Improving officer safety and reducing risk during non-compliant traffic stops
Police1 readers share their top tactics to reduce risk
To better understand officers’ experiences, perceptions, training and tactics for non-compliance during traffic stops, Police1 conducted a survey of more than 1,000 patrol officers. (Click here to access the complete survey results.)
As part of that survey, we asked respondents for their recommendations to improve officer safety and reduce risks when stopping a non-compliant driver.
We compiled the top responses and themes for handy review:
- Request backup: As soon as you become aware of non-compliance, request a secondary backup unit to start heading your way. If you can de-escalate and gain compliance great. If things head south, then your backup is closer than they would’ve been.
- Don’t get tunnel vision: If someone is getting heated with you and there are multiple occupants in the car, don’t get tunnel vision regarding who you are having the conversation with. He may be distracting you so another occupant in the car can ambush you.
- Call out the driver: I trained the department to stop walking up to vehicles on traffic stops. Call out the drivers in most instances if possible. Conduct the stop at the front of the patrol vehicle. This allows officers to view possible weapons, and to verify that the driver will initially comply.
- Disengage if necessary: Don’t get too aggressive where you may be injured. It’s not worth it. Maintain control of yourself and your emotions. There is nothing wrong with disengaging with a person if you can’t maintain control of the situation without the use of force when it may be perceived as excessive. Don’t be embarrassed if someone gets away from you. It happens to the best of us. This isn’t a football game. As professional law enforcement officers, we are graded by the public mainly when we hurt someone, how much AND when we lose our tempers or composure. They don’t really care when people get away from us.
- Give the driver time: Allow time for a non-compliant driver to make his or her decision on how the encounter will end. I believe they will understand that once other officers arrive on scene they may have to make different decisions.
- No single officer units: No departments should have single officer units. We learn the buddy system when we are kids to go to the bathroom. There is no better application for it than law enforcement. The sheer command presence of two officers will deter many non-compliance issues and provide immediate assistance for the ones it does not.
- Consider your positioning: Always be in control and request the driver to exit the vehicle and conduct an exterior pat-down. Place yourself between the driver and vehicle if the driver is the only occupant and do not allow them to return to the vehicle until the stop is complete.
- Watch their shoulders: From the moment you activate your lights to when you begin your approach watch their shoulders to see if it looks like they’re reaching for something or tucking something away. Always check the back seat and keep tabs on passengers who refuse to interact with you. When feasible have your backer set up on the opposite side of the vehicle so that the two of you have a better position to fire on the vehicle should one of the subjects use or attempt to use a gun or other deadly weapon. This also lets your backer keep an eye on the passenger’s hands and movements.
- Let the driver leave: If you know who the driver is (via NCIC or JNET, etc.) and have good vehicle and driver information let them leave and file the citations. No use getting into an argument on the side of the road for no reason.
- Sovereign citizen response: If there are any signs that the driver is a sovereign citizen, call for backup and give your specific location. Broadcast a description of the driver, the vehicle color and make, tag number, and number of known occupants and their descriptions. You have to know where the hell you are to get help.
- Stay vigilant: Approach each situation as a “felony stop” (stay vigilant) until determined otherwise.
- Quickly remove the subject: Arrest if there is a valid charge and quickly remove the subject from the scene. Delayed transport of the subject increases the chance for failure. As soon as the driver is deemed non-compliant, request backup units and refrain from approaching if possible until backup units are on scene. Do not argue with the driver, as the roadside is not a good location for a dispute over any infraction. It is better to maintain composure and not argue than to be writing a use of force report and detailing why the driver became non-compliant.
- Ask, tell, make: For example, you ask a driver nicely to step out of the vehicle. If he does not comply you tell him to get out. If he does not comply you make him using the least amount of force necessary. This can go from ask to make quickly depending on the driver. If you give the driver time to think about a plan or have time to call someone or reach for a gun, you are always on the defense.
- Consider the time: Be aware of the subject attempting to buy time through passive resistance. This gives the subject time to formulate a plan.
- Always be professional: If they deserve a ticket or talk themselves into one leave it at that and know you ultimately still win the situation. If they do not pay the ticket, then catch them on their warrant at another time. It is a win-win for the police officer. Make sure you activate cameras and do not let your pride get in the way.
- Slow down: Do not feel rushed in getting up to the driver to make contact. Watch all occupants for furtive movements and scan the vehicle. A non-compliant driver will give indicators before you make contact, such as looking for you as you approach or mouthing anger to themselves or passengers about the stop. Knowing they are non-compliant prior to making contact affords you time to change your approach and/or request assistance if needed.
- Avoid use of force: Do not physically escalate attempts to detain non-compliant drivers for traffic offenses, non-violent crimes or non-violent warrants. If the person resists and flees on foot or by vehicle, file a summons for the appropriate charges and pursue only within the parameters of your agency’s pursuit policy.
- Do not get dragged: Do not under any circumstances choose to continue the fight with a traffic offender to remove them from a vehicle if it appears they are able to start the vehicle and attempt to drive away. Do not choose to place yourself in danger of being run over or dragged or necessitate an escalation of force or deadly force over a traffic issue. If they are going to drive off, you can choose to pursue or place them in custody later.
- Train, train, train: Even if your department doesn’t offer training constantly throughout the year, take it upon yourself to utilize training modules through Police1 or other in-service training providers and request to be sent to training. Practice certain approaches and tactics with compliant drivers that won’t come off as aggressive policing to build a platform on how to approach a vehicle. Request supervisors permit the use of older patrol vehicles to run mock scenarios on off days and create a team bonding/pot luck situation to raise morale in the unit/shift/watch.
- Record the stop: If no dashcam or bodycam is available, at least use your cellphone for recording purposes. Know your case law and your legal options.
- Think before you act: Make a decision based on ALL the circumstances placed in front of you and don’t just react to the first thing you see. De-escalate in every situation you can. Most drivers are not the nightmare scenario that the police academy taught you. If you stay calm and composed, you (the officer) will always be in control of the stop and will be much safer than if you allow your emotions or your ego to dictate your actions during the stop. No matter what the driver does or says, you (the officer) must stay calm and be professional.