No such thing as "routine"

By Felisa Cardona, Staff Writer
The Denver Post
There's no guarantee of a "routine'' traffic stop. Despite their training and procedures, cops throughout the state realize that their lives — and the lives of others — are on the line every time they pull a vehicle over. 
Police officers across the state say the most dangerous moments come during the most routine job they do: the traffic stop.

Some officers have encountered suicides and violent outbursts, while others have been run over by motorists who suddenly try to flee.

"You don't know the person, you don't know why they are speeding at 100 mph, so when you walk up there, you are hoping that things go right," said Master Trooper Ron Watkins of the Colorado State Patrol. "With all the training we get, there is no guarantee that you can defend against it."

During a Monday night traffic stop, a suspected drunken driver shot and killed Colorado Springs police Officer Kenneth Chua Jordan (See Related Story).

Officers watch the movements of drivers and passengers, and they try to follow training and procedures, but they say there are no guarantees of safety.

Of the 55 officers killed in the line of duty last year in the U.S., 15 of them were handling traffic pursuits or stops at the time, according to FBI statistics.

In the past 10 years, 90 officers nationwide have been killed during a traffic pursuit or stop, the FBI statistics show.

Years ago, Watkins said he got into a fistfight with a man who didn't want to go back to prison. "He broke loose from me with one handcuff on," Watkins said. "I ended up with a broken hand."

Westminster police investigator Stephanie Topkoff, who stands 5 feet, 1 inch, said she pulled over a 6-foot man on West 104th Avenue and Federal Boulevard for running a stop sign.

"I was just going to give him a warning, and he got agitated, threw his cigarette at me and slammed his car door into me," she said. "We ended up in an altercation on the street. He wasn't drunk. He was a professional person in his 40s with a good job."

Sheridan police Sgt. Gary Firko says officers often run drivers' license plates through a database to find out who they are or whether there is a dangerous history before they make contact.

But sometimes, there isn't time to run a check or the driver may be a different person from the registered owner, he said.

When Firko worked for another police agency 20 years ago, he and another officer pulled a man over. The man reached for a shotgun, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

"Every single stop and every single location presents a danger," Firko said.

Lakewood police Sgt. Mark Dewhurst said he was once dragged up and down a driveway by a drunken driver.

"That was probably the scariest one that I have been involved in," he said.

Dewhurst said he looks for the driver's hands. He's wary of motorists who make "furtive" movements during a stop or someone who quickly ducks out of sight.

In the end, he says, a cop just has to be ready for the unknown.

"Ultimately, you do not want to let your guard down," he said. "…If the suspect knows what he is going to do and has formulated a game plan, we have to react to that. We are always a shade behind."

Copyright 2006 The Denver Post

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