By all accounts, Officer Duke G. Aaron III, of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police Department, was one of the top cops in his state, if not the nation. He had been named his department's "Officer of the Year," and among his many heroic acts was preventing a woman from jumping off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and committing suicide.
On July 20, 2004, after 10 years on the job, Officer Aaron's impressive record of public service came to a tragic end. He was killed when his unmarked patrol cruiser, with emergency equipment activated, was rammed from behind during a traffic stop by a reckless driver with a suspended license. Investigators estimate that the suspect's pickup truck was traveling at a minimum speed of 70 miles per hour at impact. Officer Aaron, 29 and married, never had a chance. A subsequent search of the suspect's vehicle turned up an assortment of narcotics and drug paraphernalia.
Gary McLhinney, Chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, described Officer Aaron as "an outstanding young man, someone I'm proud to call one of my officers. It's an extremely dangerous job," he added, "and unfortunately there are people on the roads who have no business being out there."
Unfortunately, those roadway dangers appear to be taking the lives of more police officers than ever before. According to preliminary figures released by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) and the Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS), 51 officers were killed in automobile accidents in 2004. When added to the number of officers killed in motorcycle accidents last year (nine), and the number of officers who were struck and killed while outside of their vehicles (12), there were many more officers killed in traffic-related accidents (72) than in shootings (57).
When tracking these numbers over the past 30 years, though, this troubling trend becomes even more apparent. While shooting deaths have declined by 36 percent over the past three decades, the number of officers killed in automobile accidents during that same period has risen by 40 percent. Between 1975 and 1984, there were 339 officers killed in auto accidents, compared to 476 who died behind the wheel in the most recent 10-year period (1995-2004).
Throughout history, according to records kept by the NLEOMF, there have been more than 2,400 federal, state and local officers killed in automobile accidents. One of the earliest such deaths occurred in 1919, when Aberdeen (SD) Police Officer Joseph Daly died at the hands of a well-intentioned, yet poorly skilled driver. On August 15, 1919, Officer Daly and his partner had just finished responding to a domestic disturbance call when a citizen offered them a ride back to the police station. The two officers jumped onto the running boards for the ride, but were both soon thrown off when the car crashed into a parked vehicle. Patrolman Daly suffered severe head injuries and died a few hours later.
Sometimes, the traffic-related fatalities are no accidents. On July 22, 2002, two Hobart-Lawrence (WI) police officers, Robert G. Etter Jr. and Stephanie Markins, were sitting on the side of the road in their marked patrol vehicle when a man driving a pickup truck deliberately rammed their vehicle at 70 miles per hour. The two officers were pronounced dead at the scene.
Many of the traffic-related deaths have occurred during high speed pursuits. In River Oaks (TX) last year, Officer Nathan R. Laurie attempted to stop a pickup truck for a traffic violation when the suspect fled. After asking for backup, he chased after the fleeing suspect in his patrol vehicle, but crashed into the car driven by a deputy who was answering Officer Laurie's call for assistance.
Drunk drivers pose a threat to us all, especially to the police officers who spend so much of their time working from behind the wheel of their car. On August 8, 2004, Chicago Police Officer Michael P. Gordon and his partner were on patrol when their vehicle was broadsided by a drunken driver who ran a red light. Both officers were injured and Officer Gordon soon died. Melissa Foster, a Columbus (OH) officer, suffered the same tragic fate. On December 4 of last year, she was responding to an emergency call when a vehicle driven by a drunken driver crossed the center line of the roadway and struck Officer Foster's car head-on.
A colleague said that he had tried to persuade his friend, Floyd "Skip" Fink, to retire after 28 years on the job with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, but the lure of the road was simply too great. "Some of us used to tease him because he stayed an officer so long," said Ed Trujillo, the DPS crime lab manager. "He wouldn't even go for a promotional test. He didn't want to be a detective or a sergeant. He just liked being out there, helping the public."
As dawn was about to descend on Tempe (AZ) on the morning of February 18, 2000, Skip pulled a motorist over for a traffic violation. Before he got out of his patrol vehicle, though, another car driven by a man high on drugs smashed into him from behind at more than 70 miles per hour. The patrol car erupted into flames and despite the heroic efforts of bystanders who eventually freed him from the inferno, Skip's injuries were just too severe and he died.
When he heard about the accident, Andy Swann, a colleague and the head of the Associated Highway Patrolmen of Arizona, rushed to the hospital to be with his friend. As he stood a few feet away and watched Skip die, he wondered what he would tell his kids about the friendly officer they had come to know as "Mr. Skip." "How do you tell a 3-year-old that Mr. Skip is not going to come over," Andy said.
Many others had similar thoughts when they heard the news of Skip's death. Then-Arizona Governor Jane Hull summed it up at the funeral, saying, "We may never know the number of lives he touched, but they were many."