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Department of Public Safety

What to Do When Stopped by Police

The Department of Public Safety is providing this safety tip to help you better understand what to expect from police officers if you are stopped and/or questioned. A familiarization with law enforcement concerns and practices will help avert needless confrontation or misunderstandings and complaints.

While there are no specific guidelines for citizens in handling contacts with police, the following advice is beneficial. The goals of the police department are to improve police-community relations and to have contacts and interviews resolved without unnecessary conflict or injury to either the officer or the citizen. This information will hopefully help to minimize your stress and anxiety during your contact with the police and at the same time give you some insight into the concerns and procedures of the officers.

If You Are Stopped By The Police While In Your Car...

  1. As soon as you notice the police emergency lights, pull your vehicle over to the right immediately.
    1. Although you might not know the reason, you should pull over right away.
    2. You might have committed some minor traffic violation without realizing it.
    3. There may be some problem with your vehicle of which you are not aware.
  2. Remain in your vehicle while the officer approaches.
    1. Do not attempt to get out of your vehicle or approach the officer.
    2. Exiting your vehicle does not assist the officer and may be perceived as a threat.
    3. For the officer's safety and yours, stay in your vehicle.
  3. Turn on your interior light if stopped at night.
    1. A lit vehicle cabin will reduce the officer's concern regarding weapons or other possible threats within your reach.
  4. Keep your hands easily observable, preferably on the steering wheel where they can be easily be seen by the approaching officer.
  5. Reaching under your seat or into glove box are actions that will cause the officer concern that you may be reaching for a weapon.
  6. Give your license, registration and proof of insurance to the officer if asked to do so.
    1. Pennsylvania law requires a driver to turn over this information upon request by an officer in uniform or a plain clothes officer who displays proper identification.
    2. Most officers will not provide a specific reason(s) for the stop until they have received your license, registration and proof of insurance. This is to avoid debating the reason for the stop prior to acquiring the necessary information.
  7. If you wish to inquire as to why you were stopped or offer an explanation, do so before the officer returns to his or her vehicle.
    1. Answer all questions honestly. Information pertaining to prior arrests or traffic violations is easily verified via the police dispatcher.
    2. Touching or threatening a police officer or acting in a disorderly manner could result in the filing of additional charges against you and you will be arrested.
    3. If the officer asks you to step out of your vehicle, do so without any sudden or threatening movements.
    4. Give the officer approximately 6-8 feet of personal space as a safety zone to do his job.
    5. Remain in your vehicle at all times unless asked to do otherwise.
    6. Do not become argumentative, disorderly or abusive. If an officer has already written a ticket, it cannot be voided at that time. If you believe that you have been unfairly treated, DO NOT make that argument on the side of the road. In the event you are issued a state citation, your best alternative is to carry your protest to court. Whether an officer issues you a citation or gives you a warning is entirely up to their individual discretion. Your conduct during the stop may influence the officer's decision.

If The Police Stop You On The Street...

Innocent individuals are often offended or angered, or both because an officer has detained them for questioning. Although the delay might be inconvenient for you, the officer believes there is a reason (Reasonable Suspicion) to stop you and ask questions. Most of these stops are not officer initiated. The most common reasons that cause an officer to stop someone are as follows:

  1. You might be one of only a few people walking around in the vicinity of a crime that has recently occurred.
  2. Your clothing might be similar or identical to that worn by the perpetrator of a crime.
  3. Someone may have called the police complaining about your presence or that you looked "suspicious".
  4. Someone may have pointed you out to an officer.
  5. You may be acting in a manner that the officer considers "suspicious" and you may act even more " suspicious" after realizing that the officer is observing you.

The police officer does not wish to detain you any longer than necessary. Once the officer is able to determine that you are not the individual that he or she is looking for, the officer will often apologize for the inconvenience and then quickly leave to resume the search.

In All Police Encounters...

  1. Avoid making sudden movements (for your wallet, into your coat, pants pocket, toward your waist band, etc.) until you have informed the officer of your intention to do so and the officer has said its OK.
  2. Do not carry weapons (real or otherwise) or even joke about having a weapon on your person.
  3. Do not touch the police officer or violate his or her "personal safety zone (6-8 feet).
  4. Remain calm and avoid being argumentative. (If you are uncooperative and refuse to answer reasonable questions, the officer is likely to become more suspicious and the encounter will probably will last much longer than necessary.)
  5. Comply first, then you may seek an explanation from the officer or the officer's supervisor later.

Don't Be Offended...

Most citizens already realize that law enforcement is a difficult and dangerous profession. Hundreds of police officers are killed each year, and thousands more are injured or assaulted. For these reasons, police officers tend to be extremely cautious. They place a great deal of emphasis on officer safety and survival. Certain safety practices are instilled in our officers from the first day of their careers. Although the procedures maximize safety for the officer, they may seem standoffish, impolite or offensive to citizens who may not consider such precautions necessary with "them". Even though you have no intention of doing the officer harm, he or she will probably maintain a defensive posture until the officer feels that there is no risk of confrontation or injury. As far as police officers are concerned, there is no such thing as a "routine" traffic stop. Every stop has the potential for danger.


There are times when citizens who have contact with the police come away with feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction. The Dickinson College, Department of Public Safety does not condone police misconduct of any type. In our experience, we have learned that those negative feelings are often the result of not knowing the reason(s) an officer has made certain requests or acted in a certain manner. Unfortunately, demands on a patrol officer do not always permit time for explanations at the time you are stopped. Hopefully, the information presented here will give you an understanding of police procedures and let you know what to expect from a police officer if you are stopped.

400 W. North St. - Rear | Carlisle, PA 17013
Telephone Ext.: 1349 | Off Campus: (717) 245-1349