Though traffic stops may seem routine, there is a lot going through a police officer's mind (Getty Images).

    by: Kevin Ransom | AOL Autos

    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.

    Have you ever been pulled over by a police officer?

    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."

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    1 - 20 of 599 Comments
    userbronco Jan 08, 2011 10:50 AM
    So its illegal to drive with no doors in NV? I see lots of Jeeps in the summertime with no doors.
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    trbnchsr Nov 25, 2010 10:01 AM
    I was on the expressway once on my motorcycle..and like a dummy I ran out of gas...even ran out the reserve tank....so I was pushing the heavy bastard down the emergency lane..the next exit about 2 miles ahead...I see three state troopers just drive past.. no lights on... didn't even look over or any thing.... finally a guy in an old pick up pulls over....we hook up a tow rope to the front forks....pulls me to the next exit where I can get some gas. I guess the cops were responding to an emergency.. I am grateful to the good ordinary citizens out there still.
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    franbryant Nov 25, 2010 9:46 AM
    The average police officer only has a GED. So don't let your intelligent over load their brains.
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    lexusdoora Nov 25, 2010 9:16 AM
    Those were good points for drivers to know too; and I am always very alert and cautious whenever approached by a cop . . . because there are so many who are either poorly trained or outright mentally defective or insane. Sacramento Sheriff are a case in point of poor training because too many cop agencies are hung up on the military aspect but don't really train policing. Cops need to go back to being cops and stop being taught to be storm troopers. When cops resort to strongarm "tactic" to deal with an elderly person such as pulling guns, gang wrestling to ground (while person is trying to get down), kneeing in back (when person is already down and held by all limbs) and arm twisting (when hands are already limp and offereed) then police training has gone badly amiss (Are you listening Sacramento County Sheriff?). Or when an 18 year old rookie on first patrol is abandoned by his partners/supervisors and left with a gun to terrorized unsuspecting motorists because he thinks this is his test, then something badly has gone amiss with police oversight (Are you listening DPD?). Or how about the police department (Such as Dallas's) that is so inept (largely due to hiring kids 18 years old) the the get confused and give the ticket to the wrong person; or let the person off who almost kills a cyclist because they fail to interview the only witness, leaving the cyclists to foot his own bill and the bill of the person who almost killed him (again, are you listening Dallas Police?). Or How about the police like in Dallas who pull people over and frisk them for no reason other than they want to see if the girl in the car wants cop sex (listening Dallas police?). And how about the CHP (California Highway Cadets) who act so cocky but know so little about the rules of the road; and even commit such a boner when a hit and run driver is place right in their hands that perp is let go and the cooperating victim has to bear the cost. Yes, theres as much reason to be wary when any cop approaches as there is for the cop to be concerned... in fact probably much more reason.
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    mrrumpole1826 Jul 08, 2010 8:36 PM
    when i was a kid , i was taught that when i need help to look for a policeman , today if i have a problem a cop is the last person i would call , america has changed , now the bad guys wear badges , and while im sure there are soome good cops left , they are a dwindling minority, there motto sholud now read TO PROTECT AN SERVE THERE OWN INTEREST
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    blueknightflyer Jul 08, 2010 7:59 PM
    As a Police Officer I would like to correct a part of this article. We handcuff BEFORE we search an offender if we conduct a felony stop.
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    johnmichae4 Jul 08, 2010 5:28 PM
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    doughboych Jun 01, 2010 1:43 PM
    If you don't like the Police next time you need help don't call 911 call a crackhead.
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    z06billy Apr 04, 2010 3:09 PM
    Alphagag, where do you live? On a mountaintop somewhere? You are correct, if I am speeding, I do deserve a ticket. What if a police officer is speeding, does he/she deserve a ticket? I would assume so. It is every state's law that police officers must abide by all traffice laws when not responding to an emergency. How many times have you seen a police officer write another officer a ticket. Please note that, yes, I am in absolute agreement that we need police officers; however, they should be just as accountable as everyone else. Their badge is not a get out of jail free pass.
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    z06billy Apr 04, 2010 2:59 PM
    99 Percent of cops are corrupt. They have low self-esteems and they use their authority (or what they believe is their authority, although it is we who ALLOW them to have the authority in the first place....people, don't forget, you have the authority to take it away from them) to bully people and quench their ego thirst. I have yet to ever see a police officer drive the speed limit. I have a windshield mounted camera and I caught one cop speeding in excess of 120 in a 55 and ran someone off the road. He tried to run but I had him on camera. He was charged with reckless driving, leaving the scene, speeding, and reckless endangerment. Needless to say, he was terminated. Now, I keep my camera on all the time. If I hadn't had that evidence, he may have gone on to kill someone. I have about 40 incidents on video which show egregious violations by officers. I hate most cops. They are nothing but a government subsidized gang of law breaking thugs. Wouldn't you think that speed traps could possibly cause more accidents than not? If police officers were simply more instead of hiding behind bushes, people would slow down without slamming on their brakes. It is so funny how the government takes people for idiots. MD State Cops are a joke, they strut around as though they are highly trained special forces. Everyone, please remember, it is up to us to report cops and ensure they are on the straight and narrow. Nobody else will do it, it is up to us to watch the watchers. Cops have killed unarmed people, cops act as though the murder of a cop is somehow worse than the murder of non law enforcement officials, cops think they can break the law and not have to answer for it, cops believe that if a cop is killed they have it within their authority to avenge that death without due process, cops think they can come in your house or search your car with no probable cause, cops think they can arrest you if you tell them to shut up and stop yelling, cops think they can arrest you just because they don't like your attitude. Cops, please don't send me any comments about how none of this is true. I wasn't born yesterday.
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    lesgo4sail Apr 02, 2010 10:35 PM
    We often used to refer to our police officers as: "......our finest.....". And, yes, it is a difficult, and, at times, a dangerous job. And yes, the police are often dealing with the scum of the earth. However, a huge change has ocurred. Traffic cops have become technocrats and bullies. They play tricks on the motoring public and often hold drivers to standards, they, (and their families and friends), don't follow. This is about generating income for jurisdictions. The simple truth is that off duty cops frequently drive drunk, speed, and otherwise drive recklessly. A badge is a get-out-of-jail-free card. When honest, tax paying, law abiding citizens dislike the police it is because of this hypocrisy. Oh, don't worry. We get it. The guy pulling us over is more than likely a phony who never gives a summons or DUI to another cop. So, what? Well, just keep in mind traffic cops are not your friend, they really don't care about safety and you are deluded if you think they are the good guys. It's a game where they don't follow the rules off duty, but are out to get YOU any way they can.
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    jyrdfrd Apr 02, 2010 3:54 PM
    I served in Law Enfoecement in the military (for a short time). Traffic Stops can be as dangerous aas responding to a domestic disturbance. Of course, there are "bad cops" who pull people over for their own egos or whatever. If a driver leaves their hands visible and all occupants do the same, the police,man will be more at ease. It never pays to argue with them over the offense. I've had people claim I was prejudiced becasue I was writing them a ticket while other vehicles "That they just knew were speeding" were passing. I've also had the usual ladies crying etc... One unique part of being in military lae enforcement is that some people try to "pull rank" and bully a junior ranking person....It's almost always intresting and yes potentially quite dangerous....
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    alphagag Apr 02, 2010 3:04 PM
    GOD BLESS YOUR LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIALS. As you read all the comments in this column, it becomes apparent that the people that are inclined to complain are those that blame other people to distract anyone that will listen to them from their own anti-social tendencies. Individuals like these cannot come to grips with their own faults, poor decisions, and problematic attitudes. They truely believe that their problems and situation is everyone else's fault but their own. Rest assured that nick-names tend to imply an individual's tendencies. I said imply; not dictate. Check some of the nick-names providing comment. What will follow this comment will be a stream of vile gutter talk from those best described by this comment. They will proclaim that my screen-name implies that I am the greatest joke, but in reality it represents my company of 15 years and my initials. So be it with the demented. There will be those that will claim that they know better than anyone exactly what the situation is because they live it. This type of individual is inclined to see only the bad in their own situation and it is my opinion that they represent only 1% of all of the individuals in similiar situations. There will be a very few that will try to present a more intellectual discussion to say that I am an idiot and don't know what I'm talking about. Their own intelligence will disclose their effort to justify their own lack of discipline, unworthy character, and inability to cope with the realities of life. Stay tuned and check this out. It wll be interesting.
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    ddastars2 Apr 02, 2010 2:11 PM
    *They, ".
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    ddastars2 Apr 02, 2010 2:10 PM
    I grew up in a town called Pocatello, in the state of Idaho. The police down there are seemingly corrupt. Although not all of them are, and they are fairly fair, they just obey the law while enforcing it on you just the same. Butt I saw some things, that were uncalled for. I were on the verge or further, at being illegal. You can be pulled over at any time in "Poky&************ out for the speed traps, wherever they may be.
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    kelhart1 Apr 02, 2010 2:02 PM
    Message to dhammerdown, they call that DWB (Driving While Black) definitely profiling although they would never admit it.
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    alphagag Apr 02, 2010 2:00 PM
    Whatever you do, DON'T MOVE and KEEP YOUR HANDS ON TOP OF THE WHEEL and ROLL YOUR WINDOW DOWN (all of them if they are dark tinted). If you are asked to produce something, tell the Officer where it is and how you are going to get it for him/her. If you are nervous, just simply say so. The Officer understands that you will be nervous, but it is how you react to his/her questions and comments that will adjust the Officer's attitude towards you and the situation at hand. If you are asked to get out of your car, say your going to reach for the door handle, leave your right hand on the top of the wheel and operate the door handle with your left hand, as the door opens put your left AND right hand on the door window opening, and open the door with both of your hands in sight on the door. Once you are out of the car, keep both hands still and in front of you. DON'T MOVE unless the Officer tells you to do so. If you are asked if your car can be searched, just say ok; because all the Officer has to do is detain you while the Search Warrant is obtained. In any case, you shouldn't be doing or carrying anything illegal. Obviously, these comments are for the law abiding citizens of our society. The Officer deserves respect, even if you don't think you've done anything wrong. He/She is only doing his/her job protecting society as a whole; including you, even if it is from yourself. As in all other things, there are those public service providers that have problematic attitudes. However, in my opinion, they only account for 2% of true lawmen. If you messed up, like if you were speeding even if you hadn't realized it, you do deserve the ticket. Accept it as one of life's lessons and promise yourself that you will be more careful and viligant with your driving and, ultimately, your money.
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    dhammerdown Apr 02, 2010 1:44 PM
    yeah right you don't have to do nothing to get pulled over, just be a black man in a nice car and believe me you will get pulled over trust me
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    masterdilligaff Apr 02, 2010 1:40 PM
    teds1000, you're an IDIOT.
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    midasestouch Apr 02, 2010 1:26 PM
    I am an economist... I have had ideas to build floating hydro electric generators and begin exporting Harley Davidson Motorcycles to Australia and all kinds of trade that would create jobs in America.... but I won't do it.... I do not support this country to even want to try..... Not with cops like this making money for 30 years with no real trouble and constantly using the threat of violence as an excuse to need more money....... This cop sat on his fat ass in a AC car, handing out tickets to people while criminal jeeps drove past him everyday and then one day he pulls a truck over for no other reason than missing doors..... I would even bet someone in his dept had a jeep without doors....... for 30 years this cop never seen a problem criminal but got paid like he seen them every minute....... you got screwed State of Nevada... You paid for law enforcement in peril when they were at the 7-11 talking to the ugly chick and handing out speeding tickets the whole time..... This nation isn't worth serving anymore....
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