Arundel suspends `stepping out' practice

Traffic Stops

June 23, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

As the funeral for Howard County Police Officer Scott Wheeler was under way yesterday, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold ordered a 30-day halt to the practice of officers stepping out into traffic lanes to flag down speeding drivers caught on radar.

Leopold's order makes Anne Arundel County the only metropolitan area jurisdiction to suspend the traffic enforcement technique, a spokesman said. Howard County police are reviewing the practice, called "stepping out," but have not stopped officers from using it. Baltimore City police do not do it.

Wheeler, who grew up in Anne Arundel County, is the first Howard officer to die in the line of duty since 1961. He sustained head injuries when a car he was trying to stop on Route 32 near Savage hit him Saturday. He died early Monday.

Leopold said he had been talking to police officers "for some time" about the practice of flagging down motorists by stepping into traffic. Wheeler's death "brought it to a head," he said.

"All it takes is one second of distraction. Any one- or two-second lack of attention [by a motorist] can cause a fatality," he said, especially on high-speed highways. In addition, a driver could swerve to avoid an officer and cause an accident, he said.

The Anne Arundel Police Department will evaluate its speed-enforcement programs during the next 30 days, Leopold said, and then decide whether to continue flagging down drivers.

Leopold said he wants police to determine whether techniques should be different on slower-speed residential streets than on highways with speed limits higher than 45 miles an hour.

In past years, former Howard Police Chief Wayne Livesay unsuccessfully sought General Assembly permission to begin using automated cameras, rather than officers, to curb speeding in residential areas.

Leopold, a Republican, said he doesn't favor the cameras. "I believe officers ought to witness" speeders and red-light runners, he said.

Police in Baltimore City don't step out into traffic, said Officer Troy Harris, a spokesman. They use chase cars for radar instead. "Stepping out into traffic is never a good idea," he said.

Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey said officers in the county have discretion on how to stop speeders, but "we're instituting no official changes." Harford sheriff's deputies also have discretion, a spokeswoman said.

Maryland State Police, who have local law-enforcement responsibilities in Carroll County, are also continuing to use the procedure, a spokesman said, as are officers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, though mainly on lower-speed roads.

Howard officials are reviewing the accident and will evaluate their practices when that is completed, Chief William J. McMahon has said.

Yesterday, as he participated in Wheeler's funeral procession, police union President Jason Baker supported that decision.

"I think you have to look at everything, do an after-action report and then look at it. You can't make a snap judgment," he said. "We've been concentrating on the family and on Scott."

Traffic enforcement experts say the procedure is common, and usually safe, although using an officer in a chase car to pursue speeders caught on radar is an alternative method.

Police can halt more speeders by flagging drivers down than by chasing them one by one.

Howard officials said the location where Wheeler was hit, on Route 32 between Interstate 95 and U.S. 1, is considered safe for radar enforcement because it is flat and straight. Wheeler was wearing a reflective safety vest, but investigating officers said the 24-year-old Columbia woman driving the Nissan Sentra that hit him did not see him. Charges are anticipated, McMahon said, but have not yet been filed against the driver, who was not named by police.

Sheldon Greenberg, a former Howard officer who is director of the public safety leadership program at the Johns Hopkins University, said he has long recommended another safety measure.

"I recommended it 20 years ago - that on stop teams, officers wear helmets. Most do not." Many injuries to police officers involved in traffic enforcement involve the head, he said.

Andrew Scott, a former police chief and career officer in Boca Raton, Fla., said that because higher speeds compress reaction times, his officers never stepped into traffic lanes where speeds were above 45 mph.

Alex Weiss, director of the Center for Public Safety at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill, said after Wheeler's accident that "stepping out" is used by police more in the eastern United States and generally works well.

Sun reporter Rochelle McConkie contributed to this article.

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