As Officer Trenton Gunter worked a routine traffic stop in June, he heard the unpleasant sound of squealing tires heading toward him.
Gunter said to himself, “Someone is losing control, and I’m about to get hurt.”
The 27-year-old Overland Park police officer tried to avoid the approaching vehicle by hopping onto a parked vehicle.
It didn’t work.
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Seconds later, the vehicle driven by an 18-year-old Olathe man slammed into the rear of Gunter’s patrol vehicle near 151st Street and Stearns Place. The wreck pinned Gunter between the two vehicles and broke his right leg.
Just a week earlier, a motorist plowed into a parked Kansas City police patrol car in the 4600 block of North Denver Avenue while the officer conducted a routine traffic stop. That officer was not injured.
Those accidents and countless others have prompted Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté and local law enforcement agencies to examine how first responders’ vehicles are positioned at emergency and crash scenes and find ways to avoid accidents.
“When you look at the statistics around the country, so many officers are injured or lose their lives while working traffic accidents,” Forté said.
“We are making it known to everyone on the Police Department, park where you need to park to get the most protection. If that means blocking the street, then block the street, because officer safety is paramount.”
Distracted or intoxicated motorists and speeding vehicles often place police and first responders in peril. An increase in heavy trucks and other vehicles also make roads dangerous, officials say.
Decades ago, the practice was to close roads near an accident, but that caused traffic backups, which led to more accidents.
“A lot of times, the default response was to just stop the flow of traffic for the safety of the people involved in the crash and emergency workers,” said Sgt. Bill Mahoney, a supervisor with the Kansas City Police Department’s accident investigation section.
Now police try to open one lane for vehicles to pass a crash scene, if it can be done safely. If not, police identify an alternate route and divert traffic.
The bistate Kansas City Scout Traffic Incident Management Network trains local law enforcement agencies and other first responders on ways to manage crash scenes, including diverting or funneling traffic to minimize congestion, said Mahoney, who works with the group.
Officers are instructed to position vehicles to protect the crash scene and those involved while making their vehicle emergency lights visible to oncoming motorists.
From 2012 through 2014, 407 law enforcement vehicles in Missouri were involved in crashes during traffic stops or while parked with emergency equipment activated. So far this year, there have been 61.
“Oftentimes there are secondary crashes due to traffic backups and inattention,” said Sgt. Collin Stosberg of the Missouri Highway Patrol, which compiled the accident totals.
Gunter, the Overland Park officer, has yet to return to patrol duties, but he expects to work half days sometime this month. Doctors have told Gunter it will take about three months for his broken bone to heal and up to 18 months for him to complete recovery.
“I am doing well in virtually every aspect, considering the circumstances,” he said.
Gunter says that in retrospect there isn’t much he could have done differently to prevent the accident. It was the second time in a year and a half that Gunter had been injured in a roadside crash while on a traffic stop.
“In the academy as well as the department, I could not tell you how much training I have received in safe and effective traffic stops,” he said.
Three years ago, Overland Park fire officials adjusted the department’s policy for working roadside emergencies. Directives include fire crews wearing bright safety vests, setting up cones, using electronic signs to alert oncoming motorists and positioning emergency equipment at an angle to increase visibility, Deputy Fire Chief Mike Casey said.
“Calls that place us on higher-speed roads, interstates, are what I consider some of our higher-risk work that we do,” Casey said. “Things are a little bit less predictable. We train a lot on fighting fires, we can read smoke, we can come up with strategies to protect ourselves, but when it comes to being alongside a roadway, you put provisions in place as far as advance warning.”
Drivers need to pay attention to their surroundings, Gunter said.
“The stop not only comes down to the officer, but everyone on the roadway. An officer can do everything right for that particular traffic stop, but actions (or lack thereof) of other drivers are the sole responsibility of the said drivers.”