Force Science Research Study: The Influence of Officer Positioning on Movement During a Threatening Traffic Stop Scenario

"Officers spend a lot of their time in (and around) vehicles, so getting into gunfights near cars is pretty common.” ~Doug Wyllie

With that in mind, I want to call your attention to an excellent new study from Force Science Institute entitled “The Influence of Officer Positioning on Movement During a Threatening Traffic Stop Scenario.”

The study primarily sought to examine the influence of officer position relative to the B-Pillar of a vehicle on tactical responses to a lethal threat in a traffic stop scenario, with the secondary purpose of observing the responses, reactions, and movements made by the officers... To say the least, the findings are fascinating...

Starts with the Hands

Upon reading the new FSI report, I connected via phone with Dr. Bill Lewinski, a behavioral scientist specializing in law enforcement-related issues — Bill Lewinski is also the driving force behind all Force Science Institute research.

“Control of the subject’s hands was the most-critical element that we could find for officer safety,” Lewinski told me early in our discussion.

“Controlling of the hands is really critical, and you don’t have to be rude about it. Many of our officers who were able to gain control of our assailant’s hands did so by very positive, assertive persuasion.”

Lewinski offered examples like: ‘Sir, for my safety and yours, please place your hands on the steering wheel. Thank you very much.’ and ‘Sir, I’d like to see your hands please, thank you very much.’

“These simple commands are persuasive in gaining cooperation without ordering people: ‘Hands on the steering wheel!’,” Lewinski said.

Speaking of hands, Lewinski addressed one concern about where the subject’s hands should be placed — the steering wheel and dashboard are good, the ceiling is not.

“There were some [criminal gang members] here in the Minnesota area that actually had guns placed in the sunroofs. So when officers told them to put their hands on the ceiling, the officers were actually directing them to where they kept their guns,” Lewinski said.

Positioning and Movement

“No matter how an officer positions [himself or herself], their position alone does not guarantee safety from an assault within the vehicle,” Lewinski said right up front.

That being said, there were some observable differences in officers safely moving to what FSI calls the mitigation zone (see the image to the left) at the rear of the vehicle. Those differences stemmed from both officer’s initial positioning (driver’s side versus passenger side) as well as the path taken by the officers toward that mitigation zone.

First off, it appears that the closer the officers moved in relation to the vehicle — moving parallel to the vehicle, instead of arcing out — seemed to let them get to that mitigation zone more quickly.

“Most of the officers arced out in reaction — many officers went parallel to the vehicle, and reached the mitigation zone faster,” Lewinski told me.

“If the officers had this in mind as they approached the vehicle, and then the assault started, they appeared to be able to engage in that movement as part of their reflexive withdrawal,” Lewinski said.

Furthermore, analysis revealed that the point at which the participants drew their weapon had an influence on the amount of time it took to reach the mitigation zone. Officers who first disengaged and then drew their weapons seemed to be more successful in the scenarios than those who had tried to draw and then move or who drew and moved simultaneously.

Lewinski added that a passenger-side approach — depending upon the circumstances — potentially has the highest probability of being the safest approach for protection against assaults from within the vehicle.

One reason the passenger-side approach could be the safest is the finding that from the driver’s position (in an assault to an officer on the passenger’s side) “the driver cannot continue to track the officer without bumping into the headrest and other obstacles inside the vehicle.”

While we know the passenger-side approach can also potentially provide some protection against environmental factors (such as being struck by an approaching vehicle in the roadway) the passenger side has its own set of potential dangers.

Notably, Lewinski cautions that threats may exist from both the front passenger seat and the back seat of the vehicle while utilizing that passenger-side approach.

Continue reading more on this study at PoliceOne

The complete Force Science study here: