovered after the contact can lead you to decide to warn, cite, or even arrest for additional charges.
The key here is to make a good decision and inform the driver of that decision in a timely manner.
4. Don’t lecture when you cite.
If you are going to issue a citation, issue it and explain it. Do not cite and lecture. These are not received well together. Lecturing and citing when combined tend to lengthen and exasperate the stop.
5. Have a prepared lecture for the drivers you warn and make it a gift.
A warning can be delivered as an educational gift. For example, if you are warning someone for a stop sign violation, I have found this approach leads to positive results:
Officer: “Have you ever had someone you don’t know give a $109 birthday gift?” (The amount would vary depending on the fine for the violation(s) you are warning them for.)
Officer: “I am not giving you a ticket today. All I ask in return for this gift, from this day forward, when you pull up to a stop sign, consciously make sure your back comes to rest against the seat. That is when you will know your vehicle has completely come to a stop. While stopped, look left, look right and then look left again to make certain you can proceed safely. If you do that from now on, we won’t have to keep meeting like this. Thank you for your courtesy, now drive safely and be especially careful pulling back into traffic.”
You can have a prepared public service message like this for every violation you warn for, which can make the stop positive, educational and even life-saving.
Also, warn with a smile.
6. Consider the “malum prohibitum” technique for the difficult “good person.”
For the driver who is going on endlessly about how careful they are and what a good person they are, I have often suddenly interjected the question, “Have you ever heard the Latin terms, malum in se, or malum prohibitum?”
Unless it is an attorney, the question usually stops them in their tracks and they will answer, “No.”
With that, I explain to them, “There are offenses that are malum in se, which means they are illegal because they are just plain wrong. These are things like robbery, battery murder and such. They are bad things usually done by bad people.
Now there are other things against the law that are malum prohibitum. That means they are illegal because a legislative body decided they are prohibited. These are things like parking violations, (include their violation) and speeding. Doing these things does not make a good person a bad person. It just means they made a mistake. You are still a good person. You just made a mistake and that makes you human.”
This can short circuit the endless public servant announcement by a person who believes they are too good a person to be in the position they are in.
7. Consider the “baseball” technique for the on-street litigant.
For the person who wants to argue their case right there on the street I have often interjected the question, “Do you ever watch baseball?”
In most cases, the answer is, “Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?”
With that comes the answer, “I am like an umpire. I calls ’em like I sees ’em. Except when an umpire makes a call there is no appeal. However, when I make a call like this one, you can appear on the court date listed on the citation and argue your case in court. However, now is not the time, nor the place to argue your case. The judge is not here.”
8. At the right time, know and use the minimum requirements for a legal citation service.
There are times when continuing a discussion serves no purpose. Know the minimum requirements for a legal service of a citation in your jurisdiction and politely say those pre-practiced words and perform those pre-practiced actions to deliver the citation and break off the contact, as you state, “Please drive carefully as you pull back into traffic,” ending the contact as you carefully back away from the obstinate offender.
9. Prepare a good and defensible closing where you say almost anything but “Have a nice day.”
It infuriates people unnecessarily if they receive a citation and the officer says, “Have a nice day.”
10. Be the pro.
In dealing with a difficult person, avoid the natural human tendency to give as good as you get. Do not reflect the obnoxious demeanor of the people you contact. Be professional and that professionalism will noticeably shine through more during these difficult stops than during any other.
Along this line, the late George Thompson often shared these two axioms for successful communications with difficult people during stops like this, by saying:
- “If it feels good, don’t say it.”
- “They can say what they want as long as they do what you say.”
With time and experience, you will find that being able to effectively deal with difficult people is one of the more interesting and surmountable challenges you will face on the street. Share the techniques that worked for you when dealing with difficult people in the box below.
Police1 readers respond
- Just write the ticket and send them away. No superficial conversation.
- Always make the person feel less nervous. It’s scary getting pulled over. I’ve used the phrase: “As long as your license comes back clean and you’re not wanted anywhere, I’ll get you out of here with a warning.” This calms them down a lot, unless they know they have warrants.
- I always conclude the stop by saying “The City of ....... is issuing you a citation for .......” I never say “I am issuing you a citation.”
I have said this line to many drivers who say many of the things you list above and want to argue the reason for the stop while I am still at the initial contact: “If you are trying to talk your way out of a ticket, you are going about it the wrong way. You should probably start over with a different approach.” Then I will pause for a moment and let them respond. It has actually worked very effectively on the majority of people. It shows them that I am not going to get into a back-and-forth argument with them, nor am I believing the excuses they are giving. But it leaves the door open for them to act better and improve the contact.
For the minor traffic violations, as I approach, I either identify myself and my department or sometimes just my department. I immediately follow up with the question, “Are you alright,” or “Are you okay,” or something to that effect. They almost always answer in the affirmative. Then I’ll inform them of the violation with a follow-up statement to my question like, “I noted that you are driving 50 mph in a 35 zone and I wanted to be sure you were alright and there wasn’t some emergency.” They usually reply they are late for work, etc., and I will let them know I am glad they are okay and ask them for their license, registration, etc. If it’s speed and I’m warning them, I’ll ask them if they know where all the cars they passed are right now and make sure they know that had they merely kept up with them, they’d be that much farther along, and If I had decided to issue a citation it would probably have taken another 10 mins of their time, so please be safe and slow down. I’ve had very good results with that. It makes for a good, positive citizen contact that may also help officers who stop the same person in future situations.
As Lt. Marcou said in the article, people react differently when stopped. Experience has taught me to try to see through the driver’s reaction to me, and realize what is actually causing the reaction. This is just one instance where I felt I could stop with the enforcement “spiel” and actually think about what was going on with the driver. I stopped a young woman for speeding (65/55) who was driving an old rusted-out station wagon with four kids dressed in worn-out clothing. As I approached, I could hear her cursing me, calling me every name in the book, telling me to hurry up and write the ticket. The only thing I said to her, over her cursing was, “Driver’s license, registration, insurance, please.” After collecting the information, I went back to my car and wrote her a warning. As I explained the warning, she began to cry. She just looked at me as if asking, “Why?” I just smiled and told the kids to obey their mother. I waited a few minutes for her to drive off but she didn’t. As I pulled away she was still crying. Sometimes being a law enforcement officer, or deputy sheriff, can be rewarding. Thank you for the opportunity to share this.
- I would be direct, introduce myself and give the reason for the stop, then request the DL and insurance card. I would go back to my squad car and write the ticket. I should have already run the plate for wants and warrants. Now I run the driver. If there are no issues, I complete the citation or warning and recontact the driver. I won’t engage the driver in unnecessary conversation and pretty much ignore what the driver says unless they make a threat. One of our judge’s first names was Sandy. I got a lot of “Oh I know her, how’s she doing? I would answer, yes, he’s doing just fine. I never said, “Have a nice day.” I closed by saying “Please drive carefully, I’ll help you get back into traffic.” If the person refused to sign the ticket, I would explain it was not a plea of guilty, just a promise to appear, and that I could “instanter” (arrest) the person so that they could be held for bail, or I would just notate the ticket “refused to sign.” I would never argue and kept the clever rejoinders to myself. I used to carry a small digital recorder and advise the difficult driver I was recording our conversation to protect us both. I would always tell the contentious driver that we were not going to try this case on the street.
I end my traffic contacts with, “Thank you for your cooperation. I hope you have a safe day.”