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Tex. motorcycle officer fatally struck by SUV

The officer had stopped to write a ticket; driver not arrested

The Houston Chronicle
Officer Down: Jason Norling

HOUSTON, Tex. — A deputy constable has died from injuries he suffered when a vehicle struck him as he wrote a traffic ticket on the Westpark Tollway this morning, police said.

The deputy, a motorcycle officer, was identified as Jason Norling, 38, an eight-year veteran on the force.

Norling died shortly after 1 p.m. at Memorial Hermann Hospital, where he had been in surgery since before noon, said Harris County Pct. 5 Chief Deputy Leroy Michna.

Norling was struck at about 10:30 a.m. near the tollway's Gessner exit on the eastbound lanes, Houston police said. The driver of the vehicle that struck Norling remained at the scene. The crash remains under investigation, police said.

"(Norling) was standing up next to the window of the other vehicle that he had stopped, talking to that violator, when he was struck by the passing vehicle." said Precinct 5 Capt. T.P. Thurman .

Pct. 5 Constable Phil Camus said Norling had pulled over a car over to the shoulder for a routine traffic stop and parked his motorcycle behind it.

"You can only get over so far (on the shoulder)," Camus said. "He was over as far as he could get."

Norling was speaking with the driver at the driver's side window, Camus said, when the SUV slammed into his motorcycle, clipped the left rear side of the stopped car and then hit Norling.

The impact flung the deputy constable into the air as far as 90 feet, Camus said.

The driver who struck Norling did not appear to be intoxicated, HPD accident investigators said. Still, officers took him to Ben Taub General Hospital for a mandatory blood test.

``He'll be checked to see if alcohol or drugs came into play,'' said HPD accident investigator A.N. Taylor. ``We are touching all bases.''

Police believe the driver of the SUV was distracted — possibly by talking on a cell phone — when his vehicle struck the deputy. HPD accident investigator A.N. Taylor said they will check his records to determine if he was using the cell phone at the time of the crash.

Taylor said the case likely will be referred to a Harris County grand jury to decide whether criminal charges are appropriate.

"He was not placed under arrest," Taylor said. "He is going to be released," once the blood test is finished.

Camus said the entire department is in shock.

"We're all real numb right now," Camus said. "The numbness is going to wear off and then the sadness will continue for a long time."

Thurman said Norling had been assigned traffic enforcement along the Westpark Tollway, where the speed limit is 65 mph.

Assistant Chief Deputy Constable J. Laine. said he had not heard deputy constables who patrol the road voice any particular concern about safety other than their usual concerns when they pull motorists over.

"When you're stopped on the roadway," Laine said, "and you've got cars passing within a few yards at about 50 mph or 65 mph — whatever the speed limit is — it's always a concern."

A state law that took effect in 2003 requires drivers nearing stopped emergency vehicles whose emergency lights are activated to either slow down or change lanes.

Drivers must either vacate the lane closest to the stopped emergency vehicle if the road has multiple lanes traveling in the same direction or slow down 20 mph below the speed limit, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Sgt. David Thomas, a 15-year HPD veteran who supervises the department's radar task force, said many drivers are aware of the law but fail to comply with it most often during morning and evening rush hours.

"We can't enforce common sense, but the reality is that moving over and slowing down is common-sense when approaching an emergency vehicle," Thomas said. "If anything positive can come out of this tragedy today, more people in the Houston area will become extremely aware of this law."

The law is designed to protect stopped motorists as well as police, Thomas said.

In the last 12 months, two task force members have been struck from behind while sitting in their patrol cars immediately after having completed a traffic stop, Thomas said.

Officer E. G. Lopez is recuperating at home from injuries suffered when a drunk driver smashed into his patrol car at 6:20 a.m. on Sept. 21, Thomas said. The incident occurred on Highway 59 North near Tidwell, he said.

"His patrol car was completely destroyed," Thomas said. "My officers work strictly on the freeways and I don't think you can find a more dangerous job out there."

Thomas said another task force member, Officer S.Q. Brown, was hospitalized several days in 2006 after his patrol car was struck from behind while stopped with emergency lights flashing.

"He said it lifted his entire patrol car into the air," Thomas said, adding that Brown has recovered and is back on duty.

HPD tickets people for failing to move over or slow down around emergency vehicles, Thomas said. Sometimes, one police car will stand by near a stopped patrol car and stop drivers who fail to move over or slow down, he said.

"But I think over time, like anything else, if it's not strictly enforced, people become lax," Thomas said of the law.

Emergency vehicles include police, emergency medical service and fire vehicles.

Failure to move over or slow down is punishable by a maximum fine of $200, the DPS said. If the violation results in property damage, the maximum fine increases to $500.

If the violation results in bodily injury, the offense is enhanced to a Class B misdemeanor.

Norling leaves behind a wife. The couple have no children

Laine said Norling was well-liked among his colleagues and was considered the consummate law enforcement officer. His older brother, Ty Norling, is a sergeant in the department's criminal warrants division, he added.

"He was a wonderful person," Laine said of his fallen comrade. "He was very dedicated to his job. He had lot of compassion. He was a wonderful human being."

Copyright 2007 The Houston Chronicle

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