Unexpected dangers

Published 8:49 pm Thursday, July 29, 2010

The tragic story of a man who shot himself during a traffic stop near Carrsville on Saturday serves as an important reminder of just how dangerous the job of a police officer can be.

Virginia State Police Trooper H.B. Johnson made a traffic stop on Business Route 58 at Bobcat Lane at about 7:15 p.m. Saturday. As he was preparing to get out of his cruiser and walk to the driver’s window of the suspect’s car, he heard a gunshot. Over police frequencies, Johnson could be heard telling dispatchers that he wasn’t sure what had happened, but he was certain that the man in the car he’d pulled to the side of the road had a gun.

The tone of Johnson’s voice as he requested backup made it clear that he wanted to see if he could help the man that he now believed had shot himself. But the man had left his foot on the brake, leaving the state police officer unsure of the motorist’s condition or his intentions and making the safest plan one of waiting for help.

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Long minutes passed before backup arrived from the city of Franklin, and Johnson finally got back on the radio to call for an ambulance.

Most folks would have been pretty shaken by the situation that Johnson faced, and his even voice may have masked what really was going on in his mind at the time. But what many people might miss is the element of danger present in the situation the state police officer found himself in.

Unstable, distraught or angry drivers who carry weapons are just one of the threats to the safety of police officers as they make what otherwise would be the most routine traffic stops each day. Distracted motorists and those whose vehicles are drawn almost like magnets to the scene of a traffic stop cause crashes that kill police officers every year.

Everybody understands that police officers face danger when they come face-to-face with robbery suspects, gang members and other criminals. It’s harder to remember sometimes, though, the risks they face when they’re just enforcing traffic laws.

One way to trim that danger is for everyone to drive a little more safely, which has added benefits for everyone involved. Perhaps more realistically, however, when the police are pulled over on the side of the road, give them a wide berth, and say a little prayer for their protection. They deserve all the help they can get.