Strengthening The Citizen and Law Enforcement Partnership at The Traffic Stop: Professionalism is a Two-Way Street
Traffic Stops Are Dangerous
What Can You Do?
During Typical Stops
1. Maintain a self-assured, professional appearance in your manner of dress and bearing. Studies show that a well-groomed appearance commands more respect. Since safety prevention is a primary reason for the stop, wear your seat belt to be safe and to serve as a role model for safe behavior.
2. Signal which side of the road is safer for the driver to stop. This may be an issue on a multi-lane highway and may enable you to take advantage of wider shoulder space.
3. At the beginning of the stop, immediately greet the driver and state your name and law enforcement agency. For example, Good morning, Madam/Sir. Iím Officer Brown of the Smithville Police Department. It is only common courtesy to introduce yourself when meeting someone and a traffic stop should not be different.
Drivers will appreciate that officers take the time to introduce themselves. Even if this information is on your uniform, it often cannot be seen because of an officerís angled approach to the vehicle. The first words spoken by the officer may very well determine the tone of the encounter and even the eventual outcome.
4. If you are not in uniform, present proper identification. If requested, let the driver examine your credentials so that they are satisfied that you are a law enforcement officer.
5. Address the driver by name. Generally refer to the driver by a Mr./Ms. or sir/madam with last name. If you cannot pronounce the last name, ask the driver to say it. When special circumstances arise, it might be appropriate to call some people by their first name, such as younger people, when you want to increase rapport or reduce anxiety. However, always ask for permission.
6. At the beginning of the stop, inform drivers why they were stopped. This is utmost in the driverís mind. Communicate slowly and clearly. This will alleviate those concerns where individuals felt that they were stopped for some reason other than a traffic offense violation.
Avoid asking drivers for their license and vehicle registration before telling them the reason why you stopped them. This creates unnecessary tension and it gives the driver an opening to question you, instead of you asking the questions.
7. Describe the violation in terms of what the vehicle was seen doing, not the driver. Say, for example, Ms. Smith, I observed your vehicle going 15 miles over the posted speed limit. By not directly accusing the driver, this will be another way to help alleviate tension. This further reinforces the fact that the stop was made for an observed traffic violation and not for any personal reason.
8. Ask drivers where they keep their driverís license and registration. This allows the officer to anticipate the movements of the driver and to decrease the officerís reaction time in the event of a felonious situation.
9. Request the driverís license and registration with the word please. This is a professional courtesy, even when the law allows you to demand. This also helps to calm irate drivers.
10. Ask the driver for a reason. Say, Mr. Smith, Is there any reason for the violation of the speed law? Most drivers will be eager to offer an excuse or explanation, or even deny the offense. However, the real purpose of this question is to give drivers an opportunity to vent emotions and reduce their stress. At the very least, the violator can never say, the officer never let me say why I was speeding. Of course, it doesnít mean the officer has to agree or accept the reason. Simply say, Yes, I appreciate your explanation, but, as you know, itís still illegal.
11. Avoid asking a series of random challenging questions just to inflict officer control or to intimidate. Questions should have a purpose and lead to a meaningful conclusion related to the stop. Also, donít automatically get into a higher level of questioning without reasonable suspicion.
12. Avoid automatically talking with violators with your hand on your weapon. Of course, special circumstances and training may dictate otherwise. Safety is always first.
13. Appear casual in observing and questioning. Even when initially looking around and inside the vehicle for safety purposes, this should be done in a unobtrusive manner.
14. Use the SOFT approach. Smile - A routine grimace or a hard-line approach may frighten some drivers and occupants. A sincere smile doesnít make you less authoritative.
Open gestures - Talk with your hands and facial expressions. Nod to show you are hearing what the driver is saying. A quiet, non-demonstrative approach can be threatening.
Focus on the driver and occupants - Make them the center of your attention. Look at occupants in their eyes without staring as it may be particularly offensive to certain cultures. Avoid using a hand computer while talking with offender at the roadside.
Tone - The quality of your voice and the pace are important parts of communications. A well-modulated voice, during the initial contact, can have a calming effect. Avoid using false vocal inflections that may sound sarcastic in tone. Certainly avoid the command tone of voice. Instead, talk with the driver and occupants. Above all, be sincere.
15. Provide instructions before you return to your vehicle. After obtaining necessary documents, state, Iím going back to my vehicle to review these documents, but for your safety and mine, please remain in your vehicle. If the driver is asked to exit the vehicle, state where you want him or her to stand.
16. Take action in a timely fashion. Stay professional, but complete all actions in a timely fashion. The longer someone stays on the roadside, the more agitated they may become. Also, when appropriate, explain actions you take during the stop to further build an open trust.
17. Officers should not issue a citation (vs. a warning), or take other action, based solely on the driverís attitude. Generally, make a decision before coming into face-to-face contact with the driver.
18. Explain to drivers why the traffic violation is a hazard to them and others on the road. At the appropriate time during the contact, explain why this violation is a cause of crashes or in our community or state.
It is known that when drivers feel vulnerable, positive words from an officer can be a welcomed relief and may improve the violatorís driving practices. These words also let the driver know that the officer puts a premium on safety. This can be especially effective if the officer can do it without it sounding like a lecture. This type of statement may be especially appropriate when officers issue a verbal warning.
19. Compliment drivers on good safe driving behaviors. During a stop for speeding, say, for example, Thank you for wearing your safety belt or Iím glad to see your child is in a safety seat.
20. The last words by an officer at the stop are also very important and may be the basis of a lasting impression of the officer and the agency. Say, Thank you for your cooperation. Also, even with irate drivers, say something positive about safety, Buckle up, Drive safely, Please drive safely, Please drive at the posted speed limit, Let me help you back into traffic or other words suitable to the incident and officer style. After all, the main reason we make stops is to promote safety on the roadway. Generally, avoid saying, Have a nice day. The driverís reaction will be, How can I? You just ruined it.
21. Help the driver safely merge back into the traffic flow. This is both a courtesy and a safe practice.