Officers face many risks while working on our roadways
By Kevin P. Morison
Just after midnight on October 22, 2006, Deputy Sheriff Margena Silvia Nunez, of the Lee County (FL) Sheriff's Office, was doing something that law enforcement officers do every day: directing traffic around the scene of an accident, in this case a fatal crash on State Road 82.
The seven-year veteran had placed flares on the roadway and activated the emergency lights on her patrol car to divert traffic from the accident scene. But a drunk driver, oblivious to these and other safety measures, plowed through the roadblock and struck and killed Deputy Nunez.
The daughter of a police officer and mother of two teenagers, Deputy Nunez was remembered for her smile and devotion to duty. "The day before her tragic death, Margena received a commendation for saving the life of a mentally ill person who was trying to commit suicide," Sheriff Mike Scott said at her funeral.
Her brother, the Rev. Paul Edwards of Toronto, officiated at the service, telling the 1,000-plus mourners that his sister had found her calling as a deputy. "Time does not end my purpose - purpose ends my time," he preached.
Deputy Nunez was one of 15 law enforcement officers around the country who were struck and killed by other vehicles in similarly horrendous fashion during 2006. Last year's total is about average for the last 30 years, during which 490 law enforcement officers were struck and killed by automobiles while outside of their own vehicles. According to records kept by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), that figure represents about nine percent of all peace officer fatalities during the last three decades, making it the third highest cause of line of duty deaths among officers, behind shootings and automobile crashes.
Deputy Nunez's death illustrates the many unpredictable dangers that officers face during traffic stops, enforcement operations and while directing traffic. In many cases, officers were assisting at the scenes of earlier accidents when they were struck.
Such was the case with California Highway Patrol Lieutenant Michael Walker. On December 31, 2005, he and a California Department of Transportation employee were investigating the scene of an accident on state Highway 17 near Santa Cruz when a motorist lost control of his car and slammed into the DOT vehicle, critically injuring both men. Lieutenant Walker died at the scene.
Similarly, Mobile (AL) Police Corporal Matthew Thompson responded to a traffic accident during a rain storm on February 11, 2004. While supervising the loading of vehicles onto a wrecker, Corporal Thompson was struck by another vehicle on the dark, rain-slick street. He succumbed to his injuries the next day.
Alcohol has been a contributing factor in the deaths of nearly one in five officers who have been struck and killed by other vehicles over the years — an estimated 217 senseless deaths. Typical of these tragedies was the case of De Ridder (LA) Police Lieutenant Herman Brooks. On September 27, 1997, he was assisting at the scene of an automobile accident when an impaired driver, traveling at an estimated 50 mph, struck Lieutenant Brooks, throwing him head first into the path of another vehicle. He remained in a coma for more than eight years before succumbing to his injuries on February 17, 2006.
Throughout history, more than 1,150 federal, state and local law enforcement officers have been struck by vehicles and killed in the United States. The first known case of an officer being struck and killed by an automobile occurred on April 27, 1899, when New York City Patrolman Thomas Meagher was struck by a car after assisting two women cross the street. While his injuries seemed relatively minor at the time — an arm broken in two places &mdsh; he died a week later from complications.
Over the years, many officers have been struck and killed under seemingly benign circumstances. St. Clair (MI) Police Chief John MacDonald was hit by a car while directing traffic at a high school homecoming event on October 12, 1962. Officer Henry Moore became the first line of duty death in the San Bernardino (CA) Police Department's history when he was struck by a car and thrown 53 feet in the air while directing traffic at the 1937 New Year's Day parade.
But not all officers who are run down by vehicles are the victims of accidents. On June 12, 1986, Baltimore City (MD) Police Officer Richard T. Miller was intentionally struck by a motorist who was high on drugs while the officer directed traffic at a Baltimore Orioles baseball game. He died more than a month later. On October 21, 2006, University of Mississippi Police Officer Robert Langley had made a traffic stop on campus. As he was speaking to the driver, the man suddenly sped off, dragging the officer more than 200 feet to his death.
In recent years, both law enforcement agencies and state legislatures have begun to take steps to better protect officers. For example, more agencies are equipping personnel with brightly colored visibility vests, gloves and flashlights during traffic operations. Others are taking a new look at so-called "step-out" enforcement tactics. On June 18, 2007, Howard County (MD) Police Officer Scott Wheeler was killed when he stepped into traffic to signal a driver to stop during a speed enforcement operation.
Finally, more states are passing "Move Over" laws that require motorists to slow down and safely move over one lane when they encounter emergency vehicles on the side of the roadway. When North Carolina Highway Patrol Master Trooper Calvin Taylor was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer on the shoulder of I-40 in Haywood County in October 2001, only five states had "Move Over" laws. Today, 43 states have such laws on the books — a positive step to help protect our officers.