Traffic stops top cause of death for law enforcement officers

The funeral procession for slain Cedar County Deputy Matthew Chism makes its way down South Street in Stockton on Thursday. The 25-year-old deputy was killed in a shootout last Sunday. He was 97th law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty this year. Globe | Laurie Sisk

Matthew Chism became the 97th law enforcement officer in the country to die in the line of duty this year when he was shot following a traffic stop last week.

He also is just the latest in a long line of officers from the Four-State Area who died during traffic stops.

Early on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 2, Chism, a Cedar County deputy, attempted to pull over a vehicle in El Dorado Springs. The driver allegedly refused to stop and at one point a passenger, William Collins, 28, jumped out at an intersection and ran. Chism, 25, gave chase on foot, leading to an altercation in which both men were fatally shot.

It is not an isolated case; traffic stops have become the leading cause of death for police officers, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington.

From 2000 through 2009, 118 officers were killed conducting traffic stops, compared with 82 handling domestic-violence complaints and 74 during disturbance calls.

“It gives you cold chills,” said Newton County Sheriff Ken Copeland. “(Chism) got up and kissed his wife goodbye that day, looked at his baby, went to work like any other day. And look.

“The problem is, it will be a big news deal today. Then tomorrow, that wife and that baby are by themselves. The public won’t care anymore, they’ll move on.”

Copeland said he puts a notice on his department bulletin board every time an officer anywhere is killed in the line of duty and it stays there as a reminder for a while.

“It’s way too often,” he said. “Every 53 hours.”

“There’s more and more getting killed in their cars — a bogus call, the officer shows up, a sniper shoots. You can’t defend against that.”

But law enforcement agencies at all levels are striving to lower the numbers through stepped-up training, tools and awareness.

The FBI Academy’s one-week Law Enforcement Training for Safety and Survival program is designed to give participants “the skills and mindset required to identify and handle critical situations in high-risk environments,” such as traffic stops. The National Crime Information Center — accessed by more than 92,000 agencies — also added a Violent Persons File in 2012 that officers can use during a routine traffic stop to determine if a person in the vehicle that has been stopped has a violent criminal history or previously threatened law enforcement.

‘Seen it all’

Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, is retired from the Pennsylvania State Police Department after 27 years. His son is a Maryland state trooper. He said he has seen it all.

“Over the course of my career, I lost a lot of friends — not only within the state police but other police agencies,” Lomax said. “The dangers are not only with the bad guy, the criminal, but we lose more police officers in the U.S. through car accidents and vehicle stops.”

“Of course, that’s the police officer’s office — a patrol car — the majority of their time.”

Lomax advocates a training program, “Below 100,” started in 2010 after a dinner table conversation by Capt. Travis Yates of the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Police Department and colleagues following a spate of officer deaths.

Led by a team of core trainers, with support from outside partners and sponsors, its goal is simple: To reduce line-of-duty deaths, including those from traffic stops, to fewer than 100 per year — a number not seen nationally since 1944. To do so, they analyzed commonalities in officer deaths and then created and implemented five basic tenets. Among them: Wear a seat belt, wear a bullet-proof vest, and watch speed.

“The fourth is ‘WIN, or What’s Important Now?’ — meaning you can’t be giving out a citation to someone and looking down at text messaging. Focus on what you’re doing. Make sure you’re visible, how traffic is moving, what’s going on in the car.”

“The fifth is ‘Remember: Complacency kills.’ When you do things over and over again, you tend to get complacent,” he said. “You’re running radar at a certain location every day for years. You pull someone over, write a ticket, the next time you will do it without thinking. The individual in the car could have just robbed a store, or be on “America’s Most Wanted.” You always have to assume that.”

The Below 100 program, he said, “has been taught to tens of thousands of police officers.”

In some states, such as California and Ohio, it’s mandatory to go through the training.

“You can’t really measure how many lives that program has saved, but anecdotal stories come back that show it does save lives,” said Lomax.

Below 100 officials believe they’re getting closer to their goal: Today, the average is 150 officers killed per year. In 1974 — the all-time high year for officer deaths — 278 were killed in the line of duty.

Numerous other officers of various local city, county and state departments also have died during traffic stops, including:

• Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Russell W. Harper, 45, who was shot and killed in 1987 after he pulled over a pick-up truck near Springfield for a traffic violation. The driver of the truck emerged and fired several rounds at Harper through the patrol car’s windshield. Harper was killed by the gunfire and the shooter left the scene. He was later caught and eventually executed.

• In 1985, Missouri Highway Patrol troopers Jimmy Linegar and Allen Hines were conducting a spot check near Branson when Linegar unknowingly stopped a man who just been indicted by a federal grand jury for involvement in a Neo-Nazi group accused of murder. The man shot Linegar with a machine pistol as Linegar approached the van to ask more questions. Hines was wounded by gunfire and the shooter fled. He was later captured and sentenced to life without parole.

• In 1996, Barry County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Castetter was shot and killed after responding to a suspicious vehicle call. The operator of the vehicle had just assaulted his girlfriend and was awaiting her return to her home. As Deputy Castetter pulled up, the suspect opened the door to his patrol car and shot him in the head. The killer remains on death row.

• In Joplin, in 1967, Patrolman Robert Clifton was shot and killed when he and another officer stopped a vehicle for a routine inspection. The vehicle was occupied by five people who had robbed and beaten a grocery store operator in Bowie, Texas. When the two officers ordered the occupants to get out of the car the driver pulled a gun and killed Clifton. The other officer returned fire, killing the gunman.

There are more stories, including Miami, Oklahoma, police officer Jack Dunaway, killed during a traffic stop in 1934, and Ottawa County Sheriff’s Deputy John Lawrence, killed during a stop in 1951.

‘Routine calls’

In addition to line-of-duty deaths at traffic stops, Copeland, who has been in law enforcement for 34 years, has known fellow officers killed “on routine calls,” he said.

“When I worked for the Joplin PD, we had three shot all in one incident, years ago, in Joplin,” said Copeland, who was working that night.

“It was a normal call they responded to at Howard Johnson Motel. A man who had been shot in the leg and was the supposed victim,” he said. “Two detectives and a uniformed officer responded, and it was just a routine deal. But the guy ran down the hallway, then turned around and just started firing.”

“When you think you’re dealing with a victim, you drop your guard a little bit.”

Copeland said he believes that today, when officers are on call, “they’re sometimes damned if they do, damned if they don’t,” when it comes to taking precautions with a proactive stance.

“The public is quick to judge us,” he said. “They’re quick to analyze our actions.”

“Over the years, the typical complaint we get is from somebody 18 or 20 who got stopped, about how the officer treated them like a criminal. In reality, the officer didn’t. They are trying to protect themselves and others,” Copeland said.

Copeland also noted that while officers are trained in law enforcement academies for every possible scenario, and continue to have training throughout their careers, “when somebody wants to shoot you, they’re going to shoot you.

“So many officers get ambushed and sniped. That’s something they didn’t have as much 34 years ago when I began,” he said.

During a eulogy for Chism at his funeral service last week in Stockton, his brother recalled the deputy’s level of professionalism and attention to detail when he joined him on a ride-along over the summer. Before the deputy would allow his brother in his truck, he insisted he put on a bulletproof vest.

“He said, ‘That’s what you do,’” Joshua Chism recalled.

“He was always talking about procedure, what you do if this happens, what you do if that happens, how you would handle this situation or that situation — situations that as a normal person were terrifying for me to think about.”

“I was amazed as Matthew’s level of professionalism, duty, honor and commitment to his career, to his job, to his safety, to my safety, to your safety,” he said.

Said Copeland: “I would hate to be starting out in law enforcement today the way it is now. I’ve been blessed, still look forward to going to work every day. But it’s tough, today. Much tougher. You are up against so much more.”


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Andra Bryan Stefanoni is a staff writer for The Joplin Globe. She has been a reporter and editor at The Pittsburg Morning Sun and the former Girard Press, has written for state and national magazines, and has taught journalism.