Vehicle Stops Strategies and Tactics: Being Safe and Effective Is About Options, Not Best Practices

“Direct experience is inherently too limited to form an adequate foundation either for theory or for application.  At the best it produces an atmosphere that is of value in drying and hardening of thought. The greater value of indirect experience lies in its greater variety and extent. History is universal experience, the experience not of another, but of many others under manifold conditions.” ~B. H. Liddell Hart

While conducting a motor vehicle stop and sitting in his patrol car, a patrol officer was struck from behind and the operator fled the scene. Despite his injuries, the officer gave chase and was able to stop the vehicle a short time later. The operator of the vehicle was arrested and charged with multiple crimes including OUI Liquor, Leaving the scene of an accident, failure to stop for the police and negligent operation. The officer was injured, treated and released from the hospital for minor injuries. This officer, a veteran, Field Training Officer the day after this accident, had some critical question on his mind. Why do we approach cars on the operator’s side? Why don’t we always use the passenger side approach? Shouldn’t we be teaching passenger side approaches from the get go at the academy? Should the passenger-side approach be the way we handle vehicle stops for unknown risk stops?

This officer went on to explain to me, this night he had initiated and stopped the violator. He used tactical lighting, his takedown and spotlight so he could see what was going on in the car. The officer told me the car stop itself was fine and that he was able to approach safely and obtain license information while safely and effectively interacting with the violator. My problem, he said, happened while I walked back to the patrol car. I noticed I was blinded by my own spot light and takedown lights and could not see the approaching vehicles. I still did not give it a whole lot of thought even as I entered my patrol car to write the violator a traffic warning for the violation. I had just closed my door when I felt the impact and got tossed around the car, he said. He went on to pursue and arrest the subject as described above and it was after things settled down when he said the critical question hit him. Why do we use the operator’s side approach when it seems as though, the passenger side approach is safer, more effective? He said it was a fraction of a second, which made the difference of suffering relatively minor injuries that will have him out of work for a short time and what could have been potentially life threatening injuries, had he been struck outside the patrol car. He told me he kept thinking, I have kids and a wife at home, so why do I keep repeating the same type of approach (operators side) when I have observed the same blindness and the same disadvantages before? LT, he asked, is it laziness, complacency or should we be training officers in better ways to approach? How can we make a difference and make police officers more effective and safe?

The long standing debate…what’s the best way to approach a vehicle?

“Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend, march swiftly to places where you are not expected.” ~Sun Tzu

A vehicle stop is defined as any situation where an officer or officers are deployed from a patrol vehicle (i.e., marked cruiser, unmarked cruiser, motorcycle, bicycle, etc.) to interact with a vehicle or pedestrian in the performance of their duties. Whether a person is stopped in a vehicle on a roadway, sitting in a vehicle in a parking space, or a pedestrian is walking on the side of the road, we must consider tactical options that work and make sense based on the unfolding circumstances. (Kolman (Ret.), 2006) A vehicle stop begins when an officer observes a violation or obtains information that develops into a legal reason, probable cause or reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle or pedestrian. Vehicle stops are dangerous and account for 20 percent of officer fatalities annually.

There has been a long standing debate when comes to vehicle stop strategy and tactics. Should we use walk-back patterns or walk-up patterns? Is it more effective to use an operator’s side, or passenger side approach? Is there really a BEST WAY to conduct a vehicle stops or is really about OPTIONS?  In an effort to generate some tactical thinking in regards to vehicle stops will be the focus of my efforts in this post.

A walk-back pattern is when the occupant(s) of the vehicle walk-back to the officer. The idea behind the walk-back pattern is to keep the officer from approaching a violator they know nothing about.

A walk-up pattern is where the officer approaches the vehicle with the occupant(s) inside. The idea behind the walk-up pattern is to keep the occupant in a disadvantageous position (sitting with hands on the steering wheel) as the officer approaches from the operator or passenger side, a violator they know nothing about.

If we choose to walk up on a car as in the case discussed above is an operators or passengers side approach the better option?

Force Science Institute did a study The Influence of Officer Positioning on Movement During a Threatening Traffic Stop Scenario that emphasizes the position an officer takes when approaching and standing next to the violator vehicle. The FSI study recognizes that most police academies and agencies recommend operators side approach and the B-pillar position, with minor adaptations on how the officer stands at the B-pillar. There are some valuable reasons for this position (next to the pillar behind the front door). Here are just a few:

  • Allows officer to see lunging area of vehicle interior upon approach
  • May allow officer to see driver’s hands in side mirror
  • Requires the driver to awkwardly look over their shoulder to see the officer
  • Otherwise requires the driver to reposition themselves to view officer
  • Provides a visual obstruction (pillar) to the officer
  • Allows officer to control driver opening the door
  • Provides some (minimal) cover if shots come out of the vehicle.

The passenger side approach has been taught to officers for decades, but it is still the least used method when officers interact with drivers on a stop. My experience tells me the main reason for this are due to officer complacency. The complacency comes from the fact the majority of our stops involve mostly law-abiding citizens who have violated a traffic law. In those situations it is easier and more efficient to simply make contact on the driver’s side. Training and procedures that drive officers into believing it’s the only way too or, the only way they are wanted to conduct vehicle stops, are also a big part of the complacent approach to vehicle stops on operator side approaches.

However, when officers conduct stops on busy roadways or highways, or when they expect trouble from the vehicle occupants, the use of the passenger side approach has proven to be highly effective at reducing risk to officers. We must remember threats to officers are not only from the vehicle’s occupants, but can come in the form of a moving vehicle as well.

In regards to the passenger-side approach to vehicles where the occupants may be a threat, there are many examples of how the officer survived a deadly attack, or was able to identify a deadly threat prior to the occupants realizing the officer’s presence. The choice we make as to how we conduct a vehicle stop comes down to assessing risk.

Adaptation an effective change to an altered situation: because no two stops are the same

“He will conquer who has learnt the artifice of deviation. Such is the art of maneuvering.” ~Sun Tzu 

The first thing we as police officers must remember is that when we conduct vehicle stops we must be concerned with balancing the law abiding people we serve with the possibility of bad people who may be prepared to unleash a felonious assault, a real concern, mainly because an officer has no clue who he is stopping, when on the other hand, the person being stopped has a clear indication he is being stopped by a police officer.  An officer making stopping a vehicle initial assessment of a low risk stop may prove to be incorrect. When the officers observation and orientation, tell the officer his initial assessment has been upgraded to a high risk stop based on new information, the officer must be prepared to adapt his tactics.

When making vehicle stops the strategy and tactics we use are to provide protection for all from injury or death, feloniously or accidentally. This means it’s not whether or not we use walk-up patterns, walk-back patterns, operators, or passenger side approaches or even felony stop tactics. It’s not about which technique is safer or better. I feel you could argue the strengths and weaknesses of all these tactics. What does matter is why we chose the tactic we chose, and does it fit the context of the stop we are now about to conduct.

We should know all these strategies and tactics for vehicle stops but the critical question is why do we chose the vehicle stop tactic we do and as we are taking our chosen course of action, is it effective?  Tactics are an art and science. The science is the technique. The art is in our ability to size up the situation and assess risk (low, unknown, high) and adapt the best option.  This takes practice and a willingness to critique, leverage the lessons learned and adapt what we learned to our day to day interactions.

Adaptation can be tough for police who are all too often procedurally driven as to what tactic they chose. This procedural driven response can be dangerous especially when handling adaptive challenges and unknown risks that are often a real factor when stopping vehicles.   A big consideration for every police officer to make while conducting vehicle stops is the vehicle stop tactic we chose based in reality (what’s happening now) or are we trying to force procedure that is unrealistic for the current situation. After all reality is an elusive thing. It exists, if at all, only for a moment, and that moment itself may be entirely untypical.  There is novelty (differences) in every stop an officer makes. Situation and context matters!   Hence there is the need to adapt tactics in context with the stop. There is also a question of trying to detect, predict, interfere with and obstruct those decision and actions of a possible opponent. Sound tactics consist of the strategic game of interaction between the officers, the operator who may be an opponent, and the environment (roads, traffic terrain etc.).  It also consists of the officer’s ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Every vehicle stop has factors we should consider, assessing the stop, determining where to make the stop and then tactical positioning of the patrol car. How are we going to shape and reshape the stop (note: I did not say CONTROL the stop)?  Are you taking your time and initiating a stop or are you caught up and in a hurry and feel you must make the stop immediately? This is where our interaction with the environment and the people involved come into play. What we observe should tell us something. This is known as orientation (what is happening now?) What we believe is happening is crucial to the decisions we make and course of actions we take.   Is what we are seeing us telling us, that we should approach the car or is it a situation that dictates we want the subject to walk back to us? If we decide to approach, will we make an operators side or passenger side approach? What dictates which method to use, you might ask? I will say it depends on you, your training and experience, the actual circumstances unfolding in real time and your ability to apply your knowledge in context. After all it’s important to never lose sight of whoever can make and implement his decisions consistently in context with an ongoing and evolving situation gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage.

There is more to discuss here so please sound off with your questions and thoughts.

Stay oriented!

Fred