The Routine Traffic Stop: Why There Is Such a Thing and Why Cops Should Embrace the Term

I wonder how many cops, by the time they've read the title of this post, have already uttered the canned response...There's no such thing as a ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP! 

I write knowing full well that I am almost completely alone believing there actually exists such a thing as a ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP. If we in police training are going to be effective at stopping violence and ambushes against police officers, the term should be embraced, not pushed away.

Just give me a chance at changing your mind....I'm going to need all the help I can get to sway the rest of the three-quarters of a million American police officers who refuse to believe anything in our line of work is routine.

Let's first get some formalities out of the way, so I can more succinctly defend my position. Allow me to bounce around for a bit....

Car Stops

Cops quite frequently make contact with occupants of cars. It might be to help a motorist whose car is disabled along the roadway. Maybe responding to a citizen's 9-1-1 call of a "suspicious vehicle" in the neighborhood. Maybe to stop (legal term: "seize") a driver after s/he committed a minor traffic violation, like speeding or displaying expired registration plates. Maybe to identify a car's occupants who match the description of suspects fleeing a serious violent crime. Maybe the car has been reported as stolen.

Sometimes the officer knows who the driver is before stopping the car, as is the case when the officer learns of an arrest warrant through a random license plate check. At other times (and maybe the majority), the officer has no idea who the occupants are.

Depending on the circumstances, sometimes a casual contact is one where the driver is "free to leave." At others, the detention is considered a Terry stop. Yet others, the driver or occupants can be immediately handcuffed or arrested because Probable Cause exists.

Sometimes the officer puts on his/her red-and-blue lights; sometimes not. Sometimes the contact is extremely high-risk, taking into account the various beliefs and information known to the officer at the time. Sometimes the situation is...well....what we generally all call "unknown risk stop" (I'm not ready to also embark on the unknown risk versus low risk discussion...yet!)

Simply, there are lots of reasons why and circumstances that surround a police officer's contact with people in cars. But I am more interested in those car stops where the officer is making a roadway-type seizure on a car, with very little information other than a minor violation of traffic law.

My Background

So early dissenters asking, "Who the heck is this guy?"

I am a 17-year police officer, working the majority of time in uniformed Patrol. I've made thousands of car stops: to arrest those leaving crime scenes; to investigate suspicious activity; to cite or warn traffic violators; to help stranded motorists.

I stop cars that are reported stolen; where passengers are reported to have guns; where home invading rapists are fleeing the area; where drivers are wanted on armed-and-dangerous warrants. I once even got into a high speed 100+ MPH chase...with what turned out to be a 9-year old driver! Stops that NO ONE, including myself, would ever consider routine.  These are all high-risk.

Conversely, I've had the "no tail lamp" stop turn into a robbery arrest. I've been rear-ended several times (a passing car colliding with my cruiser) while having a violator pulled over. I've had "no seatbelt" stops snowball into major drug dealing arrests. I've found illegal guns on stops for simple speeding. I've gotten into fights. I've put driver's into involuntary admission for psychiatric evaluation.  Traffic stops have convoluted into absolute craziness, deviating from the original "why" of the stop. I'll concede on the term "unknown risk stop."

I'll spare any more "patting myself on the back" or self-promotion. But I share these few traffic stop anecdotes for one simple purpose: I contend I speak from a position of being The Police and understand the dynamics of encounters between humans.

I'll address any further "you don't know what it's like!" as they arise in responses and comments.

Understanding Environments

Stick with me for some scientific and systems-thinking terms. There are several sorts of environments we need to discuss:
  • Linear: Events unfold in a step-by-step manner. Imagine a checklist, a baking recipe, or assembly instructions. Think about the phases of manufacturing in an industrial factory line. This occurs in specific order.
  • Non-Linear (Closed-Loop & Binary): Events can unfold into two possibilities, and a closed loop (no other options can enter the situation). Think win-lose or yes-no sorts of flowcharts. The NCAA basketball tournament bracket is a non-linear, closed loop, binary environment; teams win or lose, and no new teams are allowed in. While 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 (or 9 quintillion) possibilities exist, the bracket is still a non-liner, binary, and ultimately finite one. 
  • Non-Linear (Closed-Loop & Multiple Options): Events can unfold into a finite number of possibilities, then those possibilities can unfold into a finite number of possibilities, and on-and-on. A poker game is an example. There are only 52 cards (closed loop), but several rounds where possibilities, statistics, and options change...but can be mathematically calculated. Detailed or complex flowcharts, computational models, or algorithms can account for all decisions. 
  • Non-Linear (Open Loop): Simply -- anything is possible. Think of a bar fight. You don't know when it will happen, who will be involved, with what weapons, or how it will possibly end. The situation can unfold into an infinite number or possibilities, each unfolding into infinite possibilities.
Traffic stops are non-linear, open-loop events. Anything can happen. And that's a lot more complex than 9 quintillion possibilities!

There's an obvious conversation about Boyd's OODA Loop tangled in here too. But I'll let you research that on your own.

Recognition Primed Decision Making

This conversation on traffic stops cannot be had without discussing the role of Recognition Primed Decision Making or RPDM. I'll do my best to use my Catholic high school education to explain it (but will ultimately refer you to your own research for more).

People who are in complex, dynamic, chaotic, stressful situations rely upon their experiences to make decisions. Some analogies are that people look back upon a file-folder of experiences, or a rolodex of training scenarios to help figure out an answer. In essence, people "prime" their decisions by "recognizing" things in their past.

But WHAT is it that people recognize? Few situations repeat themselves exactly...

Pattern Recognition

The human brain, while as powerful as it is, has limitations. It uses pattern recognition (or memory) to fill in the gaps of what is expected or common. Without using these patterns, our senses and perceptions would be completely overcome by even walking into our own homes; the fresh stimuli would paralyze us each time we came into our front door.

Instead, we focus on what is different or what stands out -- as that's what might be important for a decision.

I bet you don't walk into your home every day and say, "Hey look at this hardwood floor! Look at the color on the walls. Look at the couch. That table!" It's one of those patterns that your mind tends to NOT focus on. But if your spouse surprised you by having wall-to-wall carpeting installed while you were at work, you'd recognize the departure from "normal."

Baseline + Anomaly

Let's continue with the hardwood floor in your home. It's a "baseline." It's always there. A constant. It's what's deemed as normal. It's been in your home for 15 years. The rubber ball in the middle of the floor? It's an "anomaly." It stands out. At least it should.

If you step on that ball, you risk taking a spill and landing on your butt. So you avoid stepping on the ball. You think: That ball will roll. I know that from experience that round spheres on smooth surfaces have little friction and high rotational inertia. If I step on it, I might fall flat on my back and split my head open. I will step around it. Hahaha. Probably not the analytical mental process you use.

You've used the baseline of a clean, toy-free floor to subconsciously help your action. Because the rest of your home surroundings are mentally filled-in by a subconscious pattern, you were able to observe and focus on the rubber ball -- the anomaly. In fact, this anomaly fits its own pattern!  Rubber balls on smooth floors are dangerous. It's a pattern. A pattern of anomaly!

The natural decision to step over the rubber ball is made through cognition. Not analysis. Not even intuition. You recalled some experience - whether personal or seeing a cartoon character slip on television.

We must acknowledge that if you step on the rubber ball, you might NOT fall like one of the Three Stooges. What happens, while controlled by physics, is somewhere between non-linear closed loop and non-linear open loop. (That's a debate that's neither necessary nor fruitful at this point.)

I recommend reading the book Left of Bang by Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley for more on baseline plus anomaly thinking, as compared to the US Marine Corps Combat Hunter program. I don't dare put words in the authors' mouths, but I believe the information contained within Left of Bang support my position here on traffic stops.

Defining "Routine"

Let me share some dictionary definitions of routine:
  • set of customary or unchanging and often mechanically performed activities or procedures;
  • a usual or regular method of procedure, esp one that is unvarying;
  • habitual, unvarying, unimaginative, or rote procedure;
  • a rehearsed act, performance, or part of a performance;
  • an unvarying and often repeated piece of behavior or formula of speech;
  • dull or uninteresting; commonplace;
  • being of no special quality or type.
What are things in life that are routine? Maybe a morning routine of coffee, shower, and a walk to the train station? A routine fly ball to a baseball outfielder? A doctor's 3-time-a-day hernia repair surgery? An airplane landing under ideal conditions? An unremarkable wedding celebration and reception? An unspectacular round of golf?

Routine fits a certain set of parameters or bounds. It falls inside what is expected. It's normal. It's regular. It matches the pattern. It's a baseline. 

Routine is what we forget about. It's the subconscious. We do it with little thought or imagination. Not even analysis. Maybe we don't even take notice. Routine is what allows us to open up brain space for that which is...different.

Normalcy Bias

Differences are what make things different. The more subtle the differences, the more things stay similar. The more spectacular the difference, the less routine.

The uniqueness of situations or items adds to the complexity. Operating within complex environments (especially non-linear ones) requires our brains to develop and rely upon patterns and similarities. 

As the number and type of personal and professional experiences grow, we internalize more and more patterns -- patterns of both baseline and patterns of anomaly

However, because police officers experience so much "weird" in their careers, what a police officer deems as "normal" behavior or occurrence is broader than what many other citizens would. Have you ever talked to a citizen who did a ride-along with a police officer on patrol? What is described as a boring shift by the police officer might be an absolute thrilling adventure for a citizen!

Normal becomes a skewed term in the police community. In some senses, veteran police officers develop a bias for normal. They begin to rationalize small details and lump them all into "nothing surprises me anymore." That equates to complacency. The officers allow everything to fit into pre-established patterns - even when there are stark differences. Or an anomaly worthy of attention.

Difference versus Importance

But something being different is not the same as being important. Every traffic stop is unique: the location, the car, the driver, the offense, the intent of the driver, the day's attitude of the police officer, the lighting, the ambient noise. Everything. 

And as a non-linear, open-loop situation, anything can happen. But let's NOT confuse differences with importance. The inevitable minor variations in each traffic stop may not be that critical. Not for the investigation; not for the threat. 

Traffic stops develop patterns. And veteran cops have broader patterns than rookie cops. 

To the rookie cop, especially one in his/her first few weeks, a traffic stop is a complex nightmare function: see the violation, know your street names, make a decision to stop, anticipate the location, radio the location, radio the registration plate (with phonetic alphabet!), turn on the lights, etc etc etc. It's COMPLEX! 

Because rookie cops do not have a thick stack of experiences, minor variations between various traffic stops stick out as anomalies. Each stop is fresh. The first time someone talks back. The first time someone calls you a racist pig. The first time someone is wanted on an outstanding warrant. The first time the driver is a fellow cop. The first time the drunk passenger is an obnoxious asshole. The first time a driver gets out of his car and approaches you.

The rookie has to figure out each of these situations as they unfold. The rookie uses purposeful and time-hoarding analysis, not cognition. That's until the rookie experiences these unique variations again. These differences, with enough time on the job, become...."normal." They, in a sense, become the baseline. It's not that they're expected, but they're surely not that important anymore. They happen and go completely unreported to your peers at the end of shift.

Again, traffic stop patterns develop. So are veteran cops' patterns better? Not necessarily better patterns; broader patterns. Patterns that actually might develop into dangerous bias. Especially when the differences or anomalies are important - things that forecast or hint at elevated danger or threat to the officer's safety.

The Traffic Stop Patterns

So what are the patterns or allowances or bounds of a traffic stop? Then again, I'm guessing that some of you might first argue there are no patterns. But I guess that's why I'm writing this....
  1. Driver pulls over. 
  2. Cop approaches. 
  3. Driver converses. 
  4. Cop investigates. 
  5. Cop makes some decisions, most frequently on whether to cite or not. 
  6. Cop and driver part their own ways.
There's a lot of room for deviation there. A lot of uniqueness can fit under that plotted normalcy curve. A lot of discretion and creativity can be exercised. But the fact that I put numbers on the bullet points in the list is not on accident....

You see, even though a traffic stop is non-linear, it can still follow a certain predictable pathway through the ways it can branch off into weirdness. But the predictability is not determined through algorithms or mathematical models. It's through experiential learning - the collective experiences of the police officer, as well as other police officers who share their lessons with peers.

The vast majority of traffic stops follow this pathway. It's a....routine. But do not confuse this as being linear! It is not linear! It's just statistics. I won't even go as far as saying the above "list" is the rule. But we do need to understand any "rule" before we understand the "exception to the rule."

Routine Traffic Stops

Police officers operate well in the "traffic stop environment." As they get more and more experience, they develop patterns that make them better at figuring out the anomalies and whether those differences are important...or just weird. Rookie cops, who were once overwhelmed by the functions, tasks, and vast stimuli of a traffic stop, quickly perform the same on virtual auto-pilot.

This is because their decisions are primed through established patterns. Their minds' bandwidths are opened to allow for processing only that which falls outside the normalcy curve. This permits the abnormal to be processed correctly and given the proper concentration or attention. The rest of the traffic stop functions are subconsciously performed. The vigilance is allocated properly.

Not every traffic stop is a completely new experience. Neither is each time you walk into your own home...even through when you notice the rubber ball on the hardwood floor, you take action. But it's probably not the first time you almost stepped on a toy. A child's toy on the floor is normal in most homes. If your brain had to process each and every toy on the floor of your home, you'd be mentally exhausted by the time you made it to your bedroom. Instead, you rely on a certain amount of...routine.

By telling ourselves "There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop!" we are essentailly telling ourselves that each and every component of a stop is fresh, new, and unique. We ignore how humans naturally make decisions in complex environments. We discard our past experiences and training. We overload our brains with unimportant information. We cause ourselves to be more stressed. We become hyper-vigilant, over-stimulated zombies.

And then we miss something. Or make a bad decision.

Bringing It All Together

If you discount the term ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP, you are also discounting so many of the above theories and science.

Instead, we should embrace the term ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP. It paints a picture of that which is normal. It gives us a baseline. It gives a standard of acceptable variance. It accounts for uniqueness, but within bounds. It compartmentalizes that which is not vital.

ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP is not about complacency. It doesn't ignore the complex, evolving, non-linear, open-loop nature of contacts with people in cars. It doesn't diminish the dangers, risks, or threats.

Actually the opposite. Embracing the term ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP opens our brain power for prioritizing stimuli, processing it as it comes in, and making safe and appropriate decisions.

Lastly, as hinted to above, the term does not infer that what begins as routine will stay as routine. That's the confusion that might be so troublesome to my critics who so hate the term ROUTINE.

After all, we can't ink-stamp a stop as ROUTINE until it's over.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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