Police dragged by vehicles: An ever-present on-duty danger
Police experts weigh in on how to react when a suspect decides to flee the traffic stop
Updated October 2014
In March of 2011, a 62-year old Palm Beach County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Deputy was dragged by a violator riding a motorcycle. The deputy was said to be only moderately injured despite being dragged some 300 feet through a busy intersection.
He suffered “scrapes and damage to his uniform” according to one news report, then dusted himself off, returned to his cruiser, and continued his pursuit on northbound I-95. The violator, identified as 38-year-old Victor Morales of Boca Raton “was arrested on charges of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, fleeing and eluding and resisting arrest with violence,” but was released from jail the day after the incident pending trial.
The first time I saw the video, I had several immediate reactions. One was that this cop is 62 years old and he’s one tough character. He ran back to his squad — even telling that citizen in the other car “I’m OK” — and put the pursuit back on! The third thought was that this incident could have ended badly — even tragically.
These “dragged by” incidents seem to happen with ugly regularity, so I decided to use this deputy’s video as the jumping off point for a conversation about the safety issues related to these episodes. I'm not pointing fingers at this individual deputy, nor am I making any attempt to second guess his actions. I chose this video to launch this discussion in large part because it did end with that law enforcer healthy and in one piece.
Finally, I’m not even going to touch the issue of “grip reflex.” That would require knowledge about physiological and neurological matters that are — please pardon the pun — way beyond my reach.
Officer Safety Starts with the Officer
A couple of years ago there was some talk about a new technology that could allow officers to use an electromagnetic pulse to cook a vehicle’s computer electronics, disabling the engine and therefore preventing any sort of “dragged by” incident. To my knowledge, no such device has made its way to market. Therefore it’s up to the computer between the ears to keep ones’ self from falling prey to this danger.
Columnist Dick Fairburn said, “We don’t know if the officer got something caught on the motorcycle or was willingly hanging on ... if he was hanging on willingly, I would have to advise him to ‘let go of the damn thing!’ I had a good friend get hung up trying to reach into a vehicle to turn off the ignition and take the keys — he was dragged by that vehicle a good distance and suffered some non-life threatening injuries. Another friend was working a night-time roadside safety check and somehow got hung up on a vehicle. That, or the driver grabbed his arm and took off dragging the officer — they never really figured out the details. He was taken more than two blocks at high speed before coming loose.”
Fairburn said that in that second incident, the officer did not survive.
Capt. Travis Yates knows more about being in and around vehicles than probably anybody I know, so I asked him, “Check out this video and let me know what you think.”
“In every action we do in law enforcement, we must weigh the risks we are taking along with the benefits. While our jobs are inherently risky and we accept that, we must always be on guard for taking unnecessary risks. While apprehending a violent suspect who may be a continuing threat to society as a whole may require us to take more risks than usual, we must weigh taking these same risks when the benefit is a minor offender or traffic violation,” Yates said.
Lt. Dan Marcou had his own experiences with being dragged from vehicles.
“Nowadays I can predict the weather with my right ankle,” Marcou said. “It is a permanent reminder of the night I tried to stop a vehicle with my body. I learned, that night, a hard lesson. A police officer can not physically stop any vehicle driven by a fleeing driver with their body no matter how much time they spend in the weight room.”
Lt. Andrew Hawkes, who patrols the Texas highways in a heroic search for illegal narcotics traffickers, was naturally on my list of “go-to guys” for this column.
“This goes back to the article I did on crotch rocket riders and the problem with not being able to chase them — and them knowing it!” Hawkes told me. “This guy thinks if he can take off, it’s the end of the story. Cops aren’t allowed to chase him and he goes about his lawlessness with no repercussions. It’s unclear if the officer grabbed onto the bike. If this is the case I wouldn’t recommend that unless you have more strength than the horsepower of that motor.”
To Reach in or Not to Reach in?
Fairburn said at his Police Academy, they stress to new recruits that they avoid reaching into a vehicle as much as possible, because they can get hung up on something — or grabbed and trapped by the driver and dragged. “A motorcycle has even more projections to catch you,” Fairburn told me, “although I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a motorcycle dragging before today.”
“I’m glad the officer is okay,” Marcou added toward the end of our conversation. He then added a pearl of wisdom beset amid myriad jewels of knowledge.
“One important thing to point out about this incident,” Marcou started, “is that other officers got this guy in the end. He didn’t need to hold on to that motorcyclist because his fellow officers already had his back and they got him down the road.”
Hawkes added, “Apparently they caught the guy, which is good. As much as I hate the ‘no chase’ policies that address these style of bikes and the types of criminals on them, so far, there still seems to be no solution to the problem, and no punishment for the guys riding them.”
“This incident,” Yates concluded, “should remind us all that in everything we do in our profession, whether that is serving a felony warrant or attempting to apprehend a traffic violator, that insidious threats await us. We must always be on guard that if we are present others will do us harm. It may be the most mundane action we have taken all day but to a suspect of any crime, harm could be their object and it is our job to put every effort into limiting those opportunities that evil may have to harm us.”