Reader Article #4: How To Be Pulled Over By the Police, Safely

GUEST AUTHOR: Jeffrey Riggs is a Viet Nam War Veteran with over 30 years in Law Enforcement. He is Kaicho of the Okinawa Kenpo Karate Renmei of America, teaching for over 25 years. His extended biography and training information can be found on his homepage:


When I was a kid the public perception of a police officer was, positive.  He was an honorable and trustworthy protector of the public, who could be trusted with your most valuable possessions, even your life.  This perception was reinforced by movies and televisions shows such as “Dragnet” and later “Adam 12”.  As I grew older, my perception, and that of the public, became more realistic with police involvement in civil rights violations and excessive force becoming common knowledge.  Of course these issues were addressed and continue to be.  Through all that, Law Enforcement continued to retain the public trust, though we now know that officers do make mistakes and as in all professions, there are some bad ones.  But the bad ones don’t last long due to established safeguards.

police car lights

For over 30 years I was one of those police officers (a good one).  After Viet Nam, I went to the Police Academy and my destiny was set.  I also became a martial artist, teaching Okinawa Kenpo Karate for nearly as long.   Because of my history and profession, I chose the more practical approach to Karate, focusing on combat and self-defense rather than the sport aspect.  It proved to be a wise choice and served me well over the years.  Retired now, my second career is full time teaching an art that saved my butt several times.

There is one issue that doesn’t fall into “normal” self defense or martial training.  That is; what do you do when your “Threat” is a police officer or someone impersonating one?

It’s a new day and wackadoos abound, gone are the days when a regular person can venture forth in public without at least some concern for their safety and well being.  Everyone needs to take certain precautions and increase their awareness to ensure their safety and the safety of their possessions.  Even trust in our police officers has eroded, unfortunately for some valid reasons.  Though perhaps not as valid as some might think.

Police Impersonation

I have been asked, “How can I be sure the police officer pulling me over is real”?  Due to the occasional rapist impersonating a police officer to isolate his victims, this is a very valid question.  There is also the question, “How do I know the police officer who stopped me won’t rape and kill me”?  Yes, that has happened.

I’ll address the impersonation of an officer first.  Uniformed officers in marked police cars perform the vast majority of traffic stops.  I have never heard of a rapist or someone intent on committing some type of random assault go to the trouble of reproducing the “police car” and “uniform”.  So, if you learn what police cars and uniforms look like in your area, you’re OK.  If someone in a Security Vehicle or is wearing something that doesn’t look like a uniform, tries to pull you over call the police and ask for verification.  Red, or Red/Blue, means Police, don’t stop for Orange or Yellow, and call 911 if someone with these lights try to pull you over.

Police do use unmarked vehicles and there are some marked cars that don’t have overhead lights.  If you are familiar with police cars these cars should be easy to spot.  If not, look for permanently mounted lights on the bumper or grill.  Is the officer wearing a uniform that you recognize?  Is he using the radio to call in his location, your tag number and description and reason for the stop?  Fake police officers don’t have anyone to call in to and would have to “act the part”.  Be cautious of a single “Bubble Light” on the dash.  They are used by police but rare for traffic enforcement, usually reserved for getting through traffic and not stopping traffic.  Police stop traffic offenders; did you commit a traffic offense?  If so act accordingly.  If you are pulled over by an officer, marked police car or not, if you see the word “Security” or any phrase that doesn’t contain the words “Police”, “Deputy”, “Sheriff”, “Law Enforcement”, drive immediately to a well lighted and public area calling 911.  Those words are exclusive to legitimate police officers.  Other words, meant to deceive include “Agent”, “Bail Enforcement”, “Officer”, “Investigator” and “Detective”.  These are not totally inclusive, just examples.  Security Guards, Private Investigators, and Bail Bondsmen use these legally, but that also makes them available to one whom would impersonate a Police Officer.

If you suspect that the officer pulling you over isn’t legitimate let him know you see him and slow down a bit so that he knows you intend to comply with his stopping you.  Hand gestures and eye contact work well for this.  Legitimate police officers, especially those in unmarked cars understand this.  Drive to the nearest populated and lighted area.  Call the police and ask if this officer is legitimate, request another officer if they don’t know.  You may have a different agency on the phone that the one who’s officer is pulling you over.  When the officer approaches tell him you have the dispatcher on the phone to verify his identity.  A real police officer will understand, a fake will run.  On the outside chance you are accosted, drive off.  Tell the dispatcher where you are and keep them on the line.

Things Not To Do

Here are some things not to do.  Don’t have a bad attitude.  It never makes the situation better and anger is not fear.  If you suspect the officer is not legitimate, you should be afraid, not angry.  Anger tells me, and it should tell you, that you don’t really suspect the officer to be fake.  Don’t drive to any other location at the direction of the officer, except to clear traffic or get further off of the road.  Don’t be afraid to ask for credentials, identification, or another officer to be present if you are still suspicious.  Don’t be an unreasonable idiot, if the uniform is legitimate, the car properly marked, and he has all the appropriate equipment such as gun, radio (working), citation book, pepper spray, and black shoes.  It would be unreasonable to not comply with this person.  Do not let your opinion as to the validity of the reason for the traffic stop influence your “suspicion” as to the validity of the officer’s identity.  You may have committed an infraction that you were not aware of or he may have stopped you for some other legal reason of which you have no knowledge.  In most cases a simple question will result in a proper explanation.

I have arrested and successfully prosecuted a police impersonation/rape case.  It was a terrible thing and had several things in common with many such cases.  Solitary woman driver, isolated location, alcohol (the victim had been drinking), bubble light on the dash of a civilian car, uniform shirt with a badge.  Healthy skepticism would have prevented this case, but the first thing alcohol does to you is impair judgement, before anything else.  After this victim was pulled over she did become suspicious, but she didn’t know what to look for and how to react.

In all my years I only know of two cases that involve real Police Officers committing crimes such as Rape/Murder while on duty to random victims during traffic stops.  So the odds are very good that this kind of thing won’t happen to you.  But the horrendous nature of such a crime, who the criminal is, the vulnerability of the victim, and the law requiring compliance with a supposed trusted public servant, makes this an issue to be addressed.

On December 27th 1986, California Highway Patrol Trooper Craig Peyer stopped a woman on an isolated off ramp in San Diego and killed her.  On March 4th 1990, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Timothy Harris stopped a woman on I-95 in an isolated area of Indian River County then raped and killed her.

The odds of even knowing one of these guys is so remote it warrants no concern.  So being a victim of an officer like this is nearly impossible.  But only nearly, there is no guarantee that it won’t happen again.  Life doesn’t work like that.  Years ago I worked with Harris when he was a rookie, and no, there wasn’t a clue to what he would ultimately do.

There are some common factors in both of these cases.  A lone female driver, isolated location, both victims were relocated to more secluded locations nearby.  Neither trooper called in the traffic stop.  Both troopers appeared to have some type of issues involving “power”.  Both victims were traveling greater distances and not near their home or destination.  Both crimes occurred at night.  The fact that both cases involve troopers of large state agencies whose focus is traffic only and that both cases were on Interstate Highways suggests a dynamic that is beyond my understanding.  Investigation into both of these cases revealed that both of these officers engaged in obviously questionable behavior in traffic stops and other incidents leading up to their ultimate crimes.  If at any time an officer acts inappropriately or overly personal, you should report this to a Police Supervisor as soon as possible.

Prevention Tips

Preventing this type of crime is best effective by the Law Enforcement Agency and the certification process of police officers.  But there are things you can do.  Avoid being a lone female driver or driving at night if you can when traveling.  If stopped in an isolated area, ask the officer to call for another officer to be present, especially at night.  If stopped, pull well off of the roadway making a request to move to a “safer location” unreasonable.  Turn off your radio/music but not your car, leave it running.  Check to see if the officer is using the radio to call in his traffic stop, if not ask for another officer to be present.  If the officer asks you to exit your vehicle, ask him to have another officer present. If you are uncomfortable for any reason, say so and ask for another officer to be present. If the officer refuses, call 911 and ask yourself.   Be reasonable, the odds that the officer will assault you are extremely remote.  But if he does, drop it in drive and leave, immediately and call 911.  But you have to remember; unreasonably fleeing an officer will put you in jail.  Unsubstantiated allegations will probably get you little sympathy from other officers, but an immediate call to 911 will verify, something happened and you were not fleeing police, just that officer.

Now there is good news.  The process to become a police officer takes a long time.  They don’t take just anyone. There is a lengthy waiting list.  A candidate has to pass a background check and a psychological examination to get into the Police Academy.  The Police Academy is designed to weed out poor candidates as well as teach.  There is another waiting list for employment at a police agency.  There is another background check, more detailed, and another psychological examination, also more detailed.  There is written, verbal, and physical testing, as well as oral review boards, followed by interviews by administrative heads.  All of this is designed to weed out the less than acceptable.  If a candidate makes it this far he may be offered a job.  This job is “probationary”, one year in some cases, two in others.  The new police officer now becomes the property of a Field Training Officer.  The training officer has two jobs.  One is to train and familiarize the new officer to policies and procedures, and to teach him how to be a police officer.  The other is to weed out the less than acceptable.  The likes of Craig Payer and Tim Harris are looked for throughout the entire process and I have faith that the system works.

After the “Field Training Process” and “Probation”, officers are still held to the highest standards.  Any complaint of inappropriate behavior is treated seriously, thoroughly investigated and appropriately dealt with.  Many times it is a misunderstanding, or a mistake that can be corrected.  Sometimes it’s not and the officer looks for a job more conducive to his character, not to forget that criminal acts result in appropriate prosecution.  Just remember that revenge for a citation is not a good motive for an officer complaint.  Providing false information on such a complaint is not only illegal and can result in you being prosecuted, you can also be sued for liable by the officer.

Being familiar with the contents of this article, paying attention while using common sense and logic while being stopped by that officer will result in a safe encounter, though maybe not an enjoyable one.  Nobody likes that citation.