Canada·In Depth

Police protocol: 'No such thing as a routine traffic stop'

In the preceding two years alone, at least eight police officers in Canada have died in vehicle-related incidents. What's more, vehicle-related deaths for police in recent years have jumped ahead of those resulting from responding to a domestic dispute.

Traffic stops and related incidents are the second biggest cause of police deaths

RCMP in Alberta running a check stop near Slave Lake in May 2011. Vehicle stops and related incidents are the second biggest cause of police fatalities in recent years.(John Ulan/Canadian Press)

Police work is often dangerous, but the threat of injury or death is not limited to high-stakes operations. A fatality may follow a routine traffic stop, as was the case in June 2011 for Const. Garrett Styles.

In the preceding two years, at least eight police officers in Canada have died in vehicle-related incidents. What's more, vehicle-related deaths for police in recent years have jumped ahead of those resulting from responding to domestic disputes, according to Statistics Canada.

In the wake of the York Regional Police officer's death, CBC News spoke to Sgt. Tim Burrows of Toronto police traffic services.

These are a few excerpts from Burrows' interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning, which partly focused on what officers are trained to look for when approaching a vehicle.

"Every single situation is different," says Burrows, adding that he drills the following maxim into his officers: "There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop."

Police deaths involving cars 

June 2011Const. Garrett Styles, 32, of the York Regional Police died of his injuries after being dragged and pinned under a vehicle during an early morning traffic stop.

January 2011Sgt. Ryan Russell, 35, of the Toronto police department died after being struck by a stolen truck equipped with a snowplow.

November 2010Const. Sébastien Coghlan-Goyette, 25, of the Sûreté du Québec, was driving with officer-in-training Sophie Rigas, 22; both died of their injuries after their cruiser struck a deer and lost control.

June 2010Const. Chelsey Alice Robinson, 25, of the RCMP's Stony Plain detachment died after her cruiser was struck on the side by a transport truck.

March 2010Const. Artem (James) Ochakovsky, 36, of Peel Regional Police died of his injuries, after his marked cruiser hit a lamppost following a collision.

September 2009Const. Mélanie Roy, 21, of the Lévis Municipal Police died in a traffic accident while responding to a call.

July 2009: Const. Alan Hack, 31, of the OPP's Elgin County detachment died when a transport truck hit his cruiser.

May 2009Const. James Lundblad, 41, of the RCMP's traffic services unit in Camrose was killed when his vehicle collided with a grain truck on the highway.

Other incidents

January 2011: A Winnipeg officer was dragged about 10 metres after reaching into the window of a suspected drunk driver.

June 2010An officer in Saskatoon was dragged for two blocks after attempting to stop a driver that had run a red light. 

November 2009: An RCMP officer in Newfoundland got hold of a fleeing suspect through the open door of the car, but was knocked down and dragged for about five metres as the driver attempted to speed away. 

April 2009:Calgary officer was trapped in a car door, which had been open, when a driver he pulled over sped away. He was dragged for about 200 metres.   

He said officers are taught to monitor the mannerisms of the people inside the vehicle and also to examine the surroundings — to look out for traffic flow and bystanders, and also for a place to take cover "if something goes sideways."

But in fast-moving situations, officers do not always resort to textbook guidelines.

"There are some protocols, but for the most part we've tried to lump it into best practices," said Burrows. "Unfortunately, vehicle stops are a very, very fluid event."

Police cannot control where or how drivers stop when they are asked to pull over and whether they leave a safe distance between cars.

Sgt. Burrows said he has pulled over drivers as young as 12 and that little surprises him after several years doing stops.

"All of these things are continually going through your mind, and you're assessing as you do that approach," he said. "What could you be walking into? What are you looking for?"

A spokesperson from the RCMP training academy refused to reveal operational policy on traffic stops, stating that the details of their protocol are confidential. Other police academies only discussed their protocol in very general terms.

Valder Belgrave, of the Justice Institute of British Columbia, said municipal police officers in B.C. learn to deal with traffic stops as part of their general traffic studies curriculum.

Greg Flood, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services in Ontario, said police officers receive traffic stop training in schools like the Ontario Police College.

He said that, broadly, cadets are taught how to position their vehicles and take stock of their surroundings, often as part of general courses on vehicle operations and officer safety.

Several officers have been hurt or killed in vehicle-related offences in recent years, each of them featuring a unique set of variables. Some have become trapped and dragged along with speeding cars, often while attempting to stop suspects in their tracks.

Police deaths in context

Police officers' deaths in recent decades have been tracked by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.

The homicide survey (1961 to 2009) includes police deaths that happened during traffic stops and other vehicle-related calls, but does not account for deaths caused by traffic accidents where no one was charged, such as when a deer runs in front of a cruiser. 

The most common form of police death in the line of duty is being shot to death, particularly (23 per cent) during the investigation of a robbery. Domestic disputes were the second most dangerous calls, accounting for 14 per cent of police deaths with spikes in the 1960s and 1970s.

In more recent years, however, the number of vehicle-related deaths have increased. More police have died while stopping suspicious vehicles and pulling drivers over for traffic violations than have during domestic disputes, according to Statistics Canada.

StatsCan analysts also point out that there has been debate within police circles over whether one- or two-person patrol cars are safer. They note that of those officers killed while on vehicle patrol, 54 per cent were in two-officer vehicles, and 46 per cent were in single officer cars.

With the exception of Prince Edward Island and Yukon, police officers have been killed in every province and territory.