High-risk traffic stops can get the officers’ blood pumping and their adrenaline flowing. Therefore, the proper approach to a high-risk stop can ensure the safety of the officers involved. Properly performing these stops can also enhance the safety of the occupants of the subject vehicle.
First, I want to ensure we are all on the same page. The term “high-risk traffic stop” is often called a “felony traffic stop.” Some may ask, why the change in terminology? The answer is simple. The techniques used for high-risk stops should not be limited to a “known” felony situation.
Sadly, agencies do not often review the techniques used to address these life-threatening encounters. Some organizations believe these techniques are a natural part of their personnel’s DNA. This belief may be true for those professionals who work in high-crime areas. They may find themselves performing high-risk traffic stops regularly. However, dash and body-cam videos show this is not the case for everyone.
It doesn’t matter how often officers conduct this type of traffic stop. They should always take the same precautions. If we were to break the high-risk stop down into parts, it would contain the following four phases:
Initiation – Deciding when and where the traffic stop will take place.
Positioning – Establishing cover and concealment through the placement of vehicles in relation to the subject vehicle.
Occupant Extraction – Removing the occupants of the vehicle in a safe way for everyone involved.
Vehicle Clearance – Visually and physically “clearing” the vehicle to ensure officers have removed all occupants.
Phase One – INITIATION
Initiation is one element that requires forethought and planning. Initiation may sometimes be the most challenging part of the high-risk traffic stop. The officer must consider the reason for the stop, their environment, the subject vehicle itself, the number of occupants in that vehicle, and the location of their backup units.
It is essential to plan ahead as much as possible. Some goals should include keeping the stop as far away from civilian traffic as possible, limiting exposure beyond the subject vehicle (unintended background targets), and waiting for at least one additional backup unit to be present before initiating the stop. The officer must remember, “They control the stop!” The officer must time the stop’s initiation in a way that will empower them to maintain a tactical advantage.
The officer should also remember the importance of radio communications. They should ensure dispatch is aware of the stop location, vehicle license plate number, vehicle description, and the number of visible occupants. The officer should follow the established radio protocols for their jurisdiction.
Phase Two – POSITIONING
Positioning is a crucial element for officer survival, during the high-risk traffic stop. Officers must ensure they position their vehicles to provide the greatest amount of cover possible. A minimum distance of fifteen to twenty feet between the police car and the subject vehicle should be sufficient. The initiating officer should offset their vehicle to the left of the subject vehicle. The first backup officer should offset their car to the right of the subject vehicle. Whenever possible, the angle of the vehicles should place the engine block between the officers and the subjects.
The initiating officer may also control the placement of additional responding units. The first arriving backup officer is considered the takedown officer. They should place themselves between the initiating officer’s vehicle and their patrol car. The takedown officer should open the passenger side door of the initiating unit and the driver’s door of their car. These doors help form a corridor between the patrol cars and provide concealment and some level of cover for the officer.
If available, the third arriving officer should place their vehicle a short distance behind the first two. The officer should offset their car to provide protection from oncoming traffic. Once the vehicle is in position, this officer should take a position behind the passenger side door of the first backup unit. This positioning provides three clear lines of fire toward the subject vehicle, if necessary.
During the positioning phase, the officers should use the lights on their vehicles to create a wall of light. This will reduce the ability of the occupants of the subject vehicle to see and target the officers.
Phase Three – OCCUPANT EXTRACTION
Occupant extraction is where all officers involved must have a clear understanding of their responsibilities.
The initiating officer is usually considered the “contact officer.” They are responsible for providing clear and concise verbal commands to the occupants of the subject vehicle. The contact officer verbally directs occupants to show their hands, what to do with the car keys, and when and how to exit the subject vehicle. The officer should provide their directions via their P.A. system.
The contact officer addresses the occupants one at a time. They accomplish this by identifying each occupant to the best of their ability. For example, “Driver,” “Front Seat Passenger,” etc. The contact officer will have the identified occupant exit the vehicle, raise their hands high above their head, and slowly turn in a circle. Doing so will enable the officers to conduct a visual search of the individual. The officer may also direct the occupant to lift their shirt or jacket to provide a better view of their person.
Once the contact officer completes their visual search, they will tell the individual to stop turning. The officer should give this order when the individual is facing away from them. The contact officer will then issue verbal commands for the individual to slowly walk backward toward the sound of the officer’s voice. They will then tell the individual what steps they should take to guide them back to the location of the takedown officer.
Once the individual reaches the takedown officer, the takedown officer will tell the individual what to do next. It is vital for the takedown officer to maintain a position that keeps the individual between them (the officer) and the subject vehicle. The takedown officer will conduct a physical search, apply restraints, and place the individual into a patrol car.
The takedown officer should ask the individual if any other subjects are still in the vehicle. The officer should make this inquiry even when the car appears clear. It is important to remember that placing a subject in restraints for the safety of all concerned does not always constitute an arrest.
The additional officers on the scene should visually monitor the subject vehicle throughout this process. Additionally, the officers involved will have their firearms drawn and provide lethal cover of the individuals and the subject vehicle.
Phase Four – VEHICLE CLEARANCE
Vehicle clearance is possibly the most dangerous phase after occupant extraction. One of the first rules to live by is never approach the subject vehicle alone. A minimum of two officers should move to the car and clear it. Officers must know each other’s positions to avoid creating a crossfire as they approach the vehicle.
The officers will clear the vehicle section by section, beginning with the trunk. The officer should verify the trunk is latched securely. They will then clear the vehicle’s interior from the rear to the front. Announcements should be made as they clear each section. For example, “REAR SEAT CLEAR!” Verbal communication between the officers is of the utmost importance.
Once the vehicle’s interior is clear, the officers will access the trunk and verify no one is inside. Once again, officers must avoid creating a crossfire and be in position and prepared to engage a deadly force threat, should it emerge from the trunk. Once officers have cleared the entire vehicle, they should make the appropriate announcements.
If possible, leave one officer with the secured subject or subjects to prevent release by another party while officers are clearing the subject vehicle.
Another concern is the different types of vehicles officers may stop. A van, for instance, poses a visibility issue. I recommend instructing the first occupant removed from the van to open the rear doors fully. Opening the doors should enable officers to see the interior and identify the presence of other individuals.
If available and warranted, officers should also consider using a canine during a high-risk traffic stop. If it is a known felony or other situation that will permit the application of a police work dog, the canine use will help ensure the safety of the officers. It is better to let the dog clear the vehicle than an officer.
I recognize there are other things officers can and perhaps should do during high-risk traffic stops. Every situation and environment presents challenges and opportunities. One crucial thing to remember is the officers should take their time. There is no need to rush. The officers have their entire shift to complete the stop. If they take their time and think about what comes next, they have a greater chance of completing their job safely.