One of law enforcement’s most highly analyzed and tactically debated activities is the traffic stop.
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One reason for this could be that although there are millions of traffic stops conducted by police each year that end without incident, some traffic stops result in a fatality of either the officer or an occupant.
Additionally, because traffic stops have multiple phases, there are several considerations around police traffic stop procedures. For example, should an officer use a driver-side or passenger-side approach? Should an officer bring a driver back to their patrol car to conduct interviews or direct them to stay in their car?
These and many other questions spark debates among officers about which tactic is superior or should be considered best practice.
Debates such as these are extremely valuable not only because they require officers to analyze their tactics thoughtfully and pursue a deeper understanding of critical job functions, but also because officers typically discover that both sides of the debate frequently have merit. For example, depending on the specific factors of an incident, one tactic may work well in a given situation, while another may be better suited in a different situation.
Where to run the driver’s license?
I was recently asked to give an opinion about one such tactical debate involving traffic stops. Specifically, what is the most tactically sound practice for running a driver’s license during a traffic stop?
- Option 1: The officer runs the subject while remaining at the driver’s door behind the B-pillar.
- Option 2: The officer returns to their patrol vehicle to run the driver’s license.
The argument for remaining at the subject’s vehicle behind the B-pillar while running the driver’s license is that the officer has gained some ground, which some view as a tactical advantage. After gaining this ground, it could be helpful should the subject become combative or if they are wanted.
I understand this argument, but I believe several cons must be considered when evaluating this tactic. First, the officer is in extremely close proximity to the subject while splitting cognitive functions. They are running the driver while trying to keep a visual of their hands and watching for furtive movements. With the driver having the action-reaction advantage, this puts the officer in a precarious position. If there are multiple occupants, this puts the officer in a near-impossible situation because not only are they close to a potential attack, it would not be possible to effectively monitor each subject’s behavior while running the driver’s license. Traffic may also be a potential threat, splitting the officer’s cognitive thought processes further.
Also, even if the subject is wanted, the best practice would not be for the officer to immediately go hands-on but instead wait for a backing unit. However, I know in some jurisdictions, that’s not possible due to the unavailability of a backing officer.
Finally, I know some officers have earpieces on their radios, but many do not, so this is a consideration when running the license near the vehicle within the hearing range of the subject. If the subject hears that the officer is running them, this could ignite the driver into a desperate attempt to fight or flee from the officer, especially if they know they have a warrant for their arrest.
The golden triad of desired objectives
Because of all these factors, I do have an opinion of an ideal tactical position for the officer, specifically when their “spidey senses” are telling them something may be amidst with the driver. That position would be at the back of their patrol vehicle, positioned near the rear bumper on the passenger side. This position considers traffic conditions and creates time, distance and cover between the officer and a potentially violent attack. In the world of police use of force tactics, these are the golden triad of desired objectives. Suppose the driver or an occupant of the vehicle decides to launch an attack against the officer. In that case, the position at the back of the patrol car will increase the options available to the officer. These options would not exist at the subject’s vehicle behind the b-pillar, where time, distance and cover do not exist.
I will admit there are times when an officer can choose to run a subject’s driver’s license safely while at the subject’s vehicle. For example, perhaps the officer sees something on the floorboard compelling enough to monitor while speaking with the driver, such as drugs or a weapon. While at the vehicle, the officer calls for a backing unit and discovers that backup is merely seconds away. Based on these circumstances, the officer may remain at the car and use sound officer safety tactics while maintaining visual observations of weapons or drugs.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, sometimes both sides of the debate have merit. It’s not so much a case of deciding which is right and which is wrong, but instead developing a deeper understanding of the “why” behind any reasonable approach and then choosing which one works best at the time based on the circumstances of a particular situation. Train hard and be safe!
Police1 readers respond
Sometimes the circumstances of the traffic stop dictated where I ran the license. At my former agency backup was almost always available and since I taught the concept of contact and cover, my backup officer was the cover officer and depending on the totality of the circumstances, I might run the license from the driver’s side of the vehicle or passenger side if I did an approach that way, but the majority of the time I did it from the passenger side rear of my patrol vehicle with the rear door open.
I prefer to stand at the A-pillar while facing the driver and passenger with my back toward the front of the vehicle, which also allows me to watch oncoming traffic. The most dangerous part of a traffic stop is the approach and the hands of the occupants. This allows me to watch the hands and only have to approach once.
Always make your initial approach on the passenger side of the offender vehicle, return to your vehicle for ID checks/paperwork and then return to the offender vehicle on the driver’s side. Countless tactical advantages to this method.
- I typically run the driver’s license of a subject at the rear passenger bumper of my patrol car, for the same reasons cited by the author, even when I have a cover officer. Although I too see the merit in staying up front near the B-pillar of the subject’s car. I think both tactics are sound, but I prefer to put distance and cover/concealment between the subject and me, for increased reaction time.
After 28 years of conducting traffic stops (now retired), I used all the above listed and then some. However, at night I would (sometimes), after getting the DL, walk back to my car passing the driver’s side. I would walk around the trunk to the passenger side and open the passenger side front door. This is done for the illusion of maybe having another officer or me being in this location. I would walk into the property next to my car and stand by/behind fence posts, block walls, or any item that could be used as concealment/cover. It was neat to watch drivers exit their car and walk back to my car, confusion on their face and shock when they heard a voice coming from the dark. Another technique was to use my imaginary partner if I was having problems with the driver/occupants, I would tell my partner to watch the driver/occupants. I would see the driver/occupants start looking around for him. I would tell them to stop looking at my partner and pay attention to me. This seemed to work very well since they were more concerned about the unseen officer than me.
What do you think? Share your comments and additional traffic stop safety tactics in the box below.