Snagged & Dragged

Oxford, Miss. Oct. 12, 2006

A University of Mississippi officer was speaking to a student he had stopped for speeding when the driver suddenly sped off, dragging the campus police officer about 200 feet. The officer later died of his injuries.

Haverhill, Mass. April 12, 2004

A Haverhill officer stopped an alleged hit and run driver and tried to convince him to exit the vehicle. Instead, the driver sped off, dragging the officer, who had become caught in the driver s door. The officer pulled himself onto the truck bed while the suspect weaved down the highway at more than 70 mph. Pleading with the driver to stop, the officer eventually shot him through the rear window to stop the vehicle.

Aurora, Colo. April 15, 2001

Aurora police received a call about a man attempting to steal a Pontiac Grand Am. The man had smashed the car s left rear window and was apparently stealing items from inside the car. When two officers approached the suspect at the scene, he hopped into a stolen car in an attempt to escape. One officer tried to grab the man but was dragged roughly 200 feet across a parking lot. The officer shot the suspect and was able to free himself from the car, which continued for another 300 feet before crashing into a building and rupturing a gas line. The driver was pronounced dead at the scene. The officer was treated for minor injuries.

Portland, Ore. Oct. 15, 1999

A mounted police officer saw a crack cocaine transaction taking place in a car. He rode up to the vehicle to tell the driver to hand over the drugs. Still on his horse, he reached into the car window as the driver reached toward the floor of the car. The suspect drove off with the officer s hand caught in the window, pulling him to the ground and dragging him before he freed himself. He was bruised but not seriously injured.

Madison, Wisc. August 23, 1999

Police stopped a motorist and spotted a gun in the car. The driver refused to leave the vehicle, reached for the gun but stopped at the officers orders. The driver then restarted his car. As one officer reached through the window to turn off the ignition, the driver rolled up the window and accelerated, dragging the officer several feet before he could free himself. The officer was treated for a shoulder injury.

Durham, N.C. Sept. 17, 1998

A driver rushing her children to school drove off the road with two girls, 10 and 13, in the car. An officer ordered the woman to stop, leaned into the car to talk to her and became entangled in the seatbelt. The woman said I don t have freaking time for this, sped off and dragged the officer 10 feet.

Nearly everyone in law enforcement knows of an officer who has been dragged by a fleeing car. Each week, news sources run several stories of officers being dragged down the street, usually after reaching into a car to grab a suspect or to remove keys from the ignition.

Why are so many cops dragged by fleeing cars? Is it poor tactics? Or is it just another hazard of stopping the bad guy?

There must be a better way to handle these sorts of events than sticking various appendages inside running cars and chalking the outcome up to chance, says Omaha, Neb., Sergeant Jeff Baker. This sort of thing happens all the time and all across the country.

But why does it happen, and what can we do to stop it?

Fight or Flight

I cover this exact topic with my students every semester, says Mark G. Robbins, a retired Naperville, Ill., officer and a professor at Minnesota State University. I tell them every cop knows someone who has gotten dragged by a car as a result of reaching in to try to grab the keys out of the ignition. Yet, for some reason, just about everyone, myself included, at some point in their career reaches into the open window of a running car with the driver usually drunk behind the wheel and tries to grab the keys out of the ignition.

An offender s fight-or-flight instinct seems to play a role in many dragging incidents when a driver realizes the officer is on to something and panics. In several recent cases, officers saw drugs or other contraband in the vehicle and let the driver know the evidence had been discovered. The driver panicked and drove off, sometimes with the officer unexpectedly going along for the ride.

Part of the problem is an officer s attitude towards fleeing suspects. Some believe the incidents happen because officers let their ego make decisions for them and take a stop-at-all-costs mentality, attempting to stop a suspect who has made up his mind to flee.

Robbins tells his students that inevitably the day will come when some guy refuses to shut off the engine and get out of the car. As a result, they may find themselves attempting to grab the keys I want those officers to hear my voice in their head telling them that they re idiots. Robbins says his intent isn t to disrespect officers who have been killed or injured, but to drive home a point he hopes sticks in officers heads when they get to the street.

Deadly Force

Many dragging incidents have resulted in the use of deadly force by officers, often followed by controversy. No matter how justified, the shooting of an unarmed driver will certainly stir up a community.

Consider a 1996 incident in which a Pittsburgh officer was dragged almost a mile at speeds reaching 60 mph. As he was dragged with his hand slammed in a rear door, the officer shot and killed two passengers in the stolen car. The officer was severely injured, with one leg shattered and the other scraped to the bone.

The stolen car was first seen at an intersection, but when the signal turned green, the car didn t move. The responding officer tapped the driver s window, alerting the driver and front passenger. Seeing movement in the back seat, the officer opened the rear door. Suspicious movements in the front seat caused him to draw his pistol while ordering the men to show their hands. The officer then saw the rear passenger put crack cocaine in his mouth. The officer and passenger struggled. The officer s wedding band lodged inside the door and the driver sped away.

As he bounced along the road, his equipment and clothes being pulled off, the officer fired up to nine shots through the rear and side windows. The shots killed the two passengers and wounded the driver. The ring finally pulled free, ripping nearly all the tissue from the officer s finger. He rolled to the pavement. The stolen car was found abandoned with the two dead suspects and a laser-equipped .45 pistol inside.

The incident caused a firestorm of protests by citizens who alleged police officers brutally killed the two men. Pittsburg Mayor Tom Murphy commented on the incident saying, Nobody told those three men to steal a car … and drive almost a mile with a police officer on their car. At any one moment, they could have made a decision to stop. But they didn t. If there are tears to be shed for these young men, it should have been shed for them years ago when they committed their first crime.

Another incident in Cincinnati resulted in the tragic death of Officer Kevin Crayon and the young driver who dragged Crayon 800 feet down the road. Crayon, a four-year veteran of the force, approached 12-year-old Courtney Mathis after seeing the boy slip behind the driver s seat of a Ford Taurus in a store parking lot. Crayon told a store patron that Mathis appeared to be too young to drive, so he asked the youth for a driver s license.

Mathis ignored Crayon s order to stop and drove away. Crayon then reached inside the car with both hands and was dragged. He managed to draw his pistol while still being dragged. Crayon shot Mathis during the struggle for control of the vehicle. Crayon was found dead in the middle of a road, his pistol lying at his side. Mathis managed to drive to his parents home, where he went inside and died from his gunshot wounds.

Safety Solutions

There are various opinions on the best way to establish contact with the driver on a vehicle stop. Some officers rely on one approach, but there s no single correct way to approach a driver. Because each situation is different and calls for different tactics, patrol officers shouldn t limit themselves to a single method of making contact. Each technique for approaching a driver has tactical advantages and shortcomings. If an officer uses the same method on every vehicle stop, proper assessments of the situations aren t being performed.

There are three basic methods for contacting a driver: Approach the vehicle on the driver side; approach the vehicle on the passenger side; or have the driver exit the vehicle and walk to a position designated by the officer.

Virtually all dragging incidents occur at a driver-side window encounter, some after the officer failed to recognize signs of increased threat potential and the need for escalated safety precautions. Good judgment and an evaluation of the circumstances of each stop are necessary to determine the best method.

In addition, officers must formulate a plan of action that includes tactics for approaching and dealing with the driver. Determining what option to use is based on two factors: the officer s assessment of the occupants and their behavior, and the environment of the stop location. Officers should carefully watch occupants during a stop with an assessment of their actions before decreasing their distance from the violator. Officers should exit the patrol vehicle and pause momentarily behind the door, carefully observing the occupants. That pause behind cover may provide protection from a surprise attack.

A left-side or driver-side approach to the violator s vehicle is the most common method used by officers. It s also the method motorists are most familiar with and the one they expect. It s one of the predictable things we do because it s convenient and makes communicating with a driver easy. But it s also the most dangerous option drivers seated behind the wheel can drive off or retrieve a weapon with a hand not easily visible to the officer. This approach also means the officer is more vulnerable to passing traffic.

Many dragging incidents stem from attempts by officers to turn off the ignition after a driver resists commands or attempts to drive away. Non-driver side approach options simply eliminate this impulse by placing the officer in a position where reaching in the car is impractical.

One of the biggest advantages of the passenger-side or right-side approach is the element of surprise. Few motorists expect a right-side approach. And because most people are right-handed, many officers find it easier to see if the driver has a weapon by approaching on the passenger side. At night, it s not difficult to walk up on the passenger side and observe and listen to the occupants while they peer to their left awaiting the officer s approach. This miscalculation on their part could save an officer s life.

The passenger-side approach also provides increased cover and escape options compared to the driver-side approach.

However, there are also some disadvantages to the passenger-side approach. Communication with the driver may prove difficult if the vehicle doesn t have power windows or if there are other front seat passengers. And tall grass, mud, snow, uneven terrain, guard rails or similar hazards may hinder the approach.

Some officers think it s safer to walk up to a driver than to direct the driver out of the vehicle, maintaining that the driver is under control and somewhat restrained when in the car, and that the officer is less open to attack. They forget the primary tactic for felony stops is to order occupants out of the car because it s the safer tactic. Why would driver removal be safer on high-risk stops but not on other stops? Assault can occur at any time. Requiring the driver to exit provides more reaction time from a safer position if the violator attempts an armed assault.

Why ask a driver to come back to the squad car on some stops? Violators have several advantages when an officer walks up to their vehicles:

  • Only a small part of a violator is visible for most of the approach;
  • They have cover and concealment while the officer has little;
  • They have access to weapons;
  • They have a means of driving away;
  • The violator may use the vehicle as a weapon;
  • The violator can see the officer s location (if you use standard approach); and
  • The violator has a psychological advantage of knowing their vehicle and its capabilities.

Officers can require the driver to exit and come back toward the patrol car while the officer maintains cover. At night, patrol car lights can provide a distinct advantage using the driver-exit option. That edge is lost when an officer walks up to a car, allowing the lights to silhouette the approach. Takedown lights are only an advantage when the officer requires the driver to exit and walk back.

Having the driver exit the vehicle gives the officer several advantages:

  • It allows use of a cover position until the driver s hands are observed and physical condition and demeanor assessed;
  • It keeps officers out of the danger zone around the suspect s vehicle; and
  • It separates the driver from any occupants or weapons inside the car.

For this type of stop, an officer directs the driver to walk back and pass between the two cars to the sidewalk or shoulder. The officer can then join the driver in a position from which the officer can view the violator and the stopped vehicle. If the stop occurs off the roadway and a rear-end collision isn t a possibility, the front corner of the patrol vehicle serves as a barrier between the officer and the violator.

Many officers who have faced a firearm when approaching a vehicle tend to require more drivers to exit their vehicles after such encounters. They cite the desire to see the violator s hands before making an approach.

Conclusion

Officers should practice a hands-off strategy for maneuvering around stopped vehicles. You must resist the urge to touch or lean on a vehicle with the driver still behind the wheel. Evaluating the level of risk on a stop and choosing a driver-approach option that fits the circumstances may be the best way to prevent more officers from being snagged and dragged.

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