Professionalism At The Traffic Stop Strengthening The Citizen And Police Partership
Number 238 January 2001
U.S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20590
PROFESSIONALISM AT THE TRAFFIC STOP STRENGTHENING THE CITIZEN AND POLICE PARTNERSHIP
Community relations is fast emerging as one of the primary concerns of law enforcement throughout the country. Every action by a law enforcement officer has a bearing on the relationship of the agency with the community. In recent years, the behavior exhibited by law enforcement officers during their traffic encounters has come under scrutiny. Allegations that some officers are making decisions based on race as opposed to the actions of the violator have been frequent. Since law enforcement officers make more contact with citizens at traffic stops, agencies should take advantage of this opportunity to build mutual understanding with the community.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gathered some of the best practices of a number of law enforcement agencies into a short publication. It is written for law enforcement agencies by law enforcement agencies and is intended to improve professionalism and courtesy during traffic stops to build bridges to the community...one traffic stop at a time.
Traffic Stops as a Community Dialogue
When officers talk with citizens, they should realize that there are three purposes for every traffic stop:
To stop an ongoing violation of the law
This will be accomplished merely by stopping the vehicle.
To serve as a general deterrent to other drivers
A law enforcement officer with a vehicle pulled over at the roadside has an immediate effect on other traffic and heightens motorists' perception of the active enforcement of traffic laws in the community. Visible police presence extends beyond the single traffic stop.
To change the driver's future driving behavior
The interaction with the driver during the stop will be a major determining factor in his or her attitude toward traffic safety in the future. The goal is to achieve voluntary compliance to traffic regulations and of the laws and their enforcement. People are more apt to accept a new or modified behavior if they trust and respect the authority. This is one of the key reasons why professionalism is so important at the traffic stop.
Other implications during the traffic stop:
To detect possible evidence of a more serious offense
In most cases, this can be done by what appears to the driver to be casual observation and questioning, without causing offense.
To enhance public relations and the image of the law enforcement agency.
Officers need to help maintain the credibility of the law enforcement agency and to minimize the number of complaints. At many agencies, more complaints generate from traffic stops than from other forms of citizen contact.
In this community-law enforcement agency process, the officer and the citizen at the traffic stop discuss and exchange their views in order to bring about mutual understanding. The best practices in this publication offer some suggestions for both officers and drivers.
Part I: Best Practices for Officers
Law enforcement administrators and officers can use the best practices in this publication as a starting point to form their own agency guidelines. Officers who are professional and courteous at traffic stops will help impress the public that they and their agency are acting responsibly and are not profiling by race, gender, religion, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, social economic status, or people with disabilities, all of which violate the Constitution and federal civil rights laws. Many experienced officers often get a thank you from drivers they stop, even when a citation is issued. Others, however, can provoke a confrontation by their mannerisms. Most citizen complaints from traffic stops usually involve the allegation of rudeness.
Courtesy can reduce this negative interchange. A sincere smile does not make an officer less authoritative, but focusing on the driver and occupants and listening to what they have to say can give drivers the opportunity to vent emotions and reduce their stress. The quality of an officer's voice can have a calming effect, especially if the command tone of voice is avoided. Being professional doesn't mean being less in control. It does mean describing the violation in terms of what the vehicle was seen doing, not the driver. For example, Ms. Smith, I saw your vehicle going 15 miles over the posted speed limit. It does mean at the beginning of the stop, to inform drivers why they are stopped. Use the word please when asking for the driver's license and registration, ask the driver for a reason they were violating the traffic law, and give clear instructions and explanations yourself. Compliment drivers on good safe driving behaviors such as wearing their seat belt and for having their child in a safety seat.
Sections of the publication offer suggestions for dealing with confrontational drivers, special conditions with language or cultural differences, and officer safety during suspicious or felony stops.
Part II: Best Practices for Drivers
Law enforcement officers have many opportunities to communicate with their community about why and how traffic stops are conducted. This section contains some traffic enforcement messages that could be communicated to the public in presentations with community groups and schools, during interviews with the media, or included in driver education courses, driver improvement programs, or printed in the state's driver license manual, or that could be placed in visitor centers and rest areas on highways.
Traffic stops are dangerous. In 1999, over half of all officer, line-of-duty deaths were related to traffic incidences. Routine traffic stops sometimes turn out to be not so routine. Officers find uninsured drivers, drivers with suspended licenses, impaired drivers, illegal firearms, drugs, and fugitives. Officers are trained to place a great deal of emphasis on their safety and take a defensive posture at the stop until the risk of confrontation or injury is diminished.
This section of the publication offers good driver behavior suggestions during a traffic stop. For example, drivers should pull well off to the side of the road when being stopped, turn off the engine and radio, avoid reaching or making sudden movements, keep hands in plain view of the officer, avoid provoking the officer or showing off in front of other occupants.