Why Do Policeman Touch a Tail Light?

By Jay White

February 11, 2015   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

<p>Every police reality show seems to depict law enforcement officers touching car taillights or trunk lids when approaching a vehicle during a car stop. If you have been pulled over, you may have experienced this yourself and wondered why police engage in this behavior.</p>
<p>This used to be common practice, as older methods of police training taught police officers to press their hand against the trunk or a tail light to leave fingerprints as they approached a vehicle. The theory was that the prints would provide evidence that the officer made contact with the vehicle. If the officer were abducted, the prints would provide evidence to confirm the perpetrator’s vehicle.</p>
<p>Officers were taught to press gently down on the trunk during their approach to ensure the trunk was shut and latched. This tactic was in response to assailants hiding in car trunks and popping out to assault and kill officers.</p>
<p>Other tactics included loudly tapping the trunk or tail light to surprise the driver of the car. This was thought to prevent those inside the car from hiding drugs or guns. The natural response of most drivers, when hearing the startling sound is to look over their right shoulder, giving the approaching officers time to do a quick scan of the interior of the car.</p>
<p>This method is still employed in departments where two-officer patrol units are the norm, and one officer can maintain a safety watch on the occupants of the vehicle. No car stop is ever safe, as suspects can and do have quick and easy access to weapons to assault and kill law enforcement officers before officers can mount an effective defense.</p>
<p>Modern policing tactics make use of the video cameras installed on police cars, officer body cameras and other methods that help maintain officer and suspect safety. The practice of touching taillights and trunks has largely fallen out of favor because it requires officers to place themselves in the line of their own cruiser’s spotlight. This effectively illuminates them, making them an easy target for shooters inside the suspect vehicle.</p>
<p>Any action that exposes the officer’s position makes them more susceptible to attack and is discouraged by most departments. Officer safety has become a priority as the business of policing has become more dangerous. Officers are trained in alternate methods of approaching vehicles during car stops so that the safety of the police, as well as the occupants of the vehicle, is assured.</p>

Jay White

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