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I conducted an unsuccessful traffic stop. Here’s what not to do.
clea pic
Dawson County Sheriff’s Office deputies pretend to be intoxicated vehicle occupants during a traffic stop simulation on Feb. 25 during the Citizens Law Enforcement Academy. – Photo by Jessica Taylor

What should have been a simple traffic stop for a busted headlight resulted in my death.

At least I thought it would be simple when I was handed a flashlight and told to check a stopped car at the Dawson County Courthouse.

The air was cold and the night was dark. The only light I could see was from my flashlight and the flashing blue lights behind me.

There were two people in the car in front of me. The music on the radio was too loud for me to think straight.

I kept telling myself over and over “this is just a simulation. Whatever happens, it isn’t real.”

Although I knew what I was about to do was just part of a hands-on learning experience from the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office, when I stepped up to the passenger’s side door, that thought left my mind.

In that moment, I was a patrol officer.

Deputies Pierce and Smith sat in that gold sedan acting as if they were under the influence. I could see the silver grip of a gun peeking out of the center console.

I had to think as if I was a real patrol officer. How would I react to two inebriated men and a potentially loaded gun at a traffic stop?

My main objective was to make it home to my family in one piece, but in order to do that I had to figure out how to safely handle my current situation.

I asked the driver to keep his hands on the steering wheel while I had his passenger exit the vehicle and put his hands on the hood of the car.

There was no one there to help me as I stood there in the dark, alone, with an intoxicated man much larger than me while his buddy had ample opportunity to grab that handgun while I was preoccupied.

As soon as I pulled the passenger out of the vehicle, I felt like I had made a huge mistake.

I’d just given this intoxicated man the opportunity to assault me or flee. I told him not to move, but would he actually listen to me? Would he stay put or would he put up a fight? I had to trust that he would stay where he was while I checked on his buddy.

I lowered my gaze to look into the car. Immediately my heart started pounding as I realized the gun I had just seen moments ago was now gone. The driver had a weapon on him. He could have shot me at any moment.

My mind raced and I struggled to make a quick decision. Indecisiveness is one of my fatal flaws, so I was forced to follow my gut and make a decision to hopefully get this situation resolved without any injuries.

“Sir, that gun is missing from the center console. I need you to put your hands up and exit the vehicle,” I said in a somewhat authoritative, but extremely shaky voice. 

Real fear was sinking in. If I had time to process my thoughts I could have told myself that this was just a fun little test, but there was no time. I had two men outside of their vehicle, and one was definitely armed. Any number of things could happen.

“I don’t want to do this,” I said as I began a pat down search of the driver. I didn’t know what I was searching for, or how to do a proper search. The only thing I knew is that there was a gun somewhere.

“Hey, where’d my buddy go,” Pierce asked.

I stopped my search and looked around. Sure enough, the passenger, Deputy Smith, was now gone.

I heard a voice over the intercom at my patrol vehicle. He had found a way to get to my car without me even noticing.

When I turned back to look at the driver, he had the gun aimed at my chest.

Bang. I was dead.

I imagine my traffic stop was less than five minutes, but it felt like so much more. It happened so quickly yet so slowly.

The rest of my Citizens Law Enforcement class went through the same simulation, each one failing as I had. Laughs were shared as we watched each other fumble along trying our best to get through the drill unscathed.

While we had our fun and joked around, we were given a wakeup call. This is what it’s like being on patrol.

When you step out of your vehicle, you don’t know how each situation will play out – and there are a million ways it could go.

It could be as simple as a busted headlight and telling the driver to get it fixed and have a nice day. It could be a person driving with a suspended license. It could be a stolen vehicle. It could be a car full of weapons. It could be a driver under the influence. It could be a domestic violence situation with a passenger screaming out for help.

As an officer, you have to be prepared for all of the possibilities while not infringing upon constitutional rights and somehow securing your own safety.

It’s a lesson we all took to heart that night as we realized every single one of us would have been killed if this situation was reality.

I walked away with an appreciation for the weight that is placed on these deputies’ shoulders because it’s something I wouldn’t ever be prepared for. I couldn’t walk into every situation preparing for the worst possible ending because that amount of stress would suffocate me.

While I hope I’m never pulled over by an officer again in my life, I’ll remember this experience for when that day may come. Maybe for one traffic stop I can put that deputy at ease so they know after talking to me they will be going home to their family.