A Howard County police officer died early yesterday from head injuries received when he was struck by a car he tried to flag down for speeding Saturday afternoon. He was the first Howard County police officer to die in the line of duty in 46 years.
Pfc. Scott Wheeler, who had earned several awards during more than six years with the department, was working overtime on a speed enforcement detail on eastbound Route 32 between Interstate 95 and U.S. 1 when he stepped into the road to wave over a Nissan Sentra about 2 p.m. and was struck.
Yesterday, Chief William J. McMahon called Wheeler's death a "nightmare" for the force, which had not lost an officer in the line of duty since 1961, when Officer Randolph E. Brightwell was murdered by a robbery suspect. A police recruit, Roger D. Cassell Jr., collapsed and died after physical training in 1994.
"Scott was a true hero," McMahon said. "He went out and made this community a safe place to live in, to work in and to play in. There are many ways we do that. And one of the primary ways we do that is in trying to make our roads safe."
Wheeler was part of a three-person team using a long-range laser, one of the most precise and expensive speed-detection devices on the market. The department had won a grant to pay for the additional enforcement.
Investigators believe the driver - a 24-year-old Columbia woman whose name was not released - did not see Wheeler before he was struck. No charges have been filed against her, but they are "anticipated," McMahon said.
Wheeler was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he died yesterday.
The 31-year-old officer, a lifetime Millersville resident, was married in September and worked night shifts in the county's southern police district, based in Laurel. He was a 1994 graduate of Old Mill High School and earned an associate's degree from Anne Arundel Community College.
"He was genuine," said Cpl. Jason Baker, president of the county's police union, who served with Wheeler on a part-time SWAT team for a short time. "If you asked Scott for something, he'd do it, and you wouldn't have to ask twice."
Wheeler was named Howard County's Police Officer of the Month three times. During April 2005, he pulled over 187 vehicles, fined 68 people for not wearing their seat belts and arrested six people for drunken driving.
In 2002, he was honored for thwarting an armed robbery at a Columbia restaurant and for lobbying the county's traffic maintenance division to install a stop sign at a dangerous intersection and speed bumps on a quarter-mile stretch of a road frequented by drag racers.
"The fact that he was honored three times speaks volumes about what kind of person he was as an individual and a police officer," said former Police Chief Wayne Livesay, who hired Wheeler.
Police officials met yesterday with members of Wheeler's family.
The viewing for Wheeler will be Thursday at a time to be determined at the Gary L. Kaufman Funeral Home, 7250 Washington Blvd., Elkridge. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Grace Community Church, 8200 Old Columbia Road, Fulton. He will be interred at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium.