State police halt, review traffic 'step out'
Agency is the latest to halt 'step outs' after officer's death
By Larry Carson
Originally published June 27, 2007
Maryland State Police troopers will no longer step into the road on interstate highways to stop speeders caught on radar, becoming the third law-enforcement agency in Maryland in the past week to alter traffic-stop procedures and launch a review of the practice known as "stepping out."
The decision occurs after the death June 18 of Howard County Officer Scott Wheeler, who was hit by a car he was trying to flag down for speeding, and it represents a change of position for the state police since last week, spokesman Greg Shipley said yesterday.
In addition, troopers temporarily won't walk onto lower-speed roadways to pull over speeders, pending the results of the review, he said.
"Speed enforcement will continue. We will stop people [using] police vehicles," Shipley said.
Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold acted Friday to suspend the practice of police stepping out into traffic in his county pending a 30-day review, and Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon decided Monday to stop the practice on roads with speed limits higher than 35 mph. Howard County police also are reviewing the practice.
The state police decision, made late Friday by the agency's new superintendent, Terrence B. Sheridan, came after the funeral that day for Wheeler, 31. He was the first Howard officer to die in the line of duty since 1961.
Shipley said Sheridan told his field operations chief, Lt. Col. Matthew G. Lawrence, of his decision late Friday, and it was transmitted to all state officers. Sheridan was Baltimore County police chief for a decade, and Shipley said the issue was one he immediately began considering after talking over the state agency.
"When he took office June 6, one of the first things he did was contact his newly appointed chief of field operations [Lawrence] and talk to him about concern over stopping teams," Shipley said.
"The decision was [based] on his ongoing concern about the risk to troopers and motorists. The safety of troopers is paramount." Shipley said that state police, like the county departments, will review the subject, "but we will not be returning with this procedure to the interstates." State police might resume waving over speeders along lower-speed roads after the review, he said.
Rodney Bartlett, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, which represents officers in a number of law-enforcement agencies, said yesterday he welcomed the move to improve officer safety.
Wheeler, who was posthumously promoted to corporal, was injured June 16 on Route 32 just east of Interstate 95 when a 24-year-old motorist apparently failed to see him in the travel lane in front of her and struck him with her car. Charges have not been filed against the driver, although the investigation is continuing.
The accident sparked a debate over the methods police agencies use to stop speeders caught on radar.
Several local law enforcement agencies, including those in Baltimore and Harford counties, allow officers to use their own judgment in making the stops. State police also perform local law enforcement in Carroll County.
"Our guys stand on the shoulder and wave you over," said Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Touhey. "It is always up to an officer's discretion whether to be by the side of the road. However, officers should not be walking into moving traffic lanes."
A spokeswoman for the Harford County Sheriff's Office said deputies typically use radar on roads with lower speed limits and also use their own discretion about the best way to stop violators.
Neither Montgomery nor Prince George's county police has changed practices as a result of Wheeler's death, representatives for those agencies said yesterday. Neither agency has a strict policy on the best method for radar officers to use.
Even remaining on a highway shoulder can be risky for an officer, Shipley noted, mentioning "the moth effect," in which drivers sometimes seem somehow drawn to vehicles parked along a highway -- even a patrol car with flashing lights.