Vargas: It's not just bad guys with guns killing and injuring police officers

By Joe Vargas

It’s not just bad guys with guns killing and injuring police officers.

As a recent story by BTB’s Greg Hardesty demonstrates, some of the real dangers police officers face is simply being on the streets.

Orange PD Officer Sharif Muzayen was struck by a suspected drunk driver and nearly lost his leg just before Christmas.

His wife Vanessa said, “I always had worried for his safety, both as a Marine and as a police officer, but I thought if he ever was going to be hurt, I feared he would get shot because of how much hostility there is out there now toward officers.”

The dashcam video at the beginning of this column shows El Paso PD Officer Andy Rodriguez being struck by a drunk driver during a collision investigation involving another drunk driver. Luckily, according to news accounts, Officer Rodriquez’s injuries were minor.

So how dangerous is it on the streets for police officers?

It’s hard to tell because the data is not kept with any consistency. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, in 2016 there were 23 officers killed in vehicle accidents, seven in motorcycle accidents, nine who were struck by vehicles and four who died while in pursuit of suspects.

This does not include the hundreds, if not thousands, of officers who are injured, some very seriously, in vehicle-related accidents every year.

According to a 2015 Rand Study, “Police officers are at risk for getting injured in crashes under all types of driving conditions, not just when they are engaged in emergency driving,” wrote Tom LaTourrette, author of the study.

You have to understand, stopping cars, especially late at night, can be scary and it’s not just because someone might be armed and dangerous.

There is something about flashing police lights that seems to attract drunk drivers. It may be anecdotal observation, but there is some controversy regarding what some call the “Moth Effect.”

For the normal driver, the flashing lights mean slow down and be careful. For the inebriated driver, it’s: “Look at the pretty lights. I think I’ll go that way.”

Ask anyone who has worked the open highways. Be it a police officer, tow truck driver or construction worker, it seems everyone has a story of a drunk driver driving right toward the flashing light.

Then there’s the risk associated with driving with red lights and siren on.

With today’s insulated vehicles and highly amplified sound systems, it’s a wonder anyone hears a siren at all. Every person I ever took on a ridealong who experienced a “Code 3” run would comment on how many drivers would not pull over for the oncoming police unit. They just don’t see or hear you.

And that’s just driving to get to an emergency call. Vehicle pursuit driving is even scarier. The suspect’s driving behavior dictates the driving. And they don’t seem to care about safety very much.

How about standing out in the middle of the street directing traffic on a late night after the bars close? There are road flares out, you’re wearing your OSHA-approved reflective vest, and you have your high-powered flashlight out and people still don’t see you… or even worse, they’re just too drunk to take notice.

Then there are the simple odds.

When you put thousands of miles on a police car, your luck is bound to run out.

A driver runs a red light, changes lanes or maybe keeping up with the superhuman effort of multitasking while driving gets to be too much.

Most police officers know it’s not if, but when their luck will run out. Luckily for most officers, there is usually nothing more than a few bruises and sore muscles.

But for those few unlucky ones, the results can be deadly if not life changing.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com