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Police officers follow specific steps to stay safe during traffic stops

Posted at 9:12 PM, Mar 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-26 06:24:20-04

HEWITT, TX — Deputy Peter Herrera of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office has died after being shot during a traffic stop on Friday.

Authorities say a man in the vehicle started shooting after the deputy asked the driver to step out of the car.

Herrera is now the27th law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty since the year began.

Chief Jim Devlin of the Hewitt Police Department said his team is sad to hear they've lost another member of their law enforcement family.

This incident also makes him worry about his own officers, adding that a traffic stop is one of the more dangerous parts of their job.

"There's no such thing as a routine traffic stop," Devlin said. "It's always somebody different, it's usually for a different violation and there's always that potential for an incident of violence. So nothing can be routine, because when it becomes routine, we become complacent and that's when we have very major issues that we have to deal with."

Devlin said officers train in the academy to be prepared for these types of situations. He's also trained his team to follow certain steps during a traffic stop.

"The potential is always there. It's always going to be there, it's never going to go away," Devlin said. "We just try to minimize as much as we possibly can in the approaches and the things that we do on these traffic stops."

Officer Joshua Hilliard makes up to 20 traffic stops a day.

Each one starts with calling in his location and giving a description of the car, along with its license plate.

Even with nearly a decade of experience, Hilliard never knows what to expect when he reaches the driver's door.

"There's not ever a point where you're just complacent," Hilliard said. "There's always that little edge that something can happen and that's what keeps you alive."

After safely parking his patrol car away from traffic, Hilliard walks toward the other driver. Before he makes contact, he looks through the back window to see how many people are inside.

He then asks the driver for their information. During this time, he watches the driver closely to see if anything unusual may be going on.

Even when he walks back to his patrol car, he keeps an eye on the driver. He also has to worry about oncoming traffic.

"We still have to be conscious of them," Hilliard said. "We always have to stay at the ready."

Whenever he talks to the driver, he places himself behind the edge of the window frame for protection. He also has to keep his feet away from the tires in case the driver takes off.

"Every time we come back up, we need to assess if there's anything new, if anything's been moved," Hilliard said.

Most of Hilliard's stops go over smoothly, but he's had his share of traffic stops gone wrong. Toward the beginning of his career, he had a close call with a driver who kept reaching for a shotgun on his passenger seat.

"It's a little bit of a different world when you have a suspect tell you, 'yeah I was going to shoot you but you didn't give me the chance,'" Hilliard said.

Hilliard follows the same steps each time he goes out. It's all he can do protect himself while he's out protecting others.

"Everything we ask you to do is for a reason," Hilliard said. "It's just all for safety so we can go home at night."

Hilliard said the situation does change if he finds out there's a warrant for the driver's arrest. If it's a misdemeanor, he'll call for backup and ask the driver to step out of the car. If it's for a felony, the driver will be asked to get out at gunpoint.

Devlin said drivers can do their part to protect officers, too. He said if you're ever pulled over, don't start to dig through your belongings. He said you should immediately roll down your window and place your hands on the steering wheel.

"Other than that, we can pretty much handle it from there," Devlin said. "First thing people want to do is reach for their insurance, we'll get to that. If you can just keep your hands where they're at and pull out of the lane of traffic, that's half the battle for us."