By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP
n June 16, 2007, at approximately 2:00 p.m., Corporal Scott A. Wheeler of the Howard County, Maryland, Police Department, was working a speed enforcement detail with two other officers on a divided, 55-mile-per-hour (mph) multilane highway when he stepped into the roadway to flag down a Nissan Sentra traveling at 71 mph.1 Corporal Wheeler, who was wearing a yellow reflective vest,2 was struck by Stephanie L. Grissom’s vehicle, sustained severe head injuries, and died two days later.
Officers generally employ the step-out technique when they use radar or lidar to stop speeders rather than to “chase down” violators with cruisers. However, the higher the speeds involved, the more hazardous the technique becomes, because the reaction times of both officers and drivers are reduced. This technique adds to the dangers inherent in the enforcement of traffic law, which has seen an average of one officer per month struck and killed by a vehicle between 1998 and 2007.3
The use of the step-out technique poses problems not only for officers but also for drivers, who do not expect to see officers suddenly appear in their traffic lanes. Although their only illegal action may be exceeding the posted speed limit, they may be thinking about where they have been or where they are going, changing a CD or a radio station, or talking on a cellular telephone. They are startled at the sight of officers stepping out in front of their vehicles, and both the type and the swiftness of their reactions vary.
Howard County Chief William J. McMahon said of Grissom, “As she approached Scott [Wheeler], at some point she did see him and moved and took some evasion action perhaps to not strike him.”4 The grand jury apparently accepted that point of view, for Grissom was not indicted for manslaughter by automobile; instead, she was issued traffic citations only for negligent driving and speeding.5
Just as drivers’ attention may be divided by other thoughts and actions, the same may be said of police officers using the step-out technique. They may be thinking about their last traffic stops or calls for service, their upcoming promotional exams, or buying a new off-duty weapon. The repetition of commonplace tasks over the course of a career can numb officers’ actions and responses. The average age of officers killed accidentally between 1998 and 2007 was 38 years, and the average length of service was 10 years.6
In an effort to determine the prevalence of this technique, state law enforcement agencies were queried in January 2009 via the IACP State and Provincial Police Directorate’s Police Planning Officers listserv. Of the 17 agencies that responded,
- five permit the use of the step-out technique but have no written policy governing it;
- five do not recommend its use but have no written policy governing it;
- four—that is, 24 percent—prohibit its use; and
- three simply do not use it.
As a result of Corporal Wheeler’s untimely death, the Maryland State Police has banned the use of the step-out technique, and the Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Police Department initially suspended its use. However, it later reinstated a modified version that permits officers only to stand along—but not to step into—roadways where the speed limit is 35 mph or less.7
There is no question that speeding continues to be a serious problem—it was a contributing factor in almost one-third of 2007’s traffic deaths8—and that enforcement against speeding continues to be one of the linchpins of policing. However, agency heads must evaluate whether or not stepping out is an effective means to reduce speeding. If it is determined that an officer’s life far outweighs the issuance of a speeding ticket, then stepping out should be prohibited. But if the step-out technique is deemed to have merit, then it must be governed by an agency policy detailing its use, minimizing its dangers, and requiring training in its execution. Speed kills, but chiefs must also make every reasonable effort to eliminate the unnecessary deaths of their officers. ■
1Peggy Lee, “No Indictment in Death of Howard Police Officer,” wjz.com, March 6, 2008, http://wjz.com/local/scott.wheeler.police.2.670671.html (accessed April 2, 2009).
2Sherry Llewellyn, “Police Charge Driver with Traffic Violations in Death of Cpl. Scott Wheeler,” Howard County, Maryland, Police Department, news release, March 6, 2008, http://www.howardcountymd.gov/police/docs/030608wheeler.pdf (accessed April 2, 2009).
3U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA), 2007, October 2008, table 61, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2007/data/table_61.html (accessed April 2, 2009).
4Lee, “No Indictment in Death of Howard Police Officer.”
5Sherry Llewellyn, “Police Charge Driver with Traffic Violations.”
6FBI, LEOKA 2007, table 57, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2007/data/table_57.html (accessed April 2, 2009).
7Jessica Kartalija, “Howard County Officer Remembered,” wjz.com, September 2, 2007, http://wjz.com/topstories/scott.wheeler.traffic.2.429901.html (accessed April 2, 2009).
8“Speeding,” National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Traffic Safety Facts: 2007 Data, 2008, DOT HS 810 998, 1, http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pubs/810998.pdf (accessed April 3, 2009).