The Traffic Stop

pulled over
photo from wtop.comphoto from wtop.com

Most drivers experience a significant increase in anxiety upon observing a squad car in their rearview mirror. That anxiety continues to increase for as long as the officer follows. If the officer activates the overhead oscillating red and blue lights the anxiety level can reach a dysfunctional level – and not just for the motorist.

Traffic stops can be a very dangerous aspect of a police officer’s occupation. In order to remain safe, police officers must remain alert and vigilant during any interaction with citizens. It is important for officers to obtain as much information as possible about anyone with whom they might interact. Sometimes police officers gather this information through computerized sources, through interviews with others, or through observation. Most people can’t know what sensory information registers with an officer, nor do they comprehend the significance of that information.

What may appear to be a “routine” traffic stop to a driver may actually be very risky for the officer. Not all traffic stops are for traffic violations—many are for suspected criminal activity. Until the officer fully investigates the situation, it is imperative that a driver follows an officer’s instructions and use common sense to avoid escalating the encounter. Motorists who fail to follow the instructions of a police officer could create danger for the officer and themselves.

This is even more important for those who carry concealed, because when an officer is aware that someone is in possession of firearm, it immediately increases the officer's stress level. The officer needs to immediately determine if the armed person poses a threat, and any deviation from the officer's instructions could escalate that stress level. If the armed person fails to comply with instructions, the officer will begin to question that behavior, stress becomes distress, and things can very quickly turn. If threatened, the officer will have to react.

"If the armed person fails to comply with instructions, the officer will begin to question that behavior, stress becomes distress, and things can very quickly turn. If threatened, the officer will have to react."

Here’s one situation where that happened: When I was assigned to my agency’s Tactical Team, one night my partner and I stopped a vehicle for loud music. It was very late and we were already investigating criminal activity in this area, which is known for gang crime and drug activity. In such high crime areas, officers remain on high alert. An assisting officer had the driver out of the car. I walked to the passenger side of the vehicle where my partner was speaking to the front seat passenger. My partner was in the open doorway, and the passenger was seated perpendicular to my partner with his feat on the roadway. As soon as got next to my partner, he pulled his firearm and pointed it at the head of the passenger. “Don’t do it man! Don’t do it!” he said in a high-pitched voice. I immediately drew my firearm. The passenger had his hands up, but responded, “I can’t help it…I got to…”

I suspected there was a firearm involved, but I couldn’t see it. Then I observed the passenger drop his left hand and start reaching toward the floorboard. My partner continued to scream for compliance, and I contemplated shooting before he reached whatever it was that was on the floor of the car. I actually began to apply pressure to my trigger. I was awaiting a simple confirmation that this subject was in possession of a firearm. I had only worked with my partner for about a week, so I wasn’t certain that he had spotted a deadly weapon.

As the subject continued to slowly reach downward, I heard a popping sound. Then I saw a thin wire in the ambient lighting of the street light, followed by a crackling noise. Unbeknownst to me, our supervisor had run up and shot the suspect with a Taser. It turns out that the suspect did have a firearm, but it wasn’t on the floorboard – it was on his right side in the crack of the seat. We suspect that he forgot where he’d put his gun, because there was nothing on the floor.

This isn’t the only time I have had interactions with people who fail to follow orders when my firearm is pointed at them! It is actually common for people to disobey officers is such situations. To me, it seems like a pretty big gamble to refuse to comply with an officer who feels so threatened that they have their firearms out and pointed at the threat. If that isn’t enough of a deterrent, realize that if the officer’s finger is on the trigger, something bad is likely to occur unless the interaction changes course immediately.

Traffic Stop Situations that Signal Potential Danger

Here are some traffic stop behaviors and situations that instantly elevate risk for officers. When an officer observes one of these behaviors, a motorist’s lack of cooperation, unexpected movements, or a failure to follow the police officer’s directions can lead to tragedy:

Behavior 1: Excessive Movement Within the Car Before, During, or After the Officer Makes the Traffic Stop

You may simply be trying to expedite the traffic stop by trying to locate your driver’s license, registration, and insurance card because you know that the officer will request some combination of these documents.

Possible interpretation: Officers do understand that people make movements within the cab of their vehicles for a variety of reasons, but it is still a red flag. Movements like bending down to the floorboard or reaching over to the glove box can be interpreted by a police officer as someone concealing contraband or reaching for a firearm.

The experienced officer will be very careful before approaching a car in which occupants are moving around. The officer may even check for criminal history of the registered owner of the car before approaching it. The officer will approach slowly and may even rest a forearm on his or her holstered sidearm in order to enable a faster withdrawal, if one becomes necessary. Under certain circumstances—the officer knows there is a car matching this one’s description containing an armed robbery suspect in the area for instance; or the officer suspects the vehicle is stolen—the officer may order occupants out of the car at gunpoint

Advice: Remember, you never know why an officer is pulling you over. It could be as simple as letting you know one of your headlights is out, or because he or she thinks you might be a suspect in a violent crime. If you're stopped, remain still, let the officer approach, and keep you hands at the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions on the steering wheel where he/she can see them. Let the officer explain why you were stopped and what documents are needed. Know in advance where those items are located, so that under stress, you aren't rifling through your purse and car. Tell the officer where the items are located before retrieving them.

It’s important to note a conversation I recently had with my son, who is taking driver’s education from a third party vendor this summer. His instructor told his class to turn on the dome light to illuminate the interior of the car for the police officer. While I appreciate the sentiment behind the behavior, this is unnecessary. I’ve never met a police officer that wasn’t equipped with a spotlight on their car and a powerful flashlight. Turning on a dome light can be accomplished by reaching up, or by reaching down and forward. Although the former might not be problematic, the latter could be.

Additionally, the officer can categorize any extra movement within the cab of the car as “furtive” movement. This can be an officer’s legal justification for non-consensual searches. So if you don’t want to have your car searched… don’t move around!

Behavior 2: Opening Your Car Door or Exiting Your Car

Sometimes motorists just open their doors because their windows don’t roll down, and some just get out of their car during a traffic stop because they think officers prefer this. (They don’t!) Other times, motorists get out of the car to provide officers with a document they couldn’t immediately locate when the officer initially approached, and they want to prevent the officer from citing them.

Possible interpretation: From the moment an officer activates the overhead oscillating lights, that officer is not only watching the movement within the car but also studying its exterior surface to make sure the doors of the vehicle do not open…not even a crack. If a door opens, experienced officers know that this could mean an occupant is about to flee on foot, or worse, the occupant might be about to charge the officer and have a violent confrontation. Depending on the officer's past experiences, this action can cause the officer to experience high stress. Long story short, getting out of a car without being instructed to do so will probably result in a negative outcome that didn't have to be… such as a verbal confrontation, a physical confrontation, a citation, or worse.

Law enforcement officers learn that when people get out of a car during a traffic stop, it is generally to put distance between them and the police or something in the vehicle (such as a weapon, contraband, other felons, or petitioners of orders of protection. For that reason this behavior will raise suspicion for officers and will likely increase the length of the traffic stop, and under some circumstances this behavior too may lead to a non-consensual vehicular search.

Advice: Stay in your car! It is dangerous to get out of your car during a traffic stop. The danger isn't just isolated to the interaction with police, but also from passing traffic. If the officer wants you or your occupants to get out of the car, he or she will tell you. If you located a document you think the officer is citing you for, wave it out the window first. If you cannot get their attention, gently honk your horn or yell, "Excuse me, officer" and hold the item out the window.

Behavior 3: Showing an Officer or Assuming an Officer Knows That You Are Carrying a Concealed Firearm

Those carrying concealed must be careful and use common sense and not make any assumptions! Clearly, officers these days are on high alert and feel very threatened… especially with firearms. It is imperative that to follow instructions and ask questions before making any movement that could be construed as a threat.

The biggest mistakes that can be made in this situation include:

• Assuming that the police officer knows you can legally carry a firearm concealed. Even if your state keeps a computerized list of concealed carry permit holders, there’s no guarantee that they are attached to your registration or driver’s license. Additionally, it is very common for computers, networks, and Wi-Fi to go down… and usually it is at the worst possible time.

• Assuming that because you have a concealed carry license, the officer must know that you have good and legal intentions. That permit/license is nothing more than a representation that you followed the law and met the minimum criteria. Sure there’s usually a background check but people lie, use aliases, and steal other people’s identities. Just because there’s no criminal history doesn’t mean a person isn’t evil or aren’t a threat to the police.

• Assuming that because you have a concealed firearm, the officer wants you to retrieve it.

Advice: The key in these situations is to listen to what he officer is saying and follow instructions. (If you disagree with what is being asked, now is not the time to argue. Every police department has an Internal Affairs Office or Office of Professional Standards for aggrieved citizens.)

Depending on an agency’s policy, the law, or the officer’s preference, you may or may not be asked to retrieve your firearm. It is best not to assume the officer needs or wants to see it. However, if there is any doubt in the officer’s instructions, or you think those instructions could create a stressful situation, ask clarifying questions before moving, or narrate your intended actions.

For example, suppose an officer stops you and asks for your driver’s license, but you know that upon opening your purse it is likely your concealed carry firearm will be spotted by the officer (he or she is trained to look hard for just such situations). To avoid a misinterpretation of your intent, tell the officer, “You asked me for my driver’s license and I am going to retrieve it, but before I do, I want you to know that I have a concealed carry permit and my concealed firearm is also in my purse. Do you still want me to retrieve it?” The officer may tell you to retrieve your driver’s license, or may ask you for your purse so he or she can retrieve it. Either way, make sure your movements are slower and more methodical than normal.

The goal when interacting with law enforcement is to ensure that your actions and behaviors as a driver and a concealed carrier don’t pose an unnecessary risk. Know that the world these men and women are subjected to daily is very different from the world of normal, law-abiding citizens. These times are very dangerous for officers and they are on high alert. Staying in your car, following the officer’s instructions, asking clarifying questions, and most importantly, not making any assumptions is the best practice.