Before I became a law enforcement officer I had a concealed carry permit. During the mandatory safety course, the instructor encouraged us to disclose the fact that we had a firearm in the car to the officer during traffic stops. In most states, the decision to tell a police officer that you’re packing heat is up to you. In others, you are legally obliged to make the officer aware of your gun. Be aware: if you do disclose, many police officers, including myself, will ask to hold the gun for safe keeping during the stop, returning it once the encounter is over. It sounds intrusive, but try to see it from our perspective . . .
For a cop, every traffic stop is a dangerous situation. While most traffic stops are routine encounters with law abiding citizens, they can also become deadly situations for all parties involved, with little or no warning at all.
Any good cop realizes that the driver has the tactical advnatage. The officer assumes all the risks associated with first contact. There is no way of knowing if someone – anyone – in the car has a firearm and intends to do the officer harm.
It doesn’t take years of training before you learn that it’s all to easy for a driver to conceal a gun in one hand as he passes over the appropriate paperwork with the other. The driver could be hiding a gun under their thigh or between the seats. Another passenger in the car could be strapped. It’s a potentially endless minefield of threats.
Theoretically, a traffic stop should run like clockwork. But it’s a surprisingly intricate process. An officer must focus on an entire laundry list of important details:
First, he or she must pull the cruiser over in a safe location, parking the patrol car to avoid creating a traffic accident while allowing enough space for a quick retreat or pursuit. The cop has to get out of their car, quickly scan their surroundings, and then fix their eyes on the driver.
As they approach the occupant(s), the officer’s eyes should be on the driver‘s side mirror; watching the driver watch them approach. Their hand should be [instinctively] placed on the handle of their gun.
Some drivers view this as a threat or insult. Officers are trained to have their firearm at hand to limit the thought process of what they have to do if they’re confronted with a lethal threat. If the officer’s trainer is worth his or her salt, the officer learns to perform this hand placement so that the driver never knows it’s occuring.
Approaching on the left (or right), the officer should check the trunk as they walk by. Passing the first rear side window, they should quickly glance inside. Approaching the driver’s window, they must now focus on the driver’s hands.
The conversation should start with an introduction and the reason for the stop. Once the driver identifies himself with all of the requested documentation, the rest of the traffic stop should go smoothly.
Throughout, the officer should control their tone of voice carefully and stick to their standard script. It’s the officer’s obligation to choose his words appropriately and courteously. He should set the tone in a calm professional way, keeping everyone safe.
On the driver’s side of the equation, it’s best to switch on your hazard lights as soon as you know you’re being pulled. Decelerate slowly and drive smoothly to a safe place to stop: someplace well-lit and removed from traffic. [Note: this is especially true for women drivers who are alone.] If this takes a while, it takes a while; your hazard lights indicate your willingness to stop.
You may wish to switch on your interior lights, as and when it’s safe to do so, and/or lower the passenger windows (window tinting is not a policeman’s best friend). As the officer approaches, keep your hands in plain view. Resting them on the steering wheel works.
Avoid any sudden movement or harsh language. Answer any and all questions factually; this is not a time for debate or discussion. If there is a salient detail you’d like to tell the officer do so at an appropriate time, again without being confrontational.
If you’re legally obliged or want to inform the police about your CCW permit, simply hand your permit to the police with your driver’s license and insurance certificate (where appropriate). It’s best to keep your permit next to your license to avoid an uncomfortable (for both of you) delay.
If the police officer asks you to surrender your weapon, do NOT immediately reach for it. In most cases, the officer will tell you how he or she would like you to transfer your gun. They will tell you to exit the vehicle, ask the location of the firearm and remove it themselves.
If not, it’s imperative that you tell the cop how you plan to disarm. “My gun is in a holster on my hip. I’d like to get out of the car and let you take my weapon. Would that be alright?” Again, move very, very slowly.
Obviously, do not attempt to clear the weapon. Equally, if you’re removing the gun (unlikely), keep the gun pointed in a safe direction at all times. Once you’ve extracted the gun, hold it for the officer to take it from you. Do not attempt to hand it to him or her.
When the officer returns your firearm, do not safety check your piece or load it (the officer may unload the weapon). This is not the time to demonstrate your gun handling skills—save your ability to holster or replace your gun safely.
If all goes well with a traffic stop, the driver receives his or her ticket or warning with equanimity, the firearm is returned and the newly educated driver continues on their journey. The officer walks back to his car thinking he may have saved a life by enforcing the law. Or, at least, done his job.
Too many officers have been killed with a firearm (including their own) or seriously wounded during “routine” traffic encounters. If an officer’s smart, they will perform traffic stops in a tactical and ethical manner. If a civilian is smart, he or she will not give the officer cause to worry—any more than they already do.