Cutting Edge Training

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Traffic Stops--STOP THE INSANITY!

by George on November 20, 2011 11:29

Another in a series of never-ending shootings of officers on traffic stops just landed in my e-mail box.  In this one, gratefully, the officer was uninjured--not because of what the officer did, but because of what the suspect did not do.  A brief review of this particular incident, and the catalyst for this discussion, is the following:

  • The officer, after having made a traffic stop, walks up and contacts the driver at the driver's window.
  • The driver, in this case, engages the officer with a lie, to which the officer bluntly responds, "No.  I was right behind.  I saw you..." (slowing his perception-reaction time to anything the suspect might do). 
  • The officer asks how much the driver’s had to drink, whereby the driver petulantly answers, “Plenty.” 
  • As the officer says, "Plenty, huh?" the suspect produces a handgun (“out of nowhere”).  

This video is, thankfully, different than most of its kind—the suspect is A) too drunk to realize he has not chambered a round; B) is incompetent; or, C) both.  The loud “click” is the officer not being murdered from the muzzle 12 inches away from his face.

The officer’s reaction to the muzzle in his face and the very loud click (which is the second loudest sound in the world from that side of the muzzle) is similar to every officer who has survived this type of event:

  • Hands go up to his face as his body crouches in a startle reaction.
  • Expletive uttered.
  • Change of balance to the rear (directly in-line with the trajectory of the round). 
  • Amazement he isn’t dead.
  • Realization that he is not finished with the gunfight and must take action occurs when the suspect fires a round at him.
  • Response with deadly force. 

It is also similar to every officer who is unexpectedly shot and injured or murdered:  hands go up at the sudden movement of a handgun shoved at the officer, the expletive if there is time, and the change of balance in response to the fright and muzzle blast.

It's been common knowledge for decades that traffic stops are extremely dangerous.  That this type of shooting unfolds as it does is typical.  This is because we now have so many in-car video systems and recordings of these terrible, violent events.   We know the process and what happens during this shootings--officers walk up to contact the driver, and are shot before they can react.  Every officer, regardless of his age, fitness, tactical awareness, experience, or any other factor any officer believes exempts him from the limits of being in a human body and the attentional capabilities it posseses, is at the mercy of the driver upon approach for approximately one second of the contact.  And if the suspect decides to put a gun through the window and shoot the officer, it cannot be stopped because there just isn't time to observe the weapon, orient to the fact that a muzzle is now pointing at the officer, and to decide to do anything while acting in time to make a difference.  Typically, the suspect gets off two or more shots before the officer reacts with anything other than an instinctive flinch. 

This repeats itself over and over and over, the same way, year in and year out.  And still, trainers in academies keep teaching their recruits to walk up on unknown suspects in situations that commonly cause officers to be murdered.

So, as trained, cops keep walking up, and continue getting shot and murdered.  Even when an officer is hit in the vest, we see the suspect minimally get 2 rounds off before the officer reacts with anything other than shock and surprise.  The end result of every one of these is that the officer is either shot at and hit, or shot at and missed through no counter-assault action on the part of the officer.  If the officer walks up on an occupied vehicle, the suspect either does not shoot or he does—there is nothing the officer can do that changes this variable:  it is a roll of the dice.

To emphasize this, a State Trooper teaching a traffic stop class at a state academy put his recruits through a simunition/FX cartridge scenario.  The recruits were being graded on their approach and positioning as well as their contacting the driver appropriately.  Each recruit knew there was a gun involved, and knew the subject was going to attempt to shoot the recruit-officer contacting him.  Regardless of the efforts to properly position themselves, 100% of the recruits were shot.  Now, the purpose of this exercise (other than wrongly training the recruits to purposely walk up on a man-with-a-gun) was not, as I thought it was going to be, a caution against walking up on a traffic stop to contact the driver.  Instead, the Trooper, straight-faced and intense, told the recruits, “That’s the risk you take being a cop.” 

Uh…what?  So we teach officers to walk into a no-win situation; a crap shoot that could mean they are shot and murdered every time they walk up on a traffic stop?  Yup. Some well-known "tactics" instructors advocate that as officers approach the violator's vehicle, that they touch the brake light cover in order to have the officer's finger prints on the suspect vehicle for identification purposes should the officer be shot and killed!  Really?

BOTTOM LINE:  The walk-up (a.k.a. “I-have-no-idea-who-I’m-stopping-and-I-cannot protect-myself-so-please-don’t-shoot-me”) traffic stop presents an indefensible tactical problem for which the only safe option is to stop using it.  It is a violation of every officer safety principle there is, and is solely performed because “That’s how we’ve always done it.”  HOW MANY MORE MURDERED COPS DO WE HAVE TO BURY BEFORE WE STOP THE INSANITY?

There is no defense to a driver or passenger shooting the officer from either a driver’s side approach, or a passenger side approach.  It is time to get consistent with the tactical principles we teach to officers for every other citizen contact other than traffic stops:  Make the subject come to you. 

The "Call-back Traffic Stop"

Call the driver back to the side of the road with their documents, and make it a “Ped stop.”  Conduct business where the suspect is not in his environment where his hands and what is within reach cannot be seen by the officer until it is too late.  This gives the officer the advantage of noting the subject's compliance and apparent armed status prior to gaining proximity where time-distance factors mitigate against any effective response.

The usual objections to this much safer practice?

  • “I’ll get complaints.”  Umm, not so much.  In fact, people will do what you tell them to do, and the courts have permitted getting the driver out of vehicles for years.  Officers who are practicing the call-back T-stop for two decades report no increase in the number of complaints related to their conduct of a traffic stop.
  • “I won’t get my ‘plain-view’ arrests.”  Umm, again, not so much.  Nothing stops an officer from conducting the interview, issuing the cite, and then following the subject back to the car to get a look inside at anything that might be in plain view.  The question might be asked of these officers, “If you are up at the driver’s window or front passenger window and are busy looking around the interior of the vehicle, then who is monitoring the driver’s/passengers’ hands?”  We know that humans can focus on one task at a time, and the visual focal area is very small.  Attentional loads being what they are, if the officer is looking at the interior for drugs or guns, he’s not looking at the suspect’s hands, and (let’s say it together) “Hands kill.”
  • “He could attack me just as he steps out of the driver’s door.”  Yes.  He could.  And he is 25+ feet away.  And the officer is back at his vehicle, with much more time to react, with a greater likelihood of being missed at that distance rather than 6-18 inches.  The suspect is also in the officer’s primary field of vision, where the officer’s attentional focus is.  As Clint Smith says, "Distance is time, time is marksmanship, and marksmanship is hits.")  Micro-threat cues should be alerting the officer’s spidey-senses that something is wrong simply by the way the subject is exiting the car, giving the officer a jump on his perception-reaction time.  This is a good time to focus on the driver’s hands (although EVERYONE first focuses on the subject’s face) because…well, you know why focusing on the subject's hands is a very good idea. 
  • “He could physically assault me at the side of the road.”  Yes.  He could.  So could every person you contacted on your last shift.  Physical assault, like deadly assault, does not exist in a vacuum.  Violence is a process.©  Assaults (punches and kicks and being tackled), guns, and knives do not “come out of nowhere.”  There are threat cues in every assault.  And having this person walk up to you gives you an opportunity to assess their compliance and glean something of their intent.  
  • “I’m not going to have 80-year old grandmas and soccer moms get out of their car.”  Good.  Don’t.  It is always your choice to intentionally violate the safety principles IF you believe it is in your best interest and furthers your mission.  Think about this:  if you feel it is safe to approach because you don’t want to get grandma or mom out of the vehicle in the rain, take the conscious risk and approach the vehicle.  However, a routine unconscious violation of safe Universal Tactical Principles© doctrine (approaching an unknown, unsearched, and unidentified subject, and dealing with him in his environment) is an invitation to be assaulted and/or murdered, like that of the officer in the video, and every video of a police officer being shot on a traffic stop. 

There is simply no excuse for continuing to conduct the unsafe and dangerous traditional "walk-up-please-don't-shoot-me traffic stop."  I've been teaching the call-back traffic stop since 1996. Others have been teaching it well before that. It is time to stop this insanity of doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result.  Just because you spent 30 years walking up on cars and weren’t shot, only means that you didn’t walk up on someone who wanted to shoot you.  If you had, he would have shot you without warning in spite of anything you did or didn’t do.  That is not “safe” or “tactical.”  That’s luck, and luck should not be considered to be a skill set.