Monday, November 8, 2010

Police Snapshots For Novelists

Traffic Stops Are Deadly Business
 By Mark Young
A traffic stop for most motorists is an irritating experience: a red light flashes in your rear window and a police car trails behind with emergency lights flashing. You steal a glance at the speedometer and realized you just messed up. One moving violation ticket coming your way.

Now put the brakes on for one minute after you pull off the road. I want to snatch you out of the driver’s seat, wave a magic wand, and allow you to become that officer in the patrol car behind you. Allow yourself to experience what those officers face as they attempt to make a traffic stop. 

This article—among others—will attempt to help readers and writers experience what it feels like to wear that badge in a number of police-related circumstances. Hopefully, these series of articles will  allow authors an opportunity to vicariously experience these officers’ fears and concerns on the job before writers create another cop character in their novel.

The first stop down this road sounds mundane—traffic stops. Pretty routine?

Traffic stops are deadly business. Anyone who wears the badge and makes traffic stops knows the risks that they face when they try to pull over a vehicle. According to statistic compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, officers killed in the line of duty surged to 43 percent during the first six months of 2010 after reaching a 50-year low in 2009. Between January and July this year, eighty-seven law enforcement officers died in the line of duty compared to 61 officers last years. Among those killed, 35 percent of those deaths resulted from traffic fatalities. (This figure does not include those 31officers killed by firearms, some of whom might have been involved in traffic stops).

Police officers—whether straight out of the academy or a seasoned veteran—know just how risky traffic stops can become. It is hammered into the recruit from the first day of training. Field Training Officers carry this into the field, making sure their trainees learn how dangerous these stops can be. It is drilled into them day after day, stop after stop.

An officer—once they have made a decision to stop a violator—begins to think ahead, trying to pick a place to make the stop that will afford some reasonable safety while trying to guess what the driver ahead will do. The officer tries to pick a stretch of country road—or a city street—that gives some margin of safety for the officer and the motorist. A patch of road out of the flow of traffic where they can approach and make contact with the driver. They take into account how their car is positioned, and how the car ahead will be illuminated if the stop is at night. The officer must be ever vigilant of those inside the car, looking for furtive and suspicious behavior that might alert to danger.

Meanwhile, the officer is concerned about what lies behind as well as ahead. More than one drunk driver has ploughed into the patrol car, their eyes hypnotized by the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles. If in the city, the officer must be alert to pedestrians walking by as well as well as the terrain around them. Is this a gang neighborhood? Is there something about this part of the city that might be a threat to the officer?

But the greatest threat—in the mind of most officers—is those sitting inside that car. From a distance, it is hard for an officer to make a fair assessment of the situation until they make contact with the occupants. Most drivers are law-abiding citizens. They may be a little irritated that they were stopped, but these citizens generally recognize the officer is just doing his/her duty. But a small percent of those stopped are hardened criminals, and just about anything might cause these cons to use deadly force.

Many scenarios are running through the officer’s mind. Is this person in violation of their parole? Do they have a gun in the car? Have they just committed a crime? Are they high on drugs? The possibilities for deadly confrontation includes just about every conceivable motivation known to man.

Patrol officers are always listening to the police radio, trying to pay attention when other officers make a traffic stop. Details like where the stop is made, what the traffic violation might be, and other information put out over the air or on CAD (Computer Assisted Dispatch) allows officers to judge whether another officer needs assistance. Depending upon available units, another officer might drive by to see if the officer needs help. The officer making the stop is in charge. If they need help, officers will respond as quickly as possible.

The initial approach to the car is critical. There is a point as the officers draws close where they are most vulnerable, particularly at night due to decreased visibility. The officers try to maximize visibility by using mounted spotlights to shine into the car as they approach. As the officer gets even closer, a flashlight will be used to further illuminate the inside of the vehicle. The officer is looking for any kind of movements or suspicion that might warn of trouble: driver nervously looking in the rear view mirrors, the driver hiding his hands, or a passenger moving around inside the car.

Close your eyes for a moment. Just imagine walking up to an open window at night, your mid section exposed to the driver, the car windows all tinted up. You can’t see who else might be in the car. Maybe your partner came up on the other side. Will you be fast enough to pick up any signs from your partner that something is hinkey inside the car? Imagine a gun in the driver’s hand just out of sight. How fast can you react before that driver uses deadly force? Maybe you are lucky and see a flash of metal. Do you back up and seek cover or do you pull your own weapon? Will you be able to make that decision to use deadly force—if that is necessary—or will you hesitate, waiting to be sure of the danger, and discover you waited too long.

Do you have the picture in your mind? Now use it in one of your scenes.


  1. I wish the traffic cops in my area would read this! I live right next to the freeway and they continously pull people over on the overpass right next to the merge lane to get onto another freeway. It is one of the busiest places as it is two major freeways coming together and it blocks traffic for a long time. The do the same thing in other inconvenient places. I really wish they would read this article. Thank you! - Julia

  2. It is not always easy to have people pull over where you want them. Sort of like herding cats in a way. And there may be some officers who just don't give it a second thought. Also there are areas where there is just not a good place to make a stop, and the officer must do the best job they can if a stop is warranted.

  3. Wow! There are way too many close calls and tragedies that could be prevented by drivers doing the right thing. Thanks for sharing your post!!

  4. You are welcome, Sandra. Thanks for joining us here on Hook'em & Book'em.