We work very closely with our local sheriff’s departments to understand the dangers patrol officers face on a daily basis so we can develop products that mitigate those dangers. Officers consistently tell us that pulling someone over for a traffic violation–an everyday part of the job–poses more danger to them than most any other situation, especially at night or during inclement weather. The danger usually comes from a passing vehicle, or an attack from the traffic violator in question.
If you are a police officer, you know this better than anyone else, and have had extensive training to prepare you for these situations. But even the most prepared officers could use a good reminder, so we put together a quick list of ways you can protect yourself and avoid incidents during traffic stops. Who knows, maybe our research will even bring up something you hadn’t thought about before.
No Such Thing as a “Routine” Traffic Stop
Traffic violation stops are a regular part of your day, so it’s easy to write them off as ordinary, but the truth is you just never know. You never know who could be in the vehicle you’re pulling over or what their intentions may be. You never know who could be driving past or what distractions or impairments may keep them from safely staying in their lane, away from your scene.
But you do know that you can count on never knowing. Between 2001 and 2010, 95 officers died during traffic stops and 4,752 were assaulted. Knowing that you never know what will happen is a great reminder to always be on your guard, and to rely on your training and common sense.
Communicate with Your Team
Always call your traffic stop in to dispatch before getting out of your vehicle, especially if you’re patrolling by yourself, and even more especially if you know backup is more than a few minutes away. This may seem like common sense, but not all officers do it. Maybe you think you can handle yourself, or because it’s inconvenient. Whatever the reason, it isn’t as good as the reason to make the call–your own safety.
Find a Good Stopping Location
This one is not always easy to do. You may even have the perfect stopping location picked out–a well-lit area with a wide shoulder, in a lower-speed or low-traffic zone–but your subject may stop somewhere else. They may just stop in the middle of the road, or let you trail them much longer than they should. Regardless, if you don’t like where they stop, don’t be afraid to use your loudspeaker to have them move. That’s what it’s for.
Use Lights to Your Advantage
This is important both at night and during the day. Your red and blue flash pattern alerts passing traffic to use caution to avoid you and your subject. Your flashlight and spotlight can be a powerful tool for simultaneously blinding your suspect and giving you better visibility. All of your vehicle’s bright white light modules facing the suspect should be lit up, especially at night, both to give you a better visual on what’s going on, and to disorient a potential attacker. SoundOff’s bluePRINT system makes this really easy–just flip your headlight brights on to activate all your forward-facing whites. bluePRINT also turns off the lights directly above your door while you’re getting out to keep your vision in tact as you approach your suspect. A former patrol officer writing for Blue Sheepdog goes into greater detail about the use of light in traffic stops in his article, Traffic Stop Safety.
Approach from the Passenger’s Side
Many officers approach from the driver’s side. Every time I’ve been pulled over–which is more than I care to admit–the officer approached on my side. As this San Francisco officer explains, the passenger’s side offers many advantages. For one, the suspect is likely not expecting it, because many officers do the opposite. Another good reason is to get a better view of the interior of the car using the passenger’s side mirror before you get too close, giving you time to look at the hands of all the occupants. The offending vehicle also acts as your shield from passing traffic.
Get the Driver Out of the Vehicle
Again, not many officers do this, unless they have a reason to anticipate conflict, but it’s a great way to avoid an attack. Allowing your subject to stay in their vehicle keeps them on their home turf, within reach of whatever weapon they may have handy, and puts you at a disadvantage. This is an especially good tactic if the vehicle in question has tinted windows, blinding you from what’s inside. As always, use your judgement, but keep this in mind as a precautionary option. And if the suspect gets out of the vehicle of their own accord while you’re in or near your vehicle, bluePRINT’s blitz function is a quick way to disorient them, allowing you a few more seconds to determine your next step.
It Isn’t Over Until It’s Over
Even if your initial conversation with the suspect leads you to believe that he or she is harmless, continue to maintain caution and awareness until they pull away from the scene. The short period of time you give them to go back to your patrol vehicle and write the citation, may just be enough for them to rethink their options and decide to attack. You just never know.