Traffic stops present a high risk to law enforcement

‘The officer is walking into unknown danger’

Police conduct approximately 20 million traffic stops every year, according to the Stanford Open Policing Project.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Police conduct approximately 20 million traffic stops every year, according to the Stanford Open Policing Project. They are designed to discourage unsafe driving and, in some situations, identify drivers who are capable of more serious crimes. Shootings during traffic stops, however, aren’t as common as you might think.

Car crashes and other traffic-related incidents pose the biggest ongoing threat to police officers according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, although COVID-19 has become the leading cause of death among officers over the past 18 months, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Like Nassau County Deputy Joshua Moyersencounter in Callahan before dawn Friday, traffic stops far too often create a life-or-death situation in just a matter of seconds.

“Anytime you get involved in a traffic stop, the officer is walking into unknown danger,” News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson said. “They don’t know the state of mind (of the driver). They just know they stopped them for a specific reason -- running a stop sign or a traffic light. That’s all they know at the time, when they call it in, if the car is not stolen, they are treating it like a regular traffic stop.”

Jefferson that risk makes police officers’ daily interactions with the public so dangerous.

A closer look at National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund statistics from 2020 shows firearms-related fatalities claimed the lives of 48 officers in 2020.

Breakdown of 2020 law enforcement shooting statistics:

  • 18 were investigating a suspicious person or responding to a domestic disturbance
  • 12 were shot while attempting an arrest, were ambushed or shot in tactical situations
  • 4 shot responding to a robbery or burglary
  • 3 killed during traffic stops
  • 11 serving warrants, shot inadvertently or shot responding to a mental health call

Jefferson, a retired police officer, said traffic stops are anything but routine and a part of a police officer’s everyday job. But without any idea of the driver’s identity, previous crimes or mental health, officers have to be mentally and physically prepared for anything.

“Officers are walking into, they are endangering themselves, for the sake of the job that they are doing,” Jefferson said. “You don’t know what the state of mind the driver was in. What caused the gunfire, what caused him to shoot an officer.”

The alleged shooter Patrick McDowell’s criminal record includes possession of stolen firearms charges and giving a false name to law enforcement. According to police, he was driving a stolen car this morning, which means it’s possible Moyers did not know his true identity.

About the Author:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.