In my five and a half years of law enforcement, formerly with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and currently as a King County, Wash., sheriff's deputy, I've maintained a strong interest in tactics. I consider myself an aggressive, proactive officer learning to do police work in South Central L.A. will do that to you. I'm always hunting for bad guys and running into tense situations. One tactic I can't emphasize enough is making passenger-side approaches when conducting traffic stops. A couple threatening incidents in particular proved the passenger-side advantage to me.
Where Is He?
At about 2100 hrs, I was stopped in my patrol car on the side of a semi-busy two-lane thoroughfare catching up on paperwork. I was around the corner from an area of heavy drug use and gang activity, where officers had been shot at in the past few years. An early 1990s-type Buick with no headlights on sped past me, a male subject at the wheel. I quickly turned my cruiser around and caught up to him. I ran the license plate, which returned to a female registered owner. I initiated my emergency lights to conduct a traffic stop.
The driver continued on. As I lit him up with all the overhead spotlights, I observed him reaching around in the vehicle. I verified he was a male subject from his big build and bald head. As he groped around, he began to slowly pull over but continued to roll for another few blocks. I advised dispatch the driver hadn't yet stopped.
The subject finally stopped about five blocks after I'd initially lit him up. As I was about to put my vehicle in park, he began to drive off again. He did not speed off, but just pulled back into the road and turned right into the high-drug area. At this point, I called for more units, believing he may have been leading me into a setup to get fired on from his friends in the bad area, or that I had a hostile, uncooperative suspect in the vehicle.
After rolling for another two blocks, he pulled over again and resumed reaching around in the car. I stopped behind him, and he once again pulled back into the road and drove further into the bad area. I followed. Finally, he stopped.
As I stepped out of my patrol car, I could see him looking for me in his mirrors. I went back around the trunk of my squad car and walked up on the passenger side. As I was walking up, he continued to rock his head and look for me in his mirrors.
As I approached his car with my gun out, I saw he had his right hand on a handgun just between the seat and his console. His passenger-side window was down, so I pointed my gun at him almost through his car and told him, Don t even think about it. I yelled at him to get his hands up where I could see them.
The subject did not immediately comply and yelled some profanities, stating I had no right to stop him. He was clearly extremely high on drugs and agitated. I yelled again for him to get his hands up. The suspect raised his hands, but started to lower them several times while asking in an agitated manner what he was being stopped for. I kept yelling at him to keep his hands up as I waited for backup. I advised him he would be shot if he went near that gun. My backup finally arrived, and the subject was yanked out of the vehicle.
This incident came out well, but I can only imagine what might have happened if I had approached on the driver side.
Protection from Traffic
In addition to threats from traffic violators, officers conducting roadside traffic stops remain in constant danger from vehicles moving past the stop. Positioning yourself on the passenger-side of your patrol car decreases the chance of injury from passing traffic.
Just a year before the above incident, I stopped a traffic violator at a mildly busy intersection. As I returned to my vehicle to do a warrants check, I left my leg out of the door in case I had to engage quickly.
As I checked the driver s status, a full-size semi truck drove up with a full-size trailer. The trailer dragged across my driver-side door and began to crush my leg. I attempted to pull my leg in but was too late. I could only pull it in up to just above my ankle and lower shin. The trailer veered closer and closer as it dragged across my door. It seemed like the longest trailer in the world as I thought about how I was going to lose my lower leg. I screamed Aaah! into the radio as I experienced increasing pain. I thought for sure in a split second I was not going to have my leg and my patrol career would be over.
Finally, the semi passed by without coming in any tighter. I sustained only some severe bruising. I was extremely lucky. The truck driver never knew he had hit me and just kept driving.
Now, especially on busy streets, I keep my passenger seat empty so I can use it to do my computer checks without worry about getting hit by traffic. Also, if anyone were to get out of their vehicle to shoot at me, especially at night, they will likely think I m sitting in the driver seat. I can then exit my vehicle on the passenger side and engage them using my squad car's hood as cover.
Nationwide, officers increasingly patrol as one-officer units, and using tactics that reduce the dangerous risks inherent in conducting traffic stops are of utmost importance. The incidents I related, and many others, have reinforced my belief in using passenger-side tactics.
Make a passenger-side approach
Most bad guys expect you to approach on the driver side. Position your vehicle slightly left of center behind the violator s vehicle. After dark, your left headlamp and your spotlight will blind their driver-side mirror, and they will have trouble viewing your approach. When you come up to their passenger side, they are not prepared. Adding the element of surprise could save your life.
Conduct business from the passenger seat
Action is much faster than reaction. If you sit in the driver seat filling out a ticket or doing your checks and the suspect decides they want to get out and shoot through your driver-side windshield to kill you, by the time you realize they are actively engaging you, it may be too late. You must get out of your vehicle, mind the passing traffic so you don t get struck by a vehicle, unholster your weapon, get on target and engage. By that time, the suspect may have punched 10 rounds or more in your direction.
If you are on the passenger side, however, with your door open, you are already halfway out of your vehicle, and you don t have to worry about passing traffic. The suspect-driver will have to walk back past their vehicle to obtain you in their sight and shoot over the trunk (most people aren t tall enough to accurately shoot over their roof). This will give you added reaction time to quickly exit your car and target the suspect. You also now have your cruiser s hood/engine block to use as cover. And, if necessary, you can use the entirety of your vehicle to use as cover if you need to retreat to the rear.
Some officers ask me, What about all the paperwork I put in my passenger seat? I ask them, How important is your life? Get a plastic bin, organize your reports and place the bin in the trunk. It will take you only a few seconds to pop your trunk and grab them when needed.
Alternatively, while filling out your tickets, why not remain outside near the rear-quarter panel of your vehicle, where you can observe any possible threat from the stopped vehicle and quickly react? This way, you are already out of your vehicle and using the vehicle as your cover. You also have greater ability to notice vehicles heading toward you, allowing you to jump out of the way if necessary and prevent those deep-trunk whiplash incidents.
When conducting a traffic stop, the driver seat can be your death trap. Get out of it and stay out of it until the contact is complete. Doing this could save your life. Think I will always win. With that mentality, odds are you will overcome any confrontation.
Viktor White is a King County, Wash., sheriff s deputy and a former patrol officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.