Traffic Stop Survival

5 tips that will keep you ready on the roadside

By Scott Hughes  |   Nov 12, 2014
Photo Courtesy St. Louis Police Foundation

Traffic stops are undoubtedly the most common task performed by police officers. Unfortunately, because these encounters are frequently uneventful, officers become that infamous c-word: complacent! Despite telling officers that there’s no such thing as routine, we find ourselves treating traffic stops as just that. And, again, there is no such thing as routine!

During my Tactics in Traffic (TNT) Course I stress several things with the hopes of preventing officers from becoming complacent and to remind them of the dangers associated with stopping vehicles.

Here are a few tips and reminders:

1. Notifying dispatch: Make dispatchers aware of your 1) location, 2) plate number, 3) vehicle description, and 4) the number of occupants—prior to activating your overhead lights. This information becomes crucial in the event the violator bails on foot or challenges you in a confrontation. How many times have you been on patrol and an officer cried out for help on the radio and you said to yourself: “Where are they?” By providing this basic information to dispatch, other officers in the area can begin to float your direction. If things go bad, back-up officers know where to respond.

2. Have a plan before stopping the violator: What will I do if the violator jumps out with a weapon? What will I do if the violator takes off? Do I have any cover and/or concealment as I’m approaching the vehicle? Do I have backup available? These questions and many more need to be “answered” before you stop the car and before you make an approach. By mentally rehearsing various scenarios in your head you will be better prepared when the situation unfolds. Too often officers stop cars and are not tactically prepared. Say to yourself: “When X happens, I’m going to do Y.”

3. Nobody’s feet hit the ground before yours: When you’re preparing to stop a car, you must remove your seatbelt. Unfortunately, there have been situations where an officer has made a stop on a violator and the subject charged the officer fatally wounding or assaulting them before the officer was able to react because they were trapped inside the police cruiser. (Note: Be prepared to put your seatbelt back on quickly in the event the car flees.)

Also: Don’t forget that sometimes the best response may be to retreat! If you’re making a traffic stop and a violator jumps out of their car and begins charging you while you are in your cruiser, your best option may be to put the car in reverse and get out of there.

4. Watch the hands; simple and basic: Every police officer in the United States, and probably in the world, has been taught hands kill! As soon as you make contact with the occupants in a vehicle, find those hands! The more occupants inside the car, the tougher this is going to be. Become an expert in scanning the inside of a car while simultaneously speaking to occupants.

5. Pay attention: From the moment you notice the traffic violation until the contact is over, pay attention! Seems simple and elementary, but, seriously, don’t get lulled into a sense that everything is OK just because the first approach or even second approach went well. There have been plenty of cases where a violator “went off” after the officer issued a citation or summons to court.

As my colleague Lt. Jim Glennon recently wrote, you are constantly training, whether you realize it or not. Don’t let a few easy traffic stops make you think that the next one will be easy. Come to work prepared—well-rested, fit, focused and ready to serve—and remember that any stop, if you’re not careful, could be your last.

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Chief Hughes holds a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership from the University of Charleston and is a graduate of The Supervisor Training and Education program as well as The Police Executive Leadership College. Scott is also a graduate of the 133rd FBI-LEEDA Command Institute and is a certified Law Enforcement Executive (CLEE). Chief Hughes is an active member of the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police where he serves on the education committee.