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Standing in danger's way

Despite flashing lights, police are vulnerable during stops

By Shelley Murphy, Globe Staff, 8/2/2003

here was no time for the police officer to jump out of the way when an alleged drunk driver swerved out of the darkness into the breakdown lane on Route 128 in Dedham. The car missed the officer by a foot, but smashed into his parked police motorcyle and ripped the door off the car he had stopped for speeding.


''The bike got launched right over the driver's side of the car I had stopped,'' said Dedham police Officer Brian Crump, recounting the July 17 accident that destroyed his Harley-Davidson and left him with pieces of fiberglass embedded in his arms. ''Pieces of the bike exploded off, hitting me all over the place. If I took one more step out, I would have been killed instantly. No doubt.''

It was only nine days after Crump's narrow escape that State Trooper Ellen Engelhardt's cruiser was rear-ended while she sat in the breakdown lane of Route 25 in Wareham. She was hit by a teenager who was allegedly driving drunk.

For Engelhardt, who remains hospitalized in critical condition, it was the second time in a year that she had been struck in the breakdown lane.

Police say such accidents are a common hazard of their job, mostly caused by reckless or intoxicated drivers. While police are trained to take safety precautions during traffic stops and to watch for oncoming traffic, they say there is little defense against motorists who career off the road and into cruisers without warning.

Statistics kept by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund show that of the 148 officers killed nationwide last year in the line of duty, 44 died as a result of auto accidents, 13 were struck by vehicles, and seven died as a result of motorcycle accidents.

While the figures don't specify how many of those accidents occurred during traffic stops, the group's website recounts numerous instances in which officers were killed while sitting in their cruisers alongside busy highways.

A Missouri state trooper was killed in May when he pulled over a motorist and a tractor-trailer veered off the road and rear-ended his cruiser. Last month, a Michigan police officer died when an allegedly drunk driver hit his parked cruiser.

Crump narrowly avoided joining the list last month.

A four-year veteran of the Dedham Police Department, Crump, 31, said it was his training at the Police Academy, as well as luck, that probably saved his life that night on Route 128. He parked his motorcyle, with blue lights flashing, behind a car he had stopped for speeding at about 11:30 p.m. He stood beside the guardrail as he checked the driver's license and registration.

The officer said he had decided to give the driver a verbal warning and had taken one step toward the back of the motorist's car when he looked left toward oncoming traffic and saw the car barreling into the breakdown lane. Within seconds, Crump's bike was demolished, the driver's side door was ripped off the car he had stopped, and the errant driver had gone off the road into a ditch. The driver emerged without a scratch and was charged with drunken driving.

''I had a couple of nights I didn't sleep at all, just thinking, what if?'' Crump said. ''What if I had walked out 10 seconds earlier and given the guy his stuff back? The car would have struck me. It just wasn't my time, I guess. If I was standing in the wrong spot, between the car and the bike, I would have been killed. Training helped.''

At the Police Academy, officers are trained to be aware of the risks they take when pulling over a motorist. They are taught to keep their eye on oncoming traffic, as well as on the occupants of the car they stop. If a driver is speeding, according to police, they try to stop the car in an area where they are visible to other motorists.

Sergeant Stephen Charette, director of driver training at the State Police Academy, said officers are advised of the risks and are warned to try to keep themselves and others as safe as possible. But, he pointed out that studies have shown that some motorists, typically those who are intoxicated, gravitate toward the flashing lights of police cars. ''People run into the back of police cars with blue lights running,'' Charette said. ''It's not all that uncommon, and for us it happens all too frequently.''

Yet, while police advise motorists to never stop in the breakdown lane, unless in an emergency, Charette said it would be unrealistic to advise troopers to do the same.

''You're in the breakdown lane half of your shift,'' he said. Troopers have to use the breakdown lane for numerous reasons, he said, including to stop motorists who are breaking the law, to investigate accidents, to assist motorists whose cars have broken down, and to slow traffic in construction areas.

''While you're investigating an accident, you always have to be looking over your shoulder, in case somebody is not going to be able to stop or avoid hitting you,'' said Massachusetts State Police Sergeant Larry Marsell, who has been struck twice as he sat in his parked cruiser in the high-speed lane of a highway at an accident scene.

Marsell was injured in one of the accidents, which occurred about five years ago when a car skidded on black ice and hit his cruiser on Interstate 495 in Franklin.

Despite the risk, Marsell says he has never thought twice about remaining a trooper. ''OK, we risk our lives out there,'' he said, ''but we also save a lot of lives, so that's important.''
 
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