What Do Police Expect of You in a Traffic Stop?


If police mistake you for a criminal, that can make for a very tense experience.  So, what should you do?  

The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department allowed us to re-create a sample traffic stop to examine what police expect from a citizen during the encounter. In the scenario, we drove a car matching the description of a vehicle wanted in connection with a violent crime.

After being pulled over, the officer approached the car and stated, “Put your hands out the window – do it now!”

This is an example of a case of mistaken identity. But, in this moment, all the deputy knows is that the driver could be armed and  dangerous.

Traffic stops are one of the most effective ways to find and get wanted criminals off the streets. They can also go very wrong — and even become deadly.

Sixty-four officers were killed by gunfire in 2016 nationwide and three of those deaths occurred during traffic stops. Nine hundred and 63 people were shot and killed by police in 2016 … and one in 10 of those deaths began as traffic stops.

What do police expect when they pull you over?

First, do not get out out of the car. Leave your hands on the wheel where the officer can see them.

Dennis Lingbeck, a senior deputy for Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department says, “(Don’t) dig in your pockets. If your driver’s license isn’t in there it … makes me a little nervous if you have your hands in your pockets.” 

The placement of your hands during a traffic stop can significantly affect the outcome.

“(We) watch the hands, ’cause the hands are what are going to hurt you, as a police officer,” Lingbeck says. “So if you’re a motorist that’s dealing with a stop … be aware that the officer is concerned about your hands. So don’t put your hands where he can’t see them.”

Lingbeck says the best place to keep your hands is on the steering wheel. Before reaching for your wallet, let the officer know exactly where it is located in the car.

In our scenario, since the car matches the suspect vehicle, the officer then tells us, “Put your hands out the window. Both hands. With your left hand, open the door from the outside. Step out of the vehicle and face away from me … Grab the shoulders of your coat with both hands. Lift your coat up.”  

The most important thing to do is focus — and obey.

One wrong move could make them believe you are a suspect. Do your best to listen to and follow their requests the first time, to let them know you are cooperating.

Lingbeck says, “I think there are three important things (for a citizen to do during a traffic stop) and they are comply, comply, and comply. That’s absolutely the most important thing. Everything else will come out in the wash if it turns out you’re not the person we’re looking for.”

To do that, the deputy may put you in handcuffs for his protection – and yours.

Lingbeck says someone who is polite, in control, and cooperating with police will help diffuse the situation.

“From our perspective, as police officers, we just have to try to keep, in our minds, that people out there living their everyday lives aren’t use to seeing us. If i can raise your comfort level simply (by) being polite and professional, there’s no reason not to do that.”

The State of Illinois has mandated that all driver education courses include instructions on what to do if an officer pulls you over. It went into effect the first of this year. 

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