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Traffic stops are anything but routine

During a traffic stop Thursday, St. Petersburg police Officer Jason Deary prepares to return to his squad car for a moment.

DIRK SHADD | Times

During a traffic stop Thursday, St. Petersburg police Officer Jason Deary prepares to return to his squad car for a moment.

The driver that Pasco sheriff's Deputy Donald Shaw pulled over that night was polite, cooperative — and drunk.

"Then the hair on the back of my neck just stood up," Shaw said. "Something told me I need to lock this guy up."

Instead of checking his eyes or making him walk a straight line, the deputy departed from procedure and immediately handcuffed him.

Shaw's sixth sense served him well: the driver, Roger Leon Wilburn, had killed his girlfriend in Ocala two hours earlier. The shotgun he used was hidden behind the driver's seat.

There was no arrest warrant, no stolen vehicle report, nothing to warn Shaw about the man he pulled over on that dark, rural highway with no backup — just his training, his experience, his gut.

The traffic stop is one of law enforcement's most common duties — and one of the riskiest.

Decades of tragedy along the nation's roadsides — including the two Tampa police officers killed in a traffic stop Tuesday — have taught cops how to protect themselves. Tactics are just part of the equation. The most important edge, law enforcement trainers say, is the mental one.

"It's just something you feel," said law enforcement instructor John Dressback. "It's when all of your training and all of your experience just comes together."

• • •

There are two types of traffic stops: unknown risk stops and high-risk stops. There is no such thing as a "routine" stop, even though the vast majority do, in fact, end up being routine.

Dressback's job is to teach cadets how to do both. The retired St. Petersburg officer is program director of Pinellas' police academy, the Southeastern Public Safety Institute of St. Petersburg College.

The mental process starts right away, he said. When an officer decides to pull someone over, he should already have a plan.

Just to be safe, an officer should radio in the vehicle description, tag and location before hitting the lights. An adversary might not give him a chance to do it when both vehicles stop.

The officer should park about two car lengths behind the subject vehicle and keep an eye on the occupants inside. Are they calm? Or are they reaching under the seat?

When the officer approaches, he should check the trunk to make sure it's closed, that no one's hiding inside. The officer should also touch, or "print" the rear of the vehicle.

It's a morbid tactic: if the stop goes badly, the officer's fingerprints can be used as evidence.

• • •

Just a day after the fatal Tampa shootings, retired St. Petersburg Officer Michael Roberts was teaching high-risk traffic stops at the academy.

When something about a stop gives you pause — dark tint, strange movement — it's time to change tactics, he said.

First step: park the cruiser four car lengths behind a suspect vehicle.

"Putting more distance between you and the vehicle gives you more reaction time," Roberts told the class. "We have so many officers killed with their weapons still in their holsters."

Backup should be there or on the way. The officers should sit in their cruisers for cover with one leg out the door, guns drawn.

Backup officers cover different sides of the vehicle, and different occupants. The primary officer gets on the loudspeaker:

Driver, throw out the keys. Driver, exit the vehicle. Driver, raise your hands. Driver, walk backward toward me.

One by one, officers will order the suspects to walk back toward the police cruisers until they're all in handcuffs.

Think of it as a chess match between the officer and an opponent they don't even know. The goal is to convince that opponent — using tactics, training, even body language and voice — that they've already lost the initiative, and the fight.

Outnumbered? Call for backup. Windows too dark? Make them lower the windows and get out. Surprise them: approach the passenger side first. Think and act fast, before they can.

They shouldn't even think about running, or resisting, or reaching for a gun. Why are suspects told to stand against the back of their vehicle? Because if they run, they have to go past the officer.

"The ultimate goal," Roberts told them, "is to go home."

• • •

The conundrum for officers is that when they approach a driver's window they have to be both courteous and cautious.

"If we overreact, we're accused of using excessive force," said Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Larry McKinnon. "If we under-react, we could be killed. It's a balance that has to be determined in one or two seconds."

Survival depends on using training and experience and tactics. But after a while, veteran officers develop another tool.

"Police officers develop a sixth sense where they feel something is just not right," Dressback said. "You pick that up because of suspicious action, by a suspect's demeanor, by their language."

That's what Donald Shaw, now a Pasco sheriff's sergeant, used back in 1998 when he arrested that murder suspect for driving under the influence.

"To this day," Shaw said, "I don't know why I did it that way."

Traffic stops are anything but routine 07/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 3, 2010 4:11pm]

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