Several times a day our officers initiate traffic stops on motorists. Most frequently, these encounters are in connection with minor traffic violations, so it is understandable that motorists often think such stops are routine for the officers. The fact is, however, that any traffic stop can be hazardous-or even deadly- to an officer. Despite improvements in technology, officers still have no way of knowing who is in the car they've just stopped. Often times the person being pulled over for a simple traffic violation has committed an offense the officer knows nothing about, or the person is wanted, has just left the scene of a crime, or has something to hide from the police. The officer approaching the car does not know the answers to any of these questions until he or she can make inquiries.
A person being pulled over by the police should first understand that the officer is participating in what he or she regards as potentially a life-threatening action. In the annual listings of circumstances leading to the death of on-duty police officers in this country, traffic stops are always in the lead. We train officers to be especially careful and cautious during car stops.
Motorists who have been stopped often comment on how the officer appeared threatening to them. Officers approach slowly and deliberately and look closely in the interior of the car, including the back seat. When someone opens the glove box to retrieve a vehicle registration, the officer cranes his neck to the point where he almost has his head inside the car window. To the motorists, this may seem intrusive or disrespectful, but to the officer it is paramount that he can see everyone’s hands and be alert to any threat.
All of these actions are intentional; officers train intensively to do these things the same way, every single time, to approach a car cautiously and deliberately, and to look for ‘furtive movement’ by the vehicle occupants. The driver could be trying to hide something under the front seat (beer?, drugs?, gun?). Observing the passenger compartment and carefully watching the removal of something from the glove box or console is done for the purpose of personal safety and for detecting the presence of possible contraband.
So what does the honest citizen do to minimize the officer's concerns? First, please try to understand why the officer is taking these precautions. There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop. Officers are taught that any traffic stop could very well be the last traffic stop. When you sense this caution or tension in the officer, please understand that he or she does not usually know who or what to expect. Once the officer learns your identity, confirms the vehicle registration, and sees no evidence of criminal behavior on your part, you will probably see the officer noticeably relax his or her approach.
You should also avoid getting out of the car immediately after being stopped and approaching the officer while he or she is still in the vehicle. Officers are cautioned about being ‘trapped’ in their own vehicle. This behavior also raises suspicion in the officer's mind that there is something, or somebody, in the car that the you don’t want the officer to see. Remain in the car and let the officer approach you; keep your hands plainly visible; and avoid those ‘furtive movements.’
When a police officer makes initial contact, permit him or her to speak and act first. The officer will ask for your driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance. These are lawful requirements of you, but more importantly, it helps the officer determine that you are not a car thief and you are not driving with a suspended license.
Once these essential preliminaries are taken care of, it is appropriate for you and the officer to discuss why you were stopped. It may be a traffic violation or it may be that your car matches the description of one the police are looking for regarding an incident that has occurred. If this is the case, please understand that we are often dealing with only partial descriptions, that those who commit crimes do switch tags on cars, and criminals actually lie to police officers.
The suspected traffic violator will sometimes disagree with the officer's observation. Police officers are similar to baseball umpires in that they will listen to the other side of a dispute. Convincing arguments are usually characterized by facts and logic, not emotion, threat, or volume. In fact, threats and aggressive emotions can present a host of other issues that must be addressed.
Traffic citations are not pronouncements of guilt. Police officers, being human, make errors and so do citizens. Courts of law have been created to impartially hear complaints of disputed tickets, that court is the proper place to argue your case, not the scene of the incident. Police officers readily accept the fact that their judgments are subject to question and review by competent authority. However, when they are on the side of the road, their first focus will always be for officer safety.
Thank you for helping us do our job. If you ever feel you have been the subject of unlawful profiling or harassment, please contact any police supervisor to register a complaint.