Traffic Stops: Surviving Interactions with the Motoring Public

By Pinizzotto, Anthony J.; Davis, Edward F. et al. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Traffic Stops: Surviving Interactions with the Motoring Public


Pinizzotto, Anthony J., Davis, Edward F., Miller, Charles E.,, III, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Legislators enacted laws governing the use of motor vehicles on America's roadways shortly after the invention of the automobile. In turn, criminals soon realized the benefits of using cars to expand the areas of their activities, enhance their mobility, and efficiently transport contraband.

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The invention of the automobile also increased the duties of the nation's law enforcement personnel. Officers now had to have frequent interactions with the motoring public to enforce traffic laws. The vast majority of these involved ordinary citizens who had violated minor traffic regulations. Today, these encounters occur with such frequency that most officers consider traffic stops as a routine, repetitive task. As a result, they have become accustomed to resolving these infractions by issuing a traffic violation notice, a written warning, or a verbal reprimand. Traffic stop contacts often are the most frequent, and sometimes only, interactions that many citizens have with law enforcement officers.

According to the FBI's Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) annual publication, 106 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed and 61,353 were assaulted while conducting traffic stops and traffic pursuits during the 10 years from 1996 through 2005. Moreover, while performing such roadside duties, officers face additional dangers, such as being accidentally struck by a motorist. The 2006 LEOKA publication reported that 11 officers were struck and killed by errant drivers, 2 more than were slain due to criminal action during traffic stops and pursuits for that year. (1)

What causes an apparent routine contact with a motorist to escalate into a potentially life-threatening situation? Do any policies, procedures, or training programs exist that law enforcement agencies can implement to better assist their personnel in safely conducting these highly repetitive activities? Because the vast majority of traffic stops involve ordinary citizens who have violated minor traffic regulations and officers perform these duties without incident, do so many successful outcomes "condition" officers to expect continued positive results? Do these favorable encounters cause officers to believe that they can take shortcuts, or do such experiences contribute to officers missing indicators that otherwise may have alerted them to possible danger? Are there traits, mannerisms, or behaviors that officers exhibit that criminals could perceive as allowing an opportunity to successfully attack them? If so, what are some of those behaviors? Finally, what can agencies teach their sworn personnel to help them present an image proclaiming that they are alert, formidable, and prepared to defend an attack?

To examine possible answers to some of these questions, the authors present findings from their trilogy on officer safety: Killed in the Line of Duty: A Study of Selected Felonious Killings of Law Enforcement Officers, published in 1992; In the Line of Fire: Violence Against Law Enforcement, A Study of Felonious Assaults on Law Enforcement Officers, published in 1997; and Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation's Law Enforcement Officers, published in 2006. (2) In Killed in the Line of Duty, 22 percent of the 54 victim officers were conducting traffic pursuits or stops at the time they were killed. In the other two studies, In the Line of Fire and Violent Encounters, 18 percent of the 52 and 30 percent of the 50 victim officers, respectively, were attacked while conducting the same activities. The authors' findings focus on information from investigative reports; forensic evidence; and interviews with the killers, assaulters, and surviving officers as related to traffic pursuits and stops. The authors also provide information gleaned from researching additional, relevant law enforcement assault cases not included in their original research but subsequently brought to their attention. …

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