Police say driving is their top job risk

6 of past 8 city officers' deaths occurred on road

Urge to assist adds danger

Need to rush, distractions within car create hazards

August 23, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The fact that six Baltimore police officers have died since 1998 in car crashes while on duty underscores a daily hazard faced by officers behind the wheel, according to national experts and the department's top training official.

"Driving is the most dangerous thing we do," said Lt. Col. Stanford Franklin, who heads the Baltimore Police Department's training division.

Officer Crystal D. Sheffield was rushing to help a fellow officer late Wednesday when she entered a West Baltimore intersection and was struck by an unmarked car responding to aid the same officer. She died yesterday of her injuries.

Police officials indicated yesterday that Sheffield likely entered the intersection on a red light after slowing. But, the officials cautioned, investigators are still trying to determine exactly what happened.

Ideally, officers are supposed to stop for red lights and slow at other intersections while responding to emergency calls to ensure the way is clear, police officials said.

Yet, even if officers take every precaution, driving a police car can be a dangerous task, especially when they race to help a colleague.

Police often drive much faster and aggressively than average motorists. While rushing to emergency calls or chasing suspects, police operate radios, decipher radio chatter and think about the impending incident and how to get there.

In urban areas, such as Baltimore, police must contend with intersections where views are blocked by buildings and traffic congestion. With their sirens blaring, police also often cannot hear other police cars responding to the same incident.

"Police officers are trying to pay attention to a number of different things," said John Grant, manager of the state and provincial police division of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "It's just dangerous. It's a high-risk situation."

Since 1998, six of eight officers killed in Baltimore died in auto accidents. Nationally, about one-third of all officers killed on duty die in car crashes. The percentage dipped last year to 18 percent because dozens of police died during the terrorist attacks Sept. 11. In 2000, 49 of 154 slain officers (32 percent) died in auto accidents.

In Baltimore, in 1998, Officer Harold J. Carey was killed when his police van collided with a police cruiser being driven by another officer. Both were responding to an officer in need of help.

In March 2000, Officer Jamie A. Roussey was killed when he drove into an intersection and his squad car was broadsided as he sought to help an officer.

The next month, Kevon M. Gavin was killed when his car was struck by a Ford Bronco being driven by a man fleeing police. Later that year, Officers Kevin J. McCarthy and John D. Platt were killed when their patrol car was struck by a car driven by a drunken driver.

Two other officers were killed during that same period - one in a helicopter crash, the other by gunfire.

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