Most of us have been stopped by a police officer at some point, usually for a minor infraction like speeding or an expired registration. And of course, all of us have seen movie and TV depictions of the cop who is stoic but unfailingly polite as he hands out a $200 ticket.
It's nerve-wracking, but many of us have long held onto the belief that the 5- to 10-mph cushion of speed over the limit, long thought to be the "safe zone," would leave us in the clear. Although new reports indicate that that so-called cushion is fading away as more cops try to pull in revenue for their municipalities, the heart that beats the fastest during a track stop might not be the driver's at all. In fact, it could be the police officer who's most on edge.
Such stops can sometimes be fraught with peril for the police officer or state trooper -- because they never know when a seemingly routine traffic stop could lead to trouble, or even violence.
So we talked to one retired state trooper to get a better sense of what actually happens at a traffic stop from the cop's point of view -- "the anatomy of a traffic stop," if you will.
The retired Nevada state trooper we spoke to spent 12 years patrolling the highways leading in and out of Las Vegas, which, granted, is a more "colorful" city than most -- but the basics are the same, he said.
"The first thing you always take into consideration is your own safety and the safety of the driver," said the retired trooper, who asked that we not use his real name, so we'll call him Greg. "So you always want to pick a spot to pull the driver over that is safe for both of you. You don't want to be exposed to traffic rushing by in the right-hand lane, and you definitely don't want to pull a driver over on an overpass, because if a passing car drifts out of his lane, the only way you can escape being hit is jumping over the railing and falling 30 feet.
"So you always want to pick a safe spot if you can, but it doesn't always happen that way -- you can't always control where a person pulls over," Greg observes.
The second thing that is ever-present in the cop's mind is to be looking for any suspicious movements on the part of the driver -- "whether they're just acting weird," cautions the retired trooper. "Like, if it looks like they are stuffing something under the seat -- or even worse, reaching for something under the seat."
This sense of being ever-vigilant isn't exactly apprehension, says Greg. "It's more just an awareness and being alert -- I guess it's a survival instinct."
Sometimes, the method of approaching the car just depends on the police officer's instincts, says Greg. "As you approach the driver, you keep looking, keep being aware, and if you get a weird instinctive feeling that this could be more than a routine stop, you approach them from the passenger door, just for safety's sake. Although, this way is more difficult, because you're farther away from the driver, and have to reach into the vehicle when he or she hands you their license, registration, etc."
But one common rule always stood -- "You never go past the B post," asserts the retired trooper -- that is, the pillar behind the front door that separates the front seat from the back seat. "You want to stay slightly behind the driver, otherwise you become a big open target if they have violent intentions."
The potential for a harrowing experience occurs when the cop returns to his vehicle and runs the driver's license and plate number through the system -- and gets a "felony tone" beeping through his radio, meaning, the driver has an outstanding felony warrant. "If this is a bad guy, we immediately get the 'felony tone,' and the dispatcher starts dispatching back-up units before they even start talking to us."
That's when things can get exciting -- or as the case may be, dangerous. "If we get a felony tone, we generally wait for backup," explains Greg. "And when the second officer arrives, you approach the car with your guns drawn, pull them out of the car, search the vehicle, handcuff them and take them in. Because if someone has a felony alert, you need to be prepared that they are ready and willing to break the law and maybe take you out."
Only once in his career did a subject "get physical" with Greg. "I was arresting him, and he resisted, and started to turn around, like he was going to put up a fight. But I had 12 years of martial arts training before I became a trooper, so I just kept him spinning in the direction he was turning until I had his arms pinned and he was bent over the hood, and I cuffed him."
On other occasions, the retired trooper had to join in the chase when his dispatcher radioed ahead that an occupied stolen vehicle was coming his way. "Frequently, if a car thief knows he has multiple units in pursuit, he will get off the freeway and start driving through neighborhoods," says Greg wryly. "So he usually ends up blocking himself in by going down a one-way or dead-end street, and bails out of the car and starts running. That's when guys like me find themselves running through back yards and hopping fences, and the adrenaline really starts pumping."
Greg also recalls one high-speed, potentially dangerous incident. "I was out on the highway one night, when I got a call that there had been a drive-by shooting, and that the suspect was in a vehicle heading my way, and he had driven in and out of both Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, so he was being chased by units from both the Metro police force and the North Las Vegas department. So I see this long line of red and blue flashing lights coming at me -- there had to be 12 cars in pursuit -- and I asked my dispatcher, 'Do you really want me to get involved in this?'
"They said 'Yeah,' so I fell in behind the other units and we chased the guy to the Mesquite, right on the Arizona border, and he went down a one-way street, and the Mesquite cops put the spikes out, so his tires shredded and he was riding on rims by the time he came to a stop," relays the police officer. "And in no time, you had a dozen cops or more, out of their cars, fanned out in a circle, drawing their shotguns. It was an impressive display of efficiency and response, but nothing came of it, because the suspect had ditched the weapon -- so no shots were fired."
During his 12 years as a state trooper, Greg once had what at first looked like it might be a close call -- but in retrospect, is just fodder for an amusing story.
"We were sitting on the side of the highway, my partner and I, running radar, and all of a sudden, this old pick up truck comes barreling down the road -- with no doors on it," says the police officer with a laugh. "Now, I don't know about every other state, but it's illegal in Nevada to be driving a vehicle with no doors. So we pulled him over, and the guy gets out of the truck, and I swear, it looked like he stepped out of 'Big Time Wrestling' -- he was huge, no neck, with the long hair you saw on pro wrestlers in the '70s and '80s.
"Now, it turned out he was a nice enough guy, so we just gave him a warning, and told him to put doors on his truck. But afterward, we were laughing -- because this guy could've ripped both our arms and legs off," says Greg with a rueful chuckle. "It would have taken both of us to get to the hospital -- one of us steering and the other one working the gas pedal and brake.
"I mean, the guy was in violation of an ordinance, and we should have stopped him -- but we didn't expect him to look like a mountain."