Approaching vehicles during what are commonly referred to and misrepresented as routine” traffic stops has always been an extremely dangerous task that officers in the United States and around the world face everyday in law enforcement. Without direct, prior knowledge of any criminal activities that the occupant or occupants have been involved in, little is ever really known about the occupants, their mindsets or intentions when officers make the short but possibly deadly walk up to the vehicle.
Law enforcement trainers have taught different approaches on vehicle stops for years, but not all law enforcement officers can agree on the safest ways to approach a vehicle. Some officers approach vehicles on the driver’s side and position themselves at the driver’s windows. Some stay behind the B pillar on the driver’s side, while others believe that standing in front of the A pillar and looking into the vehicle partially through the windshield in a more face-to-face manner with the occupants provides them with a better view into the vehicle and of the driver’s hands. Many officers will utilize a passenger side approach on at least a few occasions during their careers when they feel that something may be unusual about the situation or they have a specific officer safety concern. Advocates for each of these techniques can attempt to argue that their preferred approaches are safer or more tactically sound than others, but few officers would agree that simply standing at the driver’s side window and leaning into the vehicle is a safe tactical approach to traffic stops.
With that in mind, the question of why officers find themselves in bad positions on traffic stops begs to be answered. The answer is usually very simple–laziness. Officers can easily find themselves being lackadaisical about their vehicle contacts because they get complacent after having conducted hundreds or thousands of stops without encountering immediate danger on first contact. Even officers who have encountered a deadly threat upon first contact may slack on their officer safety and find themselves quickly becoming complacent about their initial vehicle approaches. Some officers believe that the best approach is to have the driver of the vehicle exit the vehicle and walk back to the officer’s patrol car. While this may alleviate some of the dangers faced during the initial contact, it opens the door for entirely new dangers including face-to-face gunfights where the offender has the ability to quickly and freely move on their feet, rush the officers or to jump back into a vehicle.
In order to minimize some of the risks involved with traffic stops, some common officer safety techniques have been agreed upon by most of the law enforcement community and include how to position your patrol vehicles. The most common technique of off-setting your vehicle to the left and canting the front to an angle gives you some limited protection if an occupant of the vehicle engages you with gunfire from a distance. It also helps to create a small buffer zone designed to keep you safer from vehicles and careless drivers who are driving by your stop once you are in front of your car and interacting with the occupants of the vehicle that you stopped.
In addition to how we stop and approach vehicles, officers are allowed, and should be encouraged, to transition from “routine” traffic stops to a high risk stops if they observe dangerous furtive movements on behalf of the occupants at any time. Unfortunately, most officers commonly miss what could arguably be the easiest danger sign that they should not approach the vehicle in the first place. Not because they are being lazy or were trained wrong but because they were never trained to recognize, understand and address the danger sign in the first place.
This is what I call the third brake light theory. Law enforcement agencies throughout the United States have been using dash board cameras for years, and footage from those cameras has captured a large number of officer-involved shootings during traffic stops. Upon closer examination many of these videos have shed light on a common trend on behalf of the suspects– the brake lights are almost always on when the officers approach the vehicles and the offenders shoot or attempt to shoot the officers upon the initial contact. In order to help understand what this means and how to interpret the information, it is important to have a basic understanding of the O.O.D.A. loop and how it works. The O.O.D.A. loop was coined by Col John Boyd of the United States Air Force when he was researching aerial combat tactics, techniques and human behavior. It stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. The O.O.D.A. loop not only explains how we gather, process, decipher and act on information provided to us, it can also help us to get a glimpse of what other people are thinking or planning. Once you understand how the O.O.D.A. loop works and you pick up on an officer safety or survival danger sign, you can often use your adversary’s O.O.D.A. loop against them by disrupting their mental and physical processes before they can take physical action against you.
When most people are contacted on traffic stops by law enforcement officers, they put the vehicle in park because they know they will be interacting with the officers and that they are not simply allowed leave. Most drivers also understand that they will have to provide the officers with their driver’s licenses and paperwork, which will usually have the drivers somewhat distracted and in need of their free hands to comply.
When someone is stopped and they do not have any intent on staying around long enough to gather documents and interact with the officers, there is no need for them to put the vehicle in park. If the driver is intending on shooting the officer on first contact then immediately fleeing in the vehicle, it is not only a waste of time to put the vehicle in park, it is tactically unsound for them to do so. What they do not likely understand or think about is the fact that their brake lights will be activated, thereby warning the officers of the possible impending deadly assault.
This of course does not mean that every person who is stopped and leaves their vehicle in drive is intent on shooting and killing law enforcement officers. Many good, average citizens simply get nervous when stopped on traffic stops, or they may be in such a hurry to get somewhere that they don’t wish to stay around but are not an immediate threat.
Vehicle manufacturing rules in the United States have made this danger sign easier for law enforcement officers to spot with the advent of the third brake light. This light, centered on the back of the vehicle, does not activate with the driving lights as the other brake lights do so it provides for a clear, easy-to-see warning sign that should prompt officers to take a pause, verbally and calmly address the driver and analyze the situation.
A simple way to check for compliance, calmly challenge the occupants, and disrupt an adversary’s O.O.D.A. loop is for the officer to simply tell the driver to put the vehicle in park and turn the engine off. This should be done before physically approaching the vehicle. The majority of people will put the vehicle in park and comply because they did not have any ill intent in the first place.
Numerous video examples of officers coming under fire during the initial contact with vehicle occupants are available on-line and include the video of ex-con and 211 crew gang member Evan “Evil” Ebel shooting Montague Deputy James Boyd during a traffic stop in Texas. Ebel was suspected of shooting and killing Nathan Leon in order to steal his pizza delivery uniform, only to wear it during the deadly ambush of Tom Clements, the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, at his residence. During the traffic stop in Texas, Deputy Boyd approached Ebel’s Cadillac sedan and approached on the passenger side of the vehicle. The brake lights were clearly activated the entire time and Ebel can be seen watching the passenger side approach. Ebel shot Deputy Boyd three times before fleeing the scene, only to later be killed during a shootout with other law enforcement officers.
While there are no guarantees in this or any other incident that simply addressing the driver of a vehicle who has not put his vehicle in park will prevent a shooting, it may encourage a suspect who is contemplating shooting an officer on first contact to flee instead. Officers should consider it a victory if the driver refuses to comply and flees in the vehicle because they may have just avoided a deadly assault against them.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations study titled Violent Encounters, a Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation’s Law Enforcement Officers, indicated that two thirds of the suspects interviewed during the study that had killed or attempted to kill law enforcement officers believed that the officers were not aware of how dangerous the situations had become. The study followed up and concluded that most of the surviving officers were in fact unaware of the impending assaults.
The tactics behind verbally addressing the driver and ordering them to put the vehicle in park and turn it off are not only a simple way to check the driver’s level of compliance, but it will also let the offenders know that the officers are paying attention to their surroundings and are physically on guard. Offenders, having had their plans and O.O.D.A. loops disrupted, may believe that officers are aware of the dangers or impending assault and are then forced to change their plans. Because their plans for an ambush at the window did not work out and the officers are still located near their patrol vehicles, the suspects will not know what the officer will do next and will have more difficulty processing through another plan of attack.
By disrupting an adversary’s O.O.D.A. loop, officers are able to lessen the risks of a deadly assault upon first contact and force an offender to choose between putting himself in a more vulnerable position during the contact and fleeing. Addressing the driver and challenging his compliance also helps to move officers into a more alert status, affords them a tactical pause in relative safety, helps to prepare their O.O.D.A. loops for what may come next, and may in the end help to avert another tragedy.
Never be afraid to research, learn and utilize new tactics and techniques to keep you and your partners safer. You owe it to yourself, your partners and your families.
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