HOW TO HANDLE A TRAFFIC STOP:
They don’t know you’re a good guy.
Jim has a background in military aviation, specializing in combat rescue and close air support. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the policy or position of the Air Force or Department of Defense, and no references here should be interpreted as an endorsement of any product or service by any government agency.
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Traffic stops are dangerous and unpleasant. A lot of forces converge to make traffic stops dangerous: cops get killed on traffic stops, so they are anxious about them, some communities feel unfairly targeted and perceive a risk from the police, and everyone is at risk to distracted and drunk motorists passing by the stop. No one likes being pulled over, especially if they don’t trust the police. There has to be something we can do to make this whole thing safer and easier for everyone, so we wrote this article to help you if and when you get pulled over. We may even be able to help you get out of a ticket if you play your cards right.
Throughout this article, we will tell you about the perspective of the cops. That doesn’t mean we think every cop or agency policy is perfect, or that use-of-force is justified when it isn’t. To the contrary – we want to make you aware of the very fallible and human elements in play in a police contact so that you can reduce the risk even when that cop didn’t bring his A- game. We feel strongly that you have the right not to get shot if you aren’t presenting an actual threat, but we also know that right doesn’t help you much if you actually get shot. There are around a million full-time sworn police officers in the United States, and if you think every one of them makes perfect decisions, perceives risk perfectly, has no character flaws, or will handle your traffic stop without incident – you are mistaken. Why not stack the deck in favor of your safety? The fundamental thing you have to understand is that cops are taught to expect danger on traffic stops, and for good reason – a lot of cops have been killed during traffic stops that started pretty mundane. When you are expecting danger, you tend to be spring-loaded to perceive it even when it isn’t really there – you run a risk of false positives. One of our sayings here at Tactical Tangents is: A Scared Cop is a Dangerous Cop. You can see six graphic videos here that illustrate just how fast a traffic stop can get nasty:
So, even if you are a totally law abiding citizen, and you have nothing to hide and nothing to fear, and you really did count “3 Mississipis” at that stop sign – most cops are going to be in a heightened state of arousal as they walk up to your car. A lot of cops have also been hit by passing traffic during stops, so at least some of their attention is on that risk as well. When a cop walks up to your car on a traffic stop, he doesn’t know you are a good person – he is mostly trying to figure out what you are doing with your hands.
At Tactical Tangents, one of our big goals is to reduce risk to everyone. We want cops to be safer, we want the public to be safer, we even want the criminals to be safer. We like happy endings. One of the best ways to reduce your risk is to make it very clear to the officer that you are doing everything you can not to present a threat to her. Here are a couple of tips:
1. Pull over safely. If you get lit up — slow down, turn on your emergency blinkers and look for a safe place to stop.
2. Pull over in a safe place. Don’t stop in the middle of traffic. Don’t stop on a blind curve in the road. If it is at night, try to pull into a lighted area.
3. Put the car in park. Cops look for you to shift through reverse into park as an indicator of whether you intend to bolt on them.
4. Turn on your interior dome light (if it’s night) and roll down your windows (especially if they are tinted) so he can see into your car.
5. Keep your hands on the wheel until you are told to do anything other than keep your hands on the wheel. You may think that you need to have your driver’s license ready, but remember that the cop doesn’t know yet that you are a good person, all the cop sees is you digging around – maybe that means you are stashing contraband, maybe it means you are going for a gun.
6. Do not get out of the car. Getting out of the car is often a precursor to either fleeing or fighting and it will instantly ratchet up the tension. In at least 3 of the videos above, the driver opening the car door is an immediate precursor to a gunfight.
7. Let the officer give you his spiel. They will explain why they are pulling you over, you don’t have to ask them.
8. Express yourself calmly. The very first time I got pulled over, I was nervous as hell. I was going 8 miles over the speed limit – and I acted like I just got nailed for murder. The cop picked up on that tension, which got him spun up.
9. If you need to reach, say so. “Officer, my ID is in my wallet in my pocket, would you like me to get it?”
10. If you have a gun, say so. “Officer, I am a licensed concealed carrier, my gun is on my right hip, my license is in my wallet on my left hip – how do you want to work this?” There is some debate among gun owners in states where announcing isn’t required whether that is advisable. I say it is. If you don’t announce, and end up getting out of the car, and the cop sees the tell-tale printing, you now have a surprised cop. A surprised cop is a dangerous cop.
THIS IS IMPORTANT: DO NOT REACH TO SHOW HIM WHERE YOUR GUN IS
That safety tip about not reaching might sound silly or obvious, but we have found that it is strongly ingrained human nature to want to gesture to the item you are talking about. When you tell a cop you have a gun, usually the next question is “where?” and it is natural to want to just point to it. Pointing looks too much like a drawing gesture especially at the weird angles and lighting of a traffic stop. So… don’t do it. Explain with your words not with your hands.
We want to be clear that this is not a political statement. We are not saying that you have to kneel and kiss the cop’s boot, or that “if that one guy had just done what he was told, the cop wouldn’t have had to shoot him!” This is a pragmatic approach – these are ways you can signal to the cop: “I am not trying to kill you, and I am trying to make sure we both get home safely.”
Understand that cops rely largely on context clues, what they call totality of the circumstances, to assess their risk. Is it 2am? Is it a rough part of town? Were you driving like a crazy person? Does your Escalade have sweet rims? Do you have a bumper sticker that says “the only good cop is a dead cop?” Is your window broken and your ignition is a screwdriver? You may not be able to control all of those context clues, but they should tell you when the cop might be more concerned than normal.
It is surprising how few people are taught courtesies like these. That is a failure in communication on the part of law enforcement agencies across the country. The police officer assigned to assist my elementary school taught me all this in a 6th grade DARE class. One time I was riding passenger when a girl I was dating got pulled over – she immediately started digging in her purse to find her ID – I exclaimed: “Jesus, you’re gonna get us shot!” She didn’t understand what I was saying. She thought the most important thing she had to do in a traffic stop was have her driver’s license out by the time the cop got to the window. If you work in law enforcement, and you can’t remember the last time your agency did some outreach on how to handle a traffic stop – that is a foul. Communication about this topic will reduce the fog and friction of a stop and increase both officer and citizen safety.
There is a lot of talk circulating about police use-of-force, particularly when there is an ethnic element in play. We talk a lot about profiling and de-escalation. I think we could reduce use-of-force and risk an awful lot just by educating the public about how to handle a traffic stop safely and with some courtesy. In military aviation, we talk about the chain of events leading up to a fatal mishap. If you watch controversial police shooting videos, you will usually see a number of opportunities that BOTH the officer and the subject had to break the chain. To us, this isn’t about placing blame – it is about figuring out ways we can stop a horrible, fatal, misunderstanding, and ensure that everyone makes it home safe.
Special thanks to the active and retired law enforcement officers who advised on this article. You guys are my example of what a good cop is.