Have an Exit Plan
“Warren, this patrol car is a coffin. Once you stop a car you need to be getting out ASAP.” The words of my FTO from so long ago still echo in my mind when I think of the dangers associated with traffic stops. Without a doubt, patrol vehicles can be a tactical nightmare if they are not handled appropriately.
Making It Safer, an officer safety study we use in several of our classes and have referenced here on The Iron Blog, backs this belief up – in a big way. Let’s take a look at a couple of disturbing facts about officers killed in the line of duty.
Between 2010-2016, 37% of officers killed in ambush situations while not on calls for service were killed while sitting in their vehicle. There are so many distractions in the patrol vehicle – cell phones, laptops, radios, etc. – that it is easy to lose track of what is going on around us. Cars today are manufactured to be soundproof. So, in many cases, it is not possible to hear what is going on around us.
During the same time period, 21% of officers killed while on traffic stops were killed prior to making contact with the driver. While not all of these deaths occurred in the patrol vehicle, they took place either in the vehicle or immediately after exiting.
So, what can be done to increase officer safety while in or exiting their patrol vehicle? Can it be made safer?
First, let’s be very clear on what it does NOT mean. It does not mean that officers should operate the vehicle without wearing their seatbelt. “It’s not tactical to wear your seatbelt. You never know when you will need to bail out.” We have heard this all across the country and it just ain’t so. This way of thinking ignores the incredible dangers associated with driving their vehicles.
Practice getting out of the car – including unbuckling your seatbelt. If we need to be prepared to exit the vehicle unexpectedly, practicing this skill addresses the issue. And the practice just shouldn’t be exiting via the driver’s side door, it should address the passenger side door as well. Exiting through the passenger side door could be a tactical need or a physical need if the driver’s door is disabled. If you’ve ever heard Brian Murphy’s story of the active shooter at the Sikh temple, you know the issues that exiting a vehicle caused for one of the backup officers.
Understand that the need to exit a vehicle on a traffic stop does not mean that you should approach the stopped vehicle immediately. Consider instead moving to the rear of the patrol vehicle (cover and concealment) and simply observe the activity in the suspect vehicle. Slow down. Gather more information before dealing with the unknown.
Finally, acknowledge that it is not humanly possible to be hyper-vigilant for an entire shift. It is human to let your guard down when there is no immediate threat. Plan for some tactical breaks. By this we mean intentional times throughout the shift where you let your guard down in a place of safety – typically your station. If this isn’t possible, then buddy breaks also work well. Buddy breaks, with one officer providing security, should be conducted in areas of limited approach to make it easier on the officer performing watch duty. These tactical breaks do not need to be long, they just need to provide some “down time” so that you can stay vigilant when on patrol.
Patrol vehicles are great tools, but they can also be dangerous to operate and to work in. Practice the skills that are needed to make them safer. Recognize the threat that comes with being in the vehicle itself. Have an exit plan. And, thank you, Mike Rogers, for teaching me the right way at the beginning of my career!