Sheriff's deputy was killed in wreck while answering domestic relations dispute
[Huntsville, AL]

Times Staff Writer

Calls to domestic disputes are dangerous for law enforcement officers. But they're more likely to be killed in traffic accidents than any other way.

Those perils came together Thursday night when Madison County sheriff's deputy Haskel McLane was killed in a wreck while responding to a domestic problem in the Hazel Green community.

Between 1990 and 1999, FBI statistics show, officers were more likely to be killed in some type of traffic accident than when trying to make an arrest.

Like McLane, 94 officers died across the country in accidents while pursuing a suspect in a vehicle or trying to make a traffic stop between 1990 and 1999.

A total of 343 officers died during the '90s in accidents involving patrol cars. Of those, 23 died in Alabama.

Among them was state trooper Willis Moore. He died at age 33 in 1996 when his patrol car wrecked while he was responding to a traffic accident on U.S. 431.

A driver who didn't hear the patrol siren or see the flashing blue lights changed lanes in front of Moore. The patrol cruiser left the road, hit a guardrail and overturned.

McLane's patrol car hit a tree on West Limestone Road.

The type of call McLane was trying to handle - domestic violence - is among the most dangerous tasks of law enforcement. The FBI says 62 officers were killed nationwide handling calls involving family quarrels during the 1990s.

"Any small, simple dispute could result in a major situation," said Mike Shaneyfelt, a Madison police investigator. "You just never know what you're walking into."

That is, if the officer gets there before someone leaves.

"We run into it all the time," said Huntsville police officer Kathy Ingram. "We'll get a call to a house, but before we can get there, the suspect leaves and they'll give us a description of the vehicle."

An officer will pass the vehicle, turn around and try to stop it. Apparently, that's what happened before McLane crashed.

Domestic violence calls are risky, Ingram said, because emotions are running high.

"If alcohol or drugs are involved, those emotions are then heightened even more and sometimes it can be a handful to deal with," she said.

But the most dangerous encounter Ingram has faced in her 15-year career was nearly being killed by a drunk driver when she was responding to a robbery call about 12 years ago.

"People don't expect us to have traffic accidents," she said. "But we spend most of our time driving."

That increases the odds.

Last year in the United States, the FBI says, 18 more law enforcement officers died from accidents in the line of duty than the year before. Most of those were traffic accidents.

McLane was looking for a pickup truck driven by a man who was reportedly drunk, armed and threatening to harm someone at a Hazel Green house.

The deputy lost control of his patrol car on West Limestone Road, about three miles west of U.S. 231. In a curve, it left the roadway and struck a tree, killing McLane instantly.

Although authorities continue to investigate what happened to cause the accident, said Sheriff Joe Whisante, witnesses reported seeing McLane's patrol car traveling fast with its lights on - possibly pursuing the pickup truck.

Alabama state troopers are investigating McLane's wreck. Sheriff's investigators will also review taped radio communications between McLane and dispatchers, to see if they indicate what caused the accident.

Whisante said if the investigation shows McLane was pursuing the man threatening to cause harm at the Hazel Green home, and the other driver did something to cause the accident, charges could be filed against him.

Because the wreck is under investigation, Whisante said no additional information about the suspect in the domestic situation will be released. Other deputies went to the house to take a report and found that the man who threatened to harm someone there never showed up, Whisante said.

One fact that won't change, the sheriff said, is that McLane died while doing his job. Members of the Sheriff's Department and their families have experienced that before.

Deputy Tommy Lewis was shot to death in 1994 while he and three other deputies tried to serve commitment papers on a mental patient in New Market. One of the other deputies, Billy Thrower, was also wounded, and died 10 months later from complications.

Deputy Kenneth McDonald was shot to death in 1975, also while attempting to take a mental patient into custody.

Officers know the dangers they face when they get to work every day, Whisante said.

"It's hard when we lose someone," he said. "I'm a tough old bird, but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. It hurts a lot."

In recent years, Whisante has worked to improve the department's training program. Deputies are regularly updated on techniques for everything from defensive driving to firearms use.

Training is important. But "sometimes you can do everything right and something happens," said Huntsville Police Chief Compton Owens.

Owens was shot answering a domestic violence call in 1982.

"I have a reminder of that in my body today that still causes me pain and it will cause me pain probably the rest of my life."

In remembrance of McLane, officers have draped their badges in black.

Staff writer Anthony McCartney contributed to this report

© The Huntsville Times. Used with permission
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