In Wake of Trooper's Death, Conn. Police Discuss Perils of Traffic Stops

June 5, 2024
"Nothing is routine, ever. Motor vehicle stops are inherently dangerous for officers," says veteran Bridgeport Police Lt. Angelo Collazo.

In 20 years of stopping drivers on Connecticut highways, former state trooper Edward Benecchi said he had many close calls as speeding vehicles passed within inches of his cruiser, and in some cases, his body.

In the wake of Trooper Aaron Pelletier's death last week on Interstate 84 in Southington, Benecchi and current police officers are speaking out about traffic stop hazards and safety.

State police say Pelletier, 34, had stopped a car on Thursday afternoon when a drug-addled pickup driver sideswiped his cruiser and struck the trooper, a married father of two young sons.

Alex Oyola-Sanchez, 44, of Hartford, failed to stop at the scene and was only caught after his vehicle broke down, police said. He faces charges that include second-degree manslaughter and driving under the influence.

"Traffic stops are very dynamic," Benecchi, who is also a former Plymouth police captain, said Tuesday. "You have to be concerned about the driver, the surrounding environment, and the traffic, and the traffic part of that becomes a bit more dangerous depending on the volume of traffic and speed."

Enacted in 2009, Connecticut's "move-over law" requires drivers to shift lanes, if possible, to protect police, firefighters, and wrecker drivers stopped on highways. The law has since been expanded to include any vehicle stopped on a roadway. When moving over is not possible, drivers must slow down. A violation is an infraction, unless it causes death or injury to the emergency vehicle driver. If the driver is injured, the violator faces a maximum $2,500 fine. If the driver is killed, the violator faces a maximum $10,000 fine.

State police recruits train extensively on vehicle stop safety, agency spokesperson Sgt. Christine Jeltema said. Training includes where to activate lights and sirens, watching traffic flow when exiting a cruiser, approaching a vehicle, and returning to the cruiser "and maintaining astute situational awareness" of passing motorists, Jeltema said. Academy instructors are always looking at new techniques and technology to enhance trooper safety, she said.

"I would say many, but not most, comply with the move-over law," said Avon Police Chief Paul Melanson, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.

Cutting speed to a reasonable level below the posted limit also is a critical element of the law, Melanson said.

"Unfortunately, with the speed of the cars on the highway, there is no way to eliminate the risk against intoxicated, reckless, and distracted drivers," he said.

Pulling over in a relatively safe area, positioning a cruiser to protect an officer's approach to a vehicle, and deciding which side of the stopped vehicle to approach are important and dynamic elements of the traffic stop, police leaders say.

"Our officers are trained to complete traffic stops on well-lit roadways where there are no blind spots, preferably on a straightaway with good visibility," South Windsor police spokesperson Sgt. Mark Cleverdon said, "but we aren't able to always control where and when a traffic stop occurs."

South Windsor and other police departments encourage officers to provide an "aisle of safety" for the approach to a vehicle by parking the cruiser behind and to the left of the stopped vehicle. Many officers also turn the parked cruiser wheels during stops to better guard against a rear-end crash, with the hope that if it is hit, the cruiser will be forced away from the stopped driver and the officer.

South Windsor's rookie officers are trained to approach both the driver and passenger sides of a stopped vehicle, Cleverdon said.

"Their specific approach can depend on a number of factors, one of them most certainly being roadway safety concerns," he said.

Asked if there situations when a supervisor will tell officers not to conduct traffic stops, during bad weather, for instance, or on certain stretches of road that are more dangerous for stops, Cleverdon said, "This is most certainly the case during weather-related issues, but we also know that sometimes the most dangerous roadways for stops are dangerous because of (driver behavior), which is why we need to be in those areas conducting traffic enforcement to keep people safe."

There's not much room to move over on city roads, Bridgeport's training academy commander, Lt. Angelo Collazo said, but people do slow down for police stops, if only because traffic backs up and forces them to hit the brakes. Bridgeport officers typically stop one or two car lengths behind a vehicle, lining up the center of the cruiser with the left side of the stopped vehicle, Collazo said.

"We try not to pull over people on bridges, curvy roads, hills, any place that's poorly lit," he said.

In some situations, such as a car with heavily tinted windows, the officer may ask the driver over the cruiser's public address system to roll down the window and step out of the car, he said.

East Hartford police tell officers to use their discretion when making traffic stops and "do what they feel is safest given the circumstances," department spokesperson Officer Marc Caruso said. Many officers like to approach from the passenger side, Caruso said, but snowbanks can make that impossible.

Police supervisors urge officers to use extreme caution during bad weather and on busy roadways, he said, but added, "Things happen fast in police work."

"If someone commits a serious crime in a vehicle, we will need to stop the vehicle to keep the community safe," Caruso said. "We don't always have the luxury of working with the safest conditions."

Manchester police Officer Scott Plourde, a 25-year veteran, said officers are encouraged to approach stopped vehicles on the passenger side to better protect against passing vehicles. But there are disadvantages to that approach, Plourde said. He is a drug recognition expert, trained to evaluate suspected drug use by studying a suspect's eyes and other factors. In a passenger side approach, Plourde said, he cannot immediately look closely at a driver's eyes or smell alcohol on the person's breath.

Still, he said, the passenger-side approach is preferred for officer safety, both to protect against traffic and because most drivers expect an officer to come up on the driver's side. The opposite approach allows a quick view inside the car before the officer comes directly alongside, Plourde said.

Manchester and other municipal police do not patrol the state's divided highways, but they do stop vehicles on highways as circumstances demand. Manchester police, for instance, sometimes have to get on Interstates 84, 384, or 291 to stop a suspect.

Benecchi and others say police sometimes will direct a driver to move to a safer area before completing a stop. If that is not an option, such as a disabled car or a crash, Middletown police officers will often park to obstruct or slow traffic and request additional resources for traffic direction, police spokesman Capt. Brian Hubbs said.

"Fire personnel are exceptionally good at obstructing traffic for our safety and theirs," Hubbs said.

In New Haven, "there are certain times, such as during snowstorms and extreme weather events, when motor vehicle stops are not advised," police spokesperson Officer Christian Bruckhart said.

"Our staffing levels have also had a serious impact on our ability to make stops as we don't have the number of officers we used to," Bruckhart said.

"Unfortunately," he said, "our job comes with inherent risks and sometimes our best efforts are not enough. We would like to impress upon the public that when they see lights, they need to slow down and move over."

Crashes have been the most common cause of on-duty police deaths in Connecticut. Fatal crashes are divided into five categories. Of the 154 officers lost, 11 died in vehicular assaults, including Hartford Det. Bobby Garten, who was killed last year in a crash involving a driver fleeing from a traffic stop, and Trooper First Class Kenneth Hall, who died when an out-of-control truck struck his patrol car on Interstate 91 in Enfield in 2010. Five officers died during car chases, 18 were struck by vehicles, and 13 died in motorcycle crashes.

Drugs, alcohol, and inattention are the main dangers to police and the public during traffic stops, police veterans said.

"Nothing is routine, ever," Collazo, the Bridgeport officer and 24-year veteran, said. "Motor vehicle stops are inherently dangerous for officers."


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