Tips for Conducting Professional Traffic Stops
From the July 2001 Police Chief Magazine
By James J. Onder, Ph.D., National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C.
Building better community relations is still one of the primary concerns of law enforcement throughout the country. That is why every action by a law enforcement officer has a bearing on the relationship of the agency with the community. Since most citizens come into contact with law enforcement officers at traffic stops, this becomes a critical element for law enforcement agencies in their overall public relations effort. Traffic enforcement offers agencies a way to build bridges to the community, one traffic stop at a time.
From the first day in the law enforcement academy to daily roll call, law enforcement officers are trained in every aspect of their jobs for which agencies have developed standard policies and procedures. Conducting professional traffic stops is no different from any other aspect of the officer's job. We hope that these suggestions help law enforcement agencies build bridges to the community, one traffic stop at a time.
There are three primary purposes for every traffic stop: The first purpose is to stop a violation of the law for public safety. Officers will accomplish this purpose merely by stopping the vehicle. The second purpose of the stop is to serve as a general deterrent to other drivers. Officers' visible presence with a vehicle at the roadside has this symbolic effect on other drivers. The third purpose is to modify the driver's future driving behavior. Officers' interaction with the driver during a stop will be a major determining factor in the driver's attitude toward law enforcement in the future. The goal is to achieve voluntary compliance with traffic regulations and acceptance of the laws and enforcement. People are more apt to accept a new or modified behavior if they trust and respect the authority. This is why professionalism is so important at the traffic stop.
In addition, there are other implications of a traffic stop. For example, the stop may detect possible evidence of a more serious offense. In most cases, this can be done by casual observation and questioning, without causing offense. Also, traffic stop encounters can enhance the public relations and image of the law enforcement agency. Officers need to help maintain the credibility of the law enforcement agency and to minimize the number of complaints. At many agencies, more complaints generate from traffic stops than from any other form of citizen contact. Officers need to be courteous, balanced, and professional in all of the above categories.
Many officers often get a thank you from drivers they stop, even when a citation is issued. However, officers can provoke a confrontation by their mannerisms. Most citizen complaints come from traffic stops and usually involve the allegation of officer rudeness. Officers should not be rude under the guise of officer control or officer safety. Also, officers should not respond to threats to their egos or get "hung out on a limb" with nowhere to go except to escalate a disagreement. Being professional means possessing great skill to remain in control.
Although most officers have their own way of being professional at traffic stops, some of the following techniques might be considered.
During Typical Stops
- 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.
- Signal which side of the road is safer for the driver to stop. This may be an issue on a multilane highway and may enable you to take advantage of wider shoulder space.
- At the beginning of the stop, immediately greet the driver and state your name and law enforcement agency. For example: Good morning, Madam/Sir. I'm 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 officer's 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.
- 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.
- Address the driver by name. Generally address the driver by a Mr./Ms. with their 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.
- At the beginning of the stop, inform drivers why they were stopped. This is utmost in the driver's 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. 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.
- 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 per hour 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.
- Ask drivers where they keep their driver's license and registration. This allows the officer to anticipate the movements of the driver and to decrease the officer's reaction time in the event of a felonious situation.
- Request the driver's 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.
- Ask the driver for a reason for the violation. 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 doesn't mean the officer has to agree or accept the reason. Simply say, Yes, I appreciate your explanation, but, as you know, it's still illegal.
- 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, don't automatically get into a higher level of questioning without reasonable suspicion.
- Avoid automatically talking with violators with your hand on your weapon. Of course, special circumstances and training may dictate otherwise. Safety is always first.
- Appear casual in observing and questioning. Even when initially looking around and inside the vehicle for safety purposes, this should be done in an unobtrusive manner.
- Use the SOFT approach:
- SmileA routine grimace or a hard-line approach may frighten some drivers and occupants. A sincere smile doesn't make you less authoritative.
- Open gesturesTalk with your hands and facial expressions. Nod to show you are hearing what the driver is saying. A quiet, nondemonstrative approach can be threatening.
- Focus on the driver and occupantsMake 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 an offender at the roadside.
- ToneThe 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.
- Provide instructions before you return to your vehicle. After obtaining necessary documents, state, I'm 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.
- 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.
- Do not issue a citation or take other action, based solely on the driver's attitude. Generally, make a decision before coming into face-to-face contact with the driver.
- 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, for example, a cause of crashes in our community or state. It is known that when drivers feel vulnerable, positive words from an officer can be a welcome relief and may improve the violator's 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.
- Compliment drivers on safe driving behaviors. During a stop for speeding, say, Thank you for wearing your safety belt, for example, or I'm glad to see your child is in a safety seat.
- End the stop on a positive note. 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, such as 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 driver's reaction will be How can I? You just ruined it.
- Help the driver safely merge back into the traffic flow. This is both a courtesy and a safe practice.
- Reassure children and other occupants in the vehicle who may be frightened by the presence of an officer.
- Have cards written in English and in other appropriate languages that indicate the officer's request for the driver license, registration, and proof of insurance. This can be used when the driver speaks another language or when the driver is hearing impaired. Also, if the incident should escalate, be equipped with a voluntary consent form in various languages appropriate to the officer's community.
- Be aware of cultural differences. In some cultures, persons may talk softly, while in other cultures, persons may talk loudly. Some persons may use less eye contact, stand close to the person they're talking to or, on the other hand, feel uncomfortable if the officer is standing too close.
- Avoid automatically stating the specific fine, number of points, court costs. This could increase tension. Briefly go through the procedure for sending in the fine or how to get a court appearance. If you are asked the amount of the fine and the information is available, respond accordingly.
- Never base the stop or post-stop actions on race, gender, religion, disabilities, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. This violates the U.S. Constitution and federal civil rights laws. Traffic enforcement must be conducted in full compliance with the constitutional and statutory safeguards established to preserve the rights of all citizens. Traffic enforcement that is discriminatory or inconsistent with the democratic ideals, values, and principles of American policing is not a legitimate or defensible public protection strategy. In fact, officers should place a special emphasis on enhancing communication and cooperation between law enforcement agencies and the diverse community they serve. Use the But for . . . test to determine whether a stop was based on racial profiling. Say to yourself, But for this person's race, ethnic heritage, gender, religious, sexual orientation, or disability, would this driver have had this encounter with me? If the answer is No, then this was a profile stop and most likely a violation of the person's constitutional rights. Naturally, this does not prevent officers from stopping an individual in response to a report of a crime where the suspect matches the description of the wanted individual and where that description is sufficiently specific and includes race as an identifier.
- If asked, explain the use of bright headlights and spotlights at night. Many times, this is the basis for driver complaints. Explain the reasons why you are illuminating the driver's vehicle. Say, for example, It's for your safety and mine.
- Adjust the spotlight after returning to the patrol vehicle. At night, the spotlight is positioned on the offender's rearview or side mirrors to make it more difficult for them to see the officer's approach to the vehicle. After assessing that the risk of confrontation or injury is diminished, and upon returning to the patrol vehicle to write the citation, consider moving the spotlight to another area of the vehicle as a courtesy.
- If asked, explain the presence of your backup officer or additional vehicles. Say, for example, The officer is there for your safety and mine, or say, The officer in the other vehicle happened to be driving by and stopped to see if I need help.
- Explain why you have to talk louder than normal. There are times when officers are near traffic and other noisy conditions and have to speak loudly. This is also true with motorcycle officers who are often required to speak with their helmets on while on duty. To compound the problem, drivers are in a quieter environment. If necessary, officers should explain these circumstances to avoid being perceived as rude or confrontational.
- Handle drivers with negative attitudes appropriately. When the driver or occupants are hostile, minimize the potential for escalation by ignoring their attitudes and concentrate on the driving behavior and getting the violator to respond to your requests. Also, continually reinforce that you are taking this action to correct the driving behavior and not because of other personal reasons. Use your training in crisis intervention and other intervention techniques to de-escalate the problem. For example, if the violator begins yelling, talk softly so he may quiet down. Remain polite and professional at these times, even if the incident escalates to an arrest. There will be fewer problems if violators and suspects are treated fairly.
- If questioned about a specific procedure or action, you may say, It's a state law or It's an agency policy. This indicates that the officer's action has a legal or procedural basis and that the action is not being taken for some personal reason.
- If drivers make claims of unfair treatment, politely inform them how to make a complaint to the agency or your supervisor.
During Suspicious or Felonious Stops
- When asking for a consent search, use a tone of voice that suggests this is a request, not a command. After suspicion begins to build, return the driver's license, registration, proof of insurance before asking for a consent search. Also, avoid putting undue stress on the driver and occupants prior to the request for a consent to searchsuch as having a number of officers standing close to the driver that may be intimidating and void the legality of the search. Remember, the driver may withdraw the consent for a search at any time.
- Treat drivers under suspicion professionally. It is known that even drivers under suspicion will respond more openly and talk more freely if treated with courtesy. This will also be less stressful for the officer. .
- If a legal search yields nothing, thank the driver for his or her cooperation. If the search resulted in disruption to the vehicle, such as removal of cover plates, panels, or seats, put the items back the way you found them, unless the driver insists on doing it. It may be appropriate to explain why the search was conducted.
- If the incident escalates to a felony stop, continue to treat the driver and passengers professionally.
There are some best practices for officers. These practices should be discussed with law enforcement supervisors and officers within your agency and used to form guidelines for improved professionalism and courtesy at traffic stops. This publication is not intended or designed to countermand officer discretion or agency policies or procedures.
Practice the golden rule. Treat the driver and other occupants like you or a member of your family would want to be treated. Above all, be safe. Everyone's safety is above all other concerns.
This article is excerpted from Strengthening the Citizen and Law Enforcement Partnership at the Traffic Stop, a publication by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). For a copy, fax your request to Jim Onder, of the traffic law enforcement division, at (202) 366-7721.