By Nancy Perry for Police1
Traffic stops and vehicle contacts put police officers at a tactical disadvantage, with officer safety further compromised when faced with non-compliant drivers. To better understand officers’ experiences, perceptions, training and tactics for non-compliance during traffic stops, Police1 surveyed more than 1,000 patrol officers.
SURVEY METHODOLOGY AND RESPONDENT DEMOGRAPHICS
Police1 developed a 29-question survey, open from April 22, 2021, to May 4, 2021. A total of 1,036 responses were collected using a Microsoft Form.
Respondents were fairly evenly divided regarding location and years served in law enforcement. Of those surveyed, 24% serve a rural response area, 42% serve a suburban response area and 34% serve an urban response area.
A third of respondents had 10-20 years of law enforcement experience and a quarter had 21-30 years of experience; a third had nine years or less on the job and 10% had more than 30 years on the job.
TRAFFIC STOP ACTIVITY
We asked respondents to rank the most common reason for traffic stops in their jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, especially since COVID-19 lockdowns, speeding was overwhelmingly listed as the number one reason for traffic stops at 43% followed by equipment violations at 24%. Only 13% of respondents rated distracted driving as the number one reason for traffic stops, pretext stops and hazardous driving were rated number one by only 9% and 7% of respondents respectively.
While 2020 saw a huge increase in speeding violations nationwide, in regard to non-speeding traffic violations, 41% of respondents said they had decreased in the past year and 17% had stayed the same. Forty-two percent said they had increased.
We wanted to know if officers had changed their behavior regarding traffic stops since 2019 and nearly two-thirds (59%) of those who responded said they were less likely to stop a vehicle in violation of traffic laws while on patrol than two years ago, while a third (36%) said there was no change. Only 2% were more likely to stop a vehicle.
We asked how compliance behaviors during traffic stops had changed over the past year. While half of the respondents said it had stayed the same, 49% said compliance had worsened.
We asked respondents to select the types of traffic stops most likely to result in non-compliance. Suspicion of criminal intent and impaired driving were selected most often, with 76% and 66% of respondents selecting one or both. Just over a third of respondents said hazardous driving, equipment violations and speeding were likely to result in non-compliance. Just over one in five respondents selected distracted driving and just over 10% selected failure to wear a seatbelt.
The most common non-compliance behavior encountered was a failure to follow commands (42%) followed by a failure to answer questions (24%). Around 10% of respondents said refusal to show a driver’s license and other documents or furtive movements.
We asked respondents to list the actions they did at every traffic stop, whether as a result of personal habits or policies. Nearly all the respondents indicated that they notify dispatch they are on a traffic stop and tell the driver the reason they were stopped. They also request the driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance and scan the vehicle interior for hazards. Two-thirds of the respondents activate their body-worn camera during traffic stops and 57% active the dash camera; 62% percent conduct a license plate check before contact. Half of those surveyed touch the vehicle to leave their prints, while only 4% of the officers who answered this survey call for backup.
We asked respondents if there is a non-compliance red flag – a specific action, behavior, or response – they want every police officer to be aware of. Respondents contributed more than 500 red flag actions and behaviors. We compiled the top responses and themes in this article “Officers identify red flags for non-compliance during traffic stops” for verified officers access only.
TRAFFIC STOP POLICIES
We asked respondents if their department had made changes to their traffic stop policy in the last year. The majority (78%) said no, while a fifth (19%) said yes.
For the 24% of respondents whose agencies had implemented policy changes, many indicated those changes were due to social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. A summary of additional changes is listed here:
- Mandatory camera and mandatory paperwork to track driver race.
- Only make stops if the violations are hazardous to other drivers. Not allowed to stop for any type of license plate or registration offenses.
- Colorado House Bill requires a list of information to be provided for every stop. Agency policy mirrors this and requires that we provide the info we have prior to the stop in addition to the info collected while in contact with the driver, including the “perceived race” of the driver prior to the stop. Officers, in general, are afraid of stopping violators of certain races for fear of lawsuits or civil action.
- Chemical agents and pepper ball deployment are now allowed for non-compliant drivers. We are no longer allowed to pursue for traffic violations.
- Unless the violation is one in which the violator has done something so unsafe that it places public safety in jeopardy, i.e., a very dangerous or egregious act, we are not to ignore it, but rather re-evaluate the risks in making the traffic stop and weigh assigned primary responsibilities against the need to deal with a minor traffic law infringement.
- No more “performance standard” (20 stops a month).
- No more custodial in most situations.
- No longer can give a verbal warning. You must write a citation or written warning.
- Reduced stops on minor infractions.
- Became policy to issue stop receipts to motorists stopped.
- Changes made to what we do when in contact with firearms during a traffic stop.
- No pretext stops unless there is an abundance of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
- Patrol vehicles now have video cameras.
- We must now include the race of the vehicle operator for all stops and have bodycams activated. We also have a new stricter pursuit policy.
- Can’t make someone exit the vehicle unless you have PC.
- No vehicle (or pedestrian) contacts unless witnessing a violent crime.
- Force not to be used to get a person out of the vehicle for the sole purpose of towing the vehicle.
- The policy changed from a “should” activate body-worn cameras during traffic stops to a “shall” activate body-worn cameras when you know you are going to stop a vehicle.
- Some arrestable offenses such as driving on a suspended license are now prohibited in most cases. Policy requires us to consider the least intrusive or financially impactful course of action was also implemented. It basically says to ticket drivers less or not at all.
- The Sandra Bland Act tightens racial profile reporting resulting in more data gathering and reporting.
- Call in to dispatch with all traffic stops.
- Beginning July 1, 2020, Virginia House Bill 1250, commonly known as the Community Policing Act, became law. It requires local law enforcement agencies to collect and report certain data pertaining to drivers to the Virginia State Police during a motor vehicle (traffic) stop.
- Can no longer tell someone to not make phone calls during traffic stops.
- About a year or two ago, they started requiring us to introduce ourselves by name and department and the reason for the stop at the initial contact.
- Must attempt to deescalate and talk before using force, but there is no definition of how long you need to talk and deescalate before you can step up force.
- Reduced pursuit of fleeing vehicles to violent felonies only.
- Pit maneuver made a use of deadly force.
- We only request licenses from operators as registration and insurance information can be obtained via DMV now.
- A demographic form required on any self-initiated stop that states race, gender, age, the reason for stop and action taken.
- Non-enforcement of suspended driving violations.
- If the subject doesn’t pull over for the traffic stop and continues to drive on, but you don’t have an exigent circumstance to continue into a vehicle pursuit, then the officer must shut down his equipment and let the vehicle go.
- No longer able to ask if there are drugs or weapons in the car unless that was the reason we stop them.
- Explain the reason for the stop prior to getting ID.
- Equipment violations have become a secondary violation only by law, can no longer arrest the driver for refusal to sign the traffic ticket. A requirement to issue warning cards where we previously just verbally warned the driver.
- Discourage officers from making stops purely for equipment and non-safety-related violations believing this will reduce negative contacts with violators.
- The list of primary offenses we can stop for has gotten considerably smaller. Required use of bodycams (new to department) and in-car video. More of an emphasis on issuing warnings unless it’s for offenses that are “hot button” like texting while driving or driving without a seatbelt.
- Addresses signing or not signing the citation, and now involves a supervisor to decide if the party can be booked for the charge.
Only 16% of respondents said their department’s traffic stop policy specifically addresses driver non-compliance; 68% said their policy does not address non-compliance and 14% were unsure.
If the department’s traffic stop policy specifically addresses driver non-compliance, responders were asked to explain how the policy addresses non-compliance. Reasons listed include:
- Supervisors must respond to the scene before a refusal to sign can be taken into custody.
- Call for a cover unit.
- It encourages officers to consider the overall circumstances and make a decision on whether the non-compliance is a critical matter requiring immediate action such as an arrest or can be ignored or worked through to complete the task without undue hazard to the officer or traffic offender.
- Chemical agents can be used for drivers refusing to exit the vehicle and we can now use glass breaker rounds from a pepper ball gun to break windows.
- If you can issue the citation, issue it. Don’t escalate the stop.
- Request supervisor and additional unit.
- Immediately call for backup. Stall and attempt to talk to the person and diffuse if possible or maintain status quo conversation until backup arrives. Then escalate as needed to identify and detain the driver to permit further investigation into the reason behind non-compliance.
- If someone refuses to identify themselves and refuses to step out of the vehicle we are to call a supervisor before we can break a window out. If the driver takes off in the vehicle we are not allowed to pursue unless they have committed a violent felony.
- We have a process of verbal cues we make before going hands-on, the last being, “Is there anything I can do or say to get you to comply?” When that’s said, everyone knows hands-on is coming immediately.
- If the driver refuses to sign a summons our policy requires a supervisor (or uninvolved officer if a supervisor is unavailable) to respond and attempt to communicate to the recipient of the summons the requirement by law.
- If the driver fails to comply with any directives they are informed of the law authorizing officers to use reasonable force to remove them from the vehicle and they are given time to comply after they have been educated on the law. If they continue to remain non-compliant they are forcibly removed and arrested.
We asked if department policy encourages that, when conditions allow, traffic stop approaches are made at specific locations, such as a well-lit convenience store or near a firehouse, even if it means following a vehicle for a short while. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (59%) said no, just over a third (37%) said yes and 5% were unsure.
REASSIGNING TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT
While there has been a lot of discussion among legislators and community groups about reducing the role of police in enforcing traffic laws, only 7% of survey respondents support such proposals. The majority (87%) do not support such proposals and 6% were unsure.
We asked respondents what traffic enforcement tasks should be reassigned from law enforcement to another agency. Here is a sampling of some of the responses we received:
- We should not be stopping vehicles for a broken windshield, distracted driving, broken equipment, expired plates and seatbelt use.
- Car crashes not involving death or DWI should not be a police matter. Anything regarding abandoned cars and parking complaints. Police should ONLY address specific violations related to unsafe driving that threatens public safety.
- Speeding, registration.
- Stop sign violations.
- All traffic with the exception of pretext and DUI.
- Reckless driving when the complainant calls in but not available to interview.
- Red light camera violations along with speed enforcement cameras where citations are sent to the offenders where no interaction from law enforcement at all.
- Registration compliance.
IMPROVING OFFICER SAFETY, TRAINING
We wanted to know how much traffic-stop training was provided to respondents. The majority (50%) receive yearly training, while 42% do not receive any training. Only 6% receive monthly training.
Respondents were asked to select the types of training received for traffic stops with non-compliant drivers since 2019. Many respondents selected more than one method, with online training, legal case reviews, roll call briefings and classroom lectures are the most common type of training formats. Hands-on training and simulation are not as frequently encountered.
Nearly half of respondents believe they have not received adequate department-provided training for traffic stops involving non-compliant drivers, while a quarter strongly agrees or agree they had received adequate training.
Despite that lack of training, most respondents (84%) indicated they are confident in their ability to handle a non-compliant driver during a traffic stop.
We asked a series of questions regarding the type of training respondents had received regarding responding to non-compliant drivers during traffic stops.
Only a quarter (24%) had received hands-on training in removing a non-compliance driver from their vehicle, 35% have completed simulator or hands-on training on using less lethal tools (i.e., pepper spray or an ECW) with a non-compliant driver, and 37% have completed simulation or range training on reacting to a driver or vehicle occupant who shoots from the vehicle.
We asked respondents for their recommendations for other police officers to improve officer safety and reduce liability risks when stopping a non-compliant driver. We compiled the top responses and themes in this article, “Improving officer safety and reducing risk during non-compliant traffic stops” for verified officers only.
ADDITIONAL FINDINGS FROM THE SURVEY
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