East Texas - Dangers: Law enforcement officers always ready

Published on Saturday, 26 October 2013 22:05 - Written by By Kenneth Dean and Kelly Gooch Staff Writers

Tyler police officer William Steinmiller encountered violence in March 2011 when he pulled over a vehicle on a traffic violation.

During the stop, the man, who was wanted on felony charges, attacked Steinmiller and beat his head and body into a brick wall.

A Smith County District Attorney investigator rushing to help Steinmiller also was injured during the melee.

Years earlier, Smith County Constable Dale Geddie Jr. was shot and killed and a Smith County Sheriff’s deputy was injured responding to a domestic disturbance call.

Walking into unexpected danger is part of a peace officer’s job.

But sometimes even being prepared is not enough, and officers are hurt or killed in what might appear to be a minor call or traffic stop.

Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said the protection of both his deputies and the public are his main concern, but he acknowledged sometimes the two collide and injuries occur.

“Earlier this year I had three deputies who had to be treated when they encountered an intoxicated man. One was injured, and two were exposed to blood,” he said.

Smith said this incident led to the purchase of Tasers to better protect his deputies and give them another alternative to deadly force.

“This incident began as a domestic disturbance, and that is one of the most dangerous calls we can go out on as officers. I have been to some where you are trying to help one family member, and then they start taking up for the person who was assaulting them,” he said. “Safety is paramount for our staff.”

Just this year, there have been 11 cases in which deputies were injured during a resisting arrest or domestic disturbance call. However, none of the injuries were serious.

Tyler police spokesman Don Martin provided statistics showing 13 injuries in 2012 in which officers were involved in chases or were injured when a person resisted arrest.

This year there have been 16 Tyler officers injured - one was assaulted, nine were injured while a suspect was resisting arrest, and six officers were injured chasing suspects.

Martin said some of the injuries sustained by officers during the past several years have required multiple medical treatments and are classified as serious.

In Jacksonville, there have been several incidents in the last two years in which officers were injured badly enough to be off work or require medical assistance, Jacksonville Police Chief Reece Daniel said.

One incident occurred on Dec. 21, 2012, during a traffic stop in the 400 block of North Jackson Street when a suspect resisted arrest.

During the stop, one officer suffered severe injury to the left knee, which required extensive repair, and was away from work for about six months, according to police.

The second incident occurred June 3 in the 1100 block of South Jackson Street.

According to police, an officer tried to arrest an individual for assault, and the person pulled away. The officer suffered severe injury to his left knee, which resulted in surgery and three months away from work, according to police.

Then earlier this month, a Jacksonville officer was injured when a wanted man from Smith County attempted to get away and dragged the officer along the pavement, according to police. The officer suffered a sprained ankle and was off work for two weeks, according to police.

Daniel said injuries in general are commonplace among officers, because officers often deal with subjects not wanting to go to jail.

“This happens easily weekly, sometimes more, where an officer has to fight someone because they’re just not going to go. Well, the officer always wins, one way or another. We can’t afford to lose, so they win one way or the other,” Daniel added.

He said the officer’s response in these situations must be appropriate based on the level of resistance and the level of violence they encounter.

For instance, the officer has the right to use physical prowess by putting hands on the person, taking the person to the ground, twisting the person’s arm behind their back to get a handcuff on them, or other such things, Daniel said.

He said pepper spray could be a course of action if it appears that the situation is escalating.

Overall, he said, an officer can use “whatever force is necessary to affect an arrest and protect their life.”

“We have people who pull guns on officers all the time. The officers could very easily shoot them, but in most instances they can get that gun without killing the person,” Daniel said.

And he said officers don’t know exactly what situation they’re going into when they respond.

“Officers approach everything carefully, but … you never know what is coming out of that car, what’s coming out of that house. The person who’s there gets the first move because they know what’s in their mind, what they’re going to do. You have to react. It takes fast reflexes and good common sense to survive as a police officer,” he said.

“We’ll have a foot chase, a fight, something, every day just about, and certainly every week, so it’s a daily thing that these officers have to be ready for, and it takes a lot of guts, a lot of training, and a lot of dedication to do it,” Daniel added.

In Henderson, there have been about eight incidents in the last two years where officers sustained injuries during situations that became physical altercations, Deputy Chief James Pierson, with the Henderson Police Department, said via email.

Pierson said in the email that four occurred when officers responded to family disturbances, and were dealing with an arrest. He said in the email that three others involved mental commitments on individuals, and one involved an assault during a traffic stop in which narcotics were found.

“While physical resistance was much more common than those numbers show, these were the incidents where officers actually sustained a reported injury,” he wrote. “Family disturbances and dealing with the mentally ill have always been the most likely calls to result in issues like this.”

In Bullard, there have been no major injuries to officers in the last couple years, Bullard Police Chief Gary Don Lewis said.

With the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, officer safety is a primary concern, Sheriff James Campbell said.

“We want to take care of the public, but we also want to take care of ourselves, equip them (law enforcement) the best we can, give all the training we can,” he said.

When an officer is going into a situation that will be volatile, he said sometimes extra officers will be sent.

Martin agreed backup is key, but he added Tyler officers are continually re-evaluating procedures to keep officers safe, and any incidents are studied to see if better practices can be implemented.

“Our officers are trained and are constantly undergoing new training to use devices such as O.C. Spray and Tasers to put distance between themselves and a potentially threatening individual. It is for our safety and theirs,” he said.