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Law Enforcement Bulletin: Conducting a Safer “Terry” Stop

During an investigative detention, or “Terry” stop, the law enforcement officer has developed reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is occurring and has decided to detain the citizen in order to conduct further investigation. By the very nature of this type of interaction, the Terry stop is a complicated procedure with inherent threats to the officer’s safety.

In an article published on, Lakewood, Washington veteran police trainer Jeff Payter offers five questions every officer should consider when preparing to conduct a Terry stop:

1. What is the nature of the crime? If you believe you are contacting suspects in a crime of violence, the threat to you is elevated. Your justification for a weapons frisk is much greater.
2. Do I think the suspect is armed, or do I KNOW that the suspect is armed? If you think a suspect you are detaining may be armed, then a pat-down for weapons is prudent. If you KNOW a suspect is armed, then the interaction has morphed into a high-risk contact. You should be contacting the suspect with your sidearm at low ready, and the suspect should be handcuffed before attempts to disarm are made. There is a big difference between thinking and knowing; when you know, recognize the elevated risk to your life and act accordingly.
3. What are the objective hazards of the contact? By objective hazards, I mean hazards that are concrete (known) and measurable. Is the ratio of suspect-to-officers acceptable? Is there adequate illumination to see threats to your safety? Are you in a location in which there are additional people unfriendly to police? Is there a crime of violence involved in the contact? Use good tactics to counter objective hazards.
4. What are the subjective hazards of the contact? By subjective hazards, I’m referring to more hazards brought to the situation by the individual officer. This type of hazard varies from officer to officer. Chronic injuries; poor marksmanship; poor control and defensive tactics skills; poor communications skills; damaged or inoperative equipment; lack of physical fitness and poor geographical orientation are all examples of subjective hazards that are brought to a given incident by an officer.
5. What type of behavior does the suspect exhibit upon contact? Officers should make an assessment of potential resistance upon contact. Is the suspect preparing to flee? If they begin the “hurdler stretch” while you are introducing yourself, they may be preparing to run. Are they taking a bladed stance (or some type of stance indicating hostile intent)? Is the suspect crowding your personal space? If you are seeing problematic behavior, you should confront the behavior immediately. Don’t make the mistake of fatal rationalization.

Use a Control Hold

When the decision to frisk is made during a Terry stop, physical control should be established prior to the commencement of the pat-down. Both hands should be secured in some type of control hold at minimum. I see many officers and trainees try to short-cut this part of the process by beginning the pat-down without establishing a control hold. I advocate the Modified Faulkner position, wherein the suspect is controlled via finger lock with their hands behind their back. Many prefer the suspect to have his hands interlaced behind his head. Whatever your technique preference, a control hold or position should be used to place the suspect at a disadvantage prior to the start of the pat-down.

Optimally, you should have a cover officer present at the start of the contact. Depending on the realities of staffing in your jurisdiction however, this is not always possible.

In the event you are beginning the pat-down alone, it is even more important to use a control hold. You may want to handcuff the suspect at the beginning of the detention; however, you must then make decisions with the Fourth Amendment issues regarding use of force and Miranda.

The Terry stop is a versatile tool when properly utilized by your municipality’s police force, but officers must be aware of the hazards associated with these contacts and use appropriate tactics to mitigate those risks.

For questions regarding this or other law enforcement issues, feel free to contact AMRRP Loss Control Manager Eric Duthie at (602) 368-6503 or [email protected]

Portions of the above article originally appeared on PoliceOne, the online resource for Law Enforcement, and are reprinted by permission of the PoliceOne editorial team. Visit to access articles, information, and resources that help officers across the United States protect their communities and stay safe on the streets.

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