No stop is 'routine,' police have learned

March 26, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer Staff writers Karin Remesch, Alisa Samuels and Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Before last fall, state Trooper John Appleby says, he wouldn't have thought twice about pulling over a car on his own and searching for drugs.

Today, he's much more cautious -- and with good reason.

He says he'd be dead now but for two off-duty Howard County police officers who rescued him as he struggled for his gun after two suspected drug carriers jumped him during a traffic stop on Interstate 95 near Havre de Grace last October.

"I don't hesitate to call for a backup," Trooper Appleby said. "Traffic stops have become one of the most unsafe jobs we face today, especially on an interstate."

Yesterday around the metropolitan Baltimore area, it was easy for police officers and state troopers to remember the danger. The shooting of an Anne Arundel County deputy sheriff during a routine traffic stop was still fresh in their minds.

Fortunately, Deputy Edward Wholey's body armor stopped the two bullets. Deputy Wholey, of Hanover, was shaken up, but not badly injured.

Three years ago, Trooper Theodore Wolf was shot and killed during a traffic stop on I-95 in Howard County. He was one of 10 police officers nationwide killed during traffic stops in 1990.

Last year, 139 police officers were killed in the United States. Half the deaths were caused by accidents, the other half resulted from criminal action, said Suzie Sawyer, executive director of Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS).

Six of the officers killed last year died after making traffic stops. So far in 1993, 30 officers have been killed, four during traffic stops.

"What's routine, and what doesn't have a sense of danger to it?" Ms. Sawyer asked, rhetorically. "Nothing in police work."

Police train for traffic stops. In Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, officers try to keep anyone they have pulled over inside the car, so they can cautiously approach from the rear.

Officer Beth Waltrup, a five-year veteran of Baltimore County's force, said that when asking for license and registration, she always stands just behind the door on the driver's side.

"If they've got a gun, it's going to be more awkward for them to reach around and get off a shot," said Officer Waltrup, 28. "Ninety-nine percent of the time you don't have a problem. It's that one percent you have to worry about."

Officer Terry Robey, an Anne Arundel County police spokeswoman, said the increased danger during traffic stops has forced her department to treat each as a "felony stop." That means a driver who leaves his car before the officer approaches can be searched and handcuffed. Also, nearby officers who hear the radio call will drive over to help. It is not uncommon to see two squad cars handle a traffic citation.

"It's instinct," Officer Robey said. "You almost always have a backup."

At night, officers use their spotlight to peer through the car's back window. They approach cautiously, never taking their eyes off the occupants or their hands. They stand behind the driver's door. They turn the front wheels of their cruiser toward the road, turning the patrol car into a shield. Most important, say police officials, is that the officer call in his location, a description of the car, its occupants and the license plate number before leaving his cruiser.

Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, a state police spokesman, said officers should call in the information as soon as the siren or emergency lights are activated.

"We have thrown out the term, 'Routine traffic stop,' " Sergeant Shipley said.

Lt. Gar N. Menefee, commander of the Annapolis state police barracks, said his officers sense a change of attitude on the street. More criminals seem not to give a second thought to shooting an officer. "I think it is more and more dangerous out there," he said.

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