Best Practices: Traffic Stops - Lifeline Training -

Best Practices: Traffic Stops

Tips for conducting a safe & effective traffic stop



Sgt. Scott Hughes | Tuesday, May 21, 2013

According to the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted reports, more officers who are feloniously killed and assaulted while making an arrest are within arm’s reach of their assailant. When we instruct recruits in the police academy, they’re taught to position offenders in an off-balance position and then order them to place their hands behind their back and interlock their fingers. Although this works in the controlled environment of a police academy, this doesn’t always go as planned in practice. We instruct recruits that distance is your friend and don’t get into the bad guy’s space. Unfortunately, the first time somebody runs from you because you gave them an out, we quickly forget what we were taught and begin developing our own systems of dealing with individuals up-close and personal.

During the past 12 years of instructing police officers in traffic stop tactics, I’ve observed that when officers make a stop, approach the vehicle and talk with the violator, they tend to be fairly confident. The moment I instruct the officer to remove the occupant from the vehicle, they tend to forget every tactic and have developed HUA (Head Up A**) syndrome. Oftentimes, officers don’t realize their ineffective tactics are occurring until the bad guy is punching, kicking or fleeing the scene.

How many times have you found yourself standing at the driver or passenger side door conducting routine questioning, before realizing your need to remove the occupant? This urgency is typically created after you observe contraband, weapons or develop some sort of reasonable suspicion to search the vehicle or the occupant. This new situation creates a unique challenge to you because you’re now in that 5–6 foot zone that’s claimed hundreds of police officers. How you take this stop to the next level can ultimately decide the success or failure of the stop. But more importantly, it always holds the possibility of escalating into a life-or-death situation for the officer.

Passenger-Side Approaches
I make (and teach my officers to make) most traffic stops on the passenger side of the vehicle. A quick Google search of “officer struck while making a traffic stop” will graphically illustrate the importance of approaching the passenger side of a vehicle to keep you out of harm’s way from passing traffic.

How you exit your car and approach on the passenger side is another unique challenge. Do you walk behind your vehicle and around? Do you cut between the cars momentarily? Do you order the occupants back to you? There are several variations of making a successful passenger-side approach. The key: Use an approach pattern that’s safe and effective for you and your environmental surroundings. Example: State troopers making stops on busy highways may use a different approach pattern than municipal officers performing stops on quiet streets.

The second reason I use passenger-side approaches is because of the media’s portrayal on T.V. and in movies. Generally speaking, most T.V. shows and movies that depict officers making traffic stops have the officer approach on the driver’s side. Therefore, it isn’t uncommon for violators to expect us to approach on the driver’s side. For those of you who currently approach on the passenger side, how many times have you been able to observe the driver and go unnoticed or undetected? Remember the first time you snuck up on a vehicle at night and tapped on the passenger-side window? Did the driver jump so high out of their seat that their head hit the roof of their car? How hard were you laughing inside? The first time I observed this, I knew I had the tactical advantage.

The final reason I use passenger-side approaches is because an instructor in the academy told me that 82–85% of people are right handed. If that fact is accurate, it’s difficult for an occupant of a vehicle to successfully shoot me while standing at the passenger side door.  If you notice my word choice, I didn’t say they couldn’t fire a round but rather successfully shoot me. If I’m using solid tactics and watching the occupants of the vehicle while making my approach, not giving my position away at night as I approach and scanning for threats, I should be able to detect movements from the occupants that would threaten me. How many times have you been making your approach and saw something and thought to yourself that’s not right? What was your next move? Did you continue your approach or order the occupants out of the vehicle?

Regardless of what you did, your detection of movement was key.

The Traffic Stop—KITC
Once you are at the vehicle (driver or passenger side), you are within the 5-6 foot zone discussed earlier. This proximity makes it is easy for anyone—regardless of shooting experience—to fire a shot and place you in danger. Remember: One of the first things you were taught in the academy-was hands kill! Before you introduce yourself, before you tell the violator why you stopped them, before you ask for proof of insurance, make sure you can see their hands. After assessing their hands, follow department protocol and proceed with the stop. At some point during the stop, you may require the subject to exit the car for arrest and/or search.

What I teach in my classes is a technique I’ve termed KTIC (Keep Them In the Car). KTIC is a simple procedure that, once practiced, can be used on any traffic stop efficiently and effectively. There are some basic rules that must be followed:

  1. Don’t attempt to do this technique when there are multiple subjects in the vehicle.
  2. It’s imperative that you have the vehicle keys in possession before attempting this maneuver.
  3. Practice! Practice! Practice!

The first step is to ensure that the vehicle is turned off. Once the car is off, have the operator hand you the car keys. Receiving the keys with your non-gun hand, place the keys on the roof of the vehicle or in your pocket. Once the vehicle is off, have the occupant remove their seat belt.

There are several variations to the next step of KTIC. Some officers have told me they prefer to keep the occupants hands in view, while others like their hands on the back of their head. Remember: This is all being done while they’re seated inside the vehicle. Therefore, you may have to adjust this portion of the KTIC to fit your situation. Regardless of what technique is used, in this phase we’re simply applying the handcuffs to each hand while they’re seated inside the car. You’ll find that it may be better to have the occupants place their hands on their head and lean forward while you apply the handcuffs. After you have applied the handcuffs, simply remove the occupant from the car.

After you practice this technique and begin to use it in the field, you’ll immediately notice several advantages. First, you’ll not have to worry about the subject exiting the vehicle to apply handcuffs. This is excellent for officers who are at a physical disadvantage. By leaving the subject in the car, it’s virtually impossible for the subject to run or fight while you’re applying handcuffs.

Second, the offender is extremely off-balanced and uncomfortable. Remember: We want the offender to be in a position of disadvantage. The confinement of the vehicle makes it difficult for an offender to retrieve a weapon or attack you because they’re in a seated position. In the event that the offender begins to become uncooperative, you simply disengage and take appropriate action.

As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of videos available online where an officer has been struggling with an offender and been pushed into traffic or forced to flee into traffic to take cover. By keeping the subject inside the car, the likelihood of them retrieving a weapon is diminished.

As with any new technique or tactic, this does take practice. I strongly suggest practicing this technique with fellow officers to see what works best for you. I’m confident that once you become proficient, you’ll notice this tactic is advantageous for the officer while simultaneously placing the offender at a severe disadvantage.


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Sgt. Scott Hughes

Sgt. Scott Hughes has been in law enforcement for 17 years and with the Springfield Township (Hamilton County, Ohio) Police Department since 1999.  He currently supervises the department’s IMPACT unit, coordinates the agency’s Field Training Officer program, serves as the Post Coordinator for Explorer Post 2090 and is the State President of the Ohio Law Enforcement Explorer Advisor’s Association.


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