Have You Stopped a Car Today? Improving Patrols Tactical Effectiveness with Vehicle Stops

Conducting traffic stops is a patrol duty of police officers. Not only does it help us keep the roads and the people traveling them, safe, it also proactively help us cops identify crimes and those committing them. The combination of traffic safety, crime prevention, investigating crimes and apprehension of criminals come from an initiative driven proactive approach. Car stops are one of the tactical approaches we use for solving a host of police problems. Quite frankly car stops are a big part of our jobs as cops.

The most frequent and visible interactions between police officers and the public take place in motor vehicles, most commonly at roadside traffic stops. The odds of recognizing criminal activity and the, would be criminals rises when we encounter them as they move from place to place. Criminals travel and their means of transportation is a vehicle on the roadways, highways and byways, city and town streets. To be a good street cop you must stop cars. If you’re not stopping cars you’re missing opportunities to stop crime and catch those committing them.

As the United States continues to rely on automobile transportation, traffic patterns and enforcement remain very important. Throughout the country, suburbs continue to thrive outside central cities, resulting in traffic congestion and flow problems. The problems faced by police include major traffic tie-ups from even the most minor accidents, aggressive driving on roadways, and assaults with vehicles and weapons between drivers engaged in aggressive traffic behaviors, often referred to as road rage. In many states, there has been an increase in new traffic safety laws, such as mandatory seatbelts and child restraint use, and an aggressive stance toward driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Traffic enforcement can often yield other benefits, such as the solving of major cases.

Against this background, the role of the police in this function is varied, involving the following:

  1. Elimination of accident causes and congestion
  2. Identification of potential traffic problems and hazards
  3. Regulation of parking on the street and at municipal facilities
  4. Investigation of property damage and personal injury automobile accidents
  5. Direction of public awareness toward the proper use of motor vehicles and bicycles
  6. Arrests of offenders

The first five of these roles we play when it comes to traffic enforcement officers know and understand and they are the 5 that often have cops uttering the response “I do not want to be a traffic cop; I want to help people, save lives, stop crime, stop drug trafficking and drug dealing, and arrest bad guys!”

Arresting bad guys (offenders) is number 6 on this list of roles law enforcement plays in traffic matters and therein lays the paradox of street cop versus traffic cop; a good street cops understands he needs to be a traffic cop and to arrest bad guys he must …encounter and stop cars.

So why do car stops get a bad rap and why do cops shout; “I am here to be a street cop not a traffic cop! I want to catch bad guys, not traffic violators!” The traffic cop in policing is often thought of as a traffic enforcement only position, write citations and summonses and move on to the next motorist, with no real regard for other possible illicit activity manifesting itself. Yet in this world of traffic enforcement we street cops know as soon as traffic movement begins, so does the fog of the illicit activity. The only way to cut through the fog is to encounter and interact with those involved. The car stop is a means to that end.

The realities in most police departments are that the street cop must also be a traffic cop due to the multiple hats worn and responsibilities we have in the performance of our duties. So why not leverage the advantages both have to offer and focus on more than the trivial. Why not approach patrol especially traffic enforcement, as more than just riding around between hot calls and occasionally hanging tickets on naughty motorists. The traffic safety side is an important aspect of our jobs but watching traffic and conducting vehicle stops is a unique opportunity to search for and unmask law-breaking offenders and pull of arrests that “make a difference.” So let’s balance the tickets (warnings) we write to educate the motoring public on the dangers of traffic violations with the real opportunity traffic stops present to snuff out crime and catch offenders. To do this you first have to take an interest in stopping cars and then when it’s warranted (YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THE RULES AND CRIMINAL PROCEDURE) dig beyond the motor vehicle violation and explore the potential that something illicit may be going on.

The good street cop digs beyond the mere violation. They understand that every vehicle has the potential for discovering serious criminal conduct, especially drug offenses.

A patrol affects an mv stop for a cross walk violation. All sorts of indicators are detected and, the officer locates and accesses an after factory installed, hidden compartment with the largest drug seizure in his community's history!

A police officer on "routine patrol” affects an mv stop. After conversation with the sole occupant, the good officer detects numerous criminal indicators. A K9 scan of the vehicle results in alert to narcotic odor emanating from the vehicle. Training and experience resulted in the location and access of a hidden compartment installed in the airbag with over 100 grams of cocaine packaged and ready for distribution in its community!

A police officer affects an mv stop. Again, training and experience results in a K9 scan and the location of an after factory hidden compartment secreted within the minivan. ½ kilo of heroin seized!

A SGT stops a vehicle Rte. 90 west bound and detects all sorts of criminal indicators and requests back up. It was learned this vehicle had been stopped and searched in the past. Training and experience of this veteran officer result in a trap being located and the seizure of $55,000 in U.S. currency.

Recall that a traffic stop for a minor violation resulted in the arrest of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

In small town USA we cops do not have as much obvious high crime, drug dealing neighborhoods as seen so often in the inner-city. The Hollywood depicted drug dealer on the street corner waiting for their next customer just is not seen often in the suburbs. Yet serious drug dealing and use, overdoses and crimes associated with it are continually increasing. We have single family homes and apartment complexes, schools, business districts all of which have a high propensity for drug activity and the snowball effect of other crimes and quality of life problems that drugs produce. To name a few; trespassing, loitering, unwanted foot, car and bicycle traffic, auto theft, abandoned vehicles, parking problems, graffiti, public drinking, vehicle break-ins, residential break-ins, robberies, possession of stolen property, assaults and other violent crime.

Cops, who are out there making stops, dig beyond the trivial, regard themselves as frontline investigators and problem solvers. They are totally committed peace officers focused on all aspects of the job while keeping in mind the weight of their responsibilities in preserving the rights of citizens while working uniformed patrol and becoming top investigators on their departments, making high quality cases.

Bonus Benefits: there are other benefits you will acquire as you practice stopping cars. The attributes of personal interaction and dialog with people will improve your tactical communication skills while engaging others in revealing conversation. You will hone your observation skills, reading non-verbal expressions and gestures, becoming much more effective at evaluating vehicles, drivers and passengers for the subtle signs and signals of crime and danger. This ability to make keen observations will help you detect lies and other methods of deception helping you expand the investigation and develop suspicion, reasonable suspicion, and probable cause that lead to a search, via consent, warrant or exception. All based on a legal contact via the car stop. All these attributes are the making of a sound street cop and will help you in all aspects of the job while you become effective at avoiding mistakes as you tactically shape and reshape the stop and the people involved.

In my 26 years as a cop (and still going) if I heard it once I heard it at least hundreds of times; “I do not want to be a traffic cop! I did not get on this job to harass the motoring public! I want to bust dopers and other criminals who are a menace to society. I want to be a great street cop not a traffic cop.” I was always amused when I heard this because if I am truthful I must admit that dozens of the hundreds of times I have heard those words or, words similar, I had uttered them myself. However as I aged and gained some wisdom and experience I understood that most of the people traveling to and from are just like you and I, law abiding citizens, trying to make a living while enjoying life as much as possible. With these folks you can make a friend or at a minimum a supporter of police, while making them aware of the hazards of driving. I also realized that the bad guys I was so eager to find out there, most often drove a vehicle of some kind to stake out, strategize, plan, get to their targeted location and get out, transport their illicit goods, make their escape, after they committed whatever crime it was they were motivated to commit. These folks were my adversary and if I focused my efforts and stayed committed I just might disrupt, prevent or catch them in the act of doing something criminal.

Have you stopped a car today?