When most people get pulled over, they usually have one thought: Please don’t give me a ticket. But, for law enforcement, at least a dozen thoughts are racing through their head.
The Bloomfield Police Department invited me to its traffic stop training session Wednesday night to get a feel for a variety of scenarios from start to finish. Before the department’s four full-time and three part-time officers hopped in the car, BPD Officer Jordan Allor, a certified stops trainer, guided me after I was strapped into a bullet proof vest and given a blue training gun to see what really happens during a “routine” traffic stop.
One of the first things I learned is no officer pulls over a vehicle thinking it is a routine traffic stop. Allor told myself and the other officers, “There is no such thing as a no-risk traffic stop. There is only low risk, high risk or unknown risk.”
Within the first few minutes, before making my first faux call to “dispatch” (which was actually another officer on the department on the BPD channel) I was already taken aback.
I’ve been pulled over before. I remember whining to myself about how I’m a good person and one minor infraction shouldn’t result in a ding on my record. But, just because you know that you’re a good person doesn’t put the officer -- doing his or her job -- at ease.
Bloomfield Town Marshal Kenny Tharp was the driver of the vehicle I was pulling over in the mock situation. Based on the scenario, Tharp would either simulate a kind citizen who was apologetic for his speed, or an agitated person who spent the duration of the traffic stop yelling back at the officer in the squad car.
In the first scenario Allor led me through, I learned the importance of voice commands, maintaining my tone and asking the driver to act while also trying to keep an eye on my surroundings. I was instructed not to reach into the driver’s vehicle to grab the license and registration for review because it would give the driver the upper hand to react before I could -- and possibly pull my arm inside the car and take off down the road.
A more difficult task was keeping an eye on the driver’s hands, which I had instructed to stay on the steering wheel, but to also keep an eye out for oncoming traffic and maintaining a professional demeanor. The officers are even hyper aware of the path they take from their car to the violator’s door: Swing out a little to the left so the driver cannot see which way the officer is walking. Again, this tactic allows the officer an upper hand in case the driver is hostile.
While walking back to the patrol car, I was instructed to look out to my left in order to keep an eye on oncoming traffic and maintaining a visual on the other vehicle. Having the three thoughts at one time (oncoming traffic, the vehicle behind me and my footing) was distracting as I tried to move forward.
The multiple thoughts at once would have gotten me injured if I was an officer in a real situation. As I called “dispatch” to confirm the driver’s information, I had a flashlight and the driver’s information in one hand, the hand-held radio in the other and I was looking down at the license when Tharp rushed the squad car.
Before I even realized he’d opened his door, the driver was at the front of the patrol car, demanding his license and asking what was taking so long.
(This was also the point in time I realized I do not have a very strong, commanding voice as I tried to instruct Tharp back to his vehicle.)
It was in that moment I could have been injured in a real situation. My first thought was to stand up behind the door of the patrol car. I thought I would be safe behind the door, but Allor showed me how easy it would be for a perpetrator to pin me against the vehicle inside the door.
I was shown how to properly stand behind the door, angling myself just right so I could fall back to the rear of the patrol car if I was rushed. I had to be aware of how I held my hand in such a situation because if I was rushed, the driver could break my thumb, leaving me in pain and distracted from the incident at hand.
But, the most difficult situation of all was when “dispatch” confirmed the individual had an active warrant. I had to instruct the individual to the back of the car and my three thoughts more than doubled.
I had to be aware of my surroundings, watch my footing, be aware of the driver’s vehicle and also watch body language closely. My downfall this time was not keeping an eye on the driver’s footing and where he was looking.
If the individual had his face slightly facing me, it gave him the upper hand. If his footing was not facing front, it could give the person a chance to move quickly in my direction before I even knew it.
At one point, Tharp had his footing slightly askew without my knowledge, and it was at this point he ran to the side of the vehicle and pulled his own training gun from his back pocket.
The fake gun clicked multiple times before I ever got mine out of my pocket.
Also, I’m not proud of the fact I yelped after his quick movement and my inability to act just as fast. (Thanks for not laughing at me, BPD!)
I learned a lot during this training session, not only as a reporter but as a driver who has a couple of speeding dings on my record.
When getting pulled over, have your license and registration in hand, keep your hands in sight and wait for the officer to come to your window. The men and women of law enforcement just want us to be safe, and we should want the same for them.
I do not have what it takes to be a law enforcement officer, and for that I give thanks to those who do.