A Maine State Police cruiser with its emergency lights on and parked in the breakdown lane of I-95 in Sidney was severely damaged on June 6, 2021 when a motorist drove into it at an estimated 70 mph. The trooper the was not in the vehicle at the time and was uninjured. Credit: Courtesy of Maine State Police

The sudden death Thursday morning of Hancock County Deputy Sheriff Luke Gross reinforces a message that state officials have been communicating for years: drivers need to slow down and watch where they are going at crash scenes.

Maine State Police said Friday that Gross died after being struck by a pickup truck as he was cleaning up debris on the side of Route 3 in Trenton, where another vehicle had gone off the road. Gross was wearing a high-visibility vest and the emergency lights on his cruiser were flashing when he was struck, state police said.

State officials had said in June, after multiple police officers and other first responders had been seriously injured or had close calls at crash scenes, that drivers need to pay attention and slow down when they come upon stopped emergency vehicles by the side of the road.

Just two weeks ago, officials with Maine State Police and the state Bureau of Highway Safety held press events in Bangor and Wells to draw attention to Maine’s ‘move over’ law, which requires motorists to reduce their speed or to shift lanes away from stopped emergency vehicles with flashing lights.

“Traffic-related incidents continue to be one of the leading causes of death among on-duty law enforcement officers,” state officials said. “If your son, daughter or family member was an emergency responder, you would want drivers to move over or slow down and give them the space to work safely.”

Nationally, 38 police officers were killed from January through June of this year in traffic-related collisions, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. That is a 40 percent increase from an average of 27 such deaths in the first six months of each year from 2011-2020.

Half of those who died in the first half of 2021 — 19 officers — died under circumstances similar to Gross. They were standing outside their cruisers by the side of the road and were struck by oncoming vehicles.

Ed Tolan, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and a former police chief in Falmouth, said Friday that responding to crash scenes by the side of busy roads or highways is one of the most dangerous things a police officer can do.

“I’ve stood at many accident scenes, especially at night, and people don’t pay attention,” Tolan said. “That’s the killer — people on their cell phones. That’s incredibly dangerous for a police officer.”

State police have not released details about what may have caused the pickup truck to collide with Gross, such as whether speed, driver fatigue or distraction was a factor. The crash remains under investigation.

It is relatively rare in Maine for law enforcement officers to die in the line of duty, with fewer than 100 having died while on the job since the early 1800s.

Before Gross, the most recent such deaths for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department occurred in 1911, when two deputies drowned in Green Lake after their boat capsized while they were conducting a burglary investigation, according to Officer Down Memorial Page.

In recent years, Maine State Police Detective Benjamin Campbell was fatally struck by a tractor-trailer tire in 2019 while assisting a motorist on Interstate 95 in Hampden. In 2018 Somerset County sheriff’s Deputy Eugene Cole was shot to death by John D. Williams in Norridgewock.

Other deputies with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department have had near-death experiences over the years, though not necessarily at crash scenes.

In 1999, a deputy who was wearing a bulletproof vest suffered bruising to his chest when he was shot at point-blank range by a man who was wanted in Massachusetts. In 2004, a deputy with the department fractured his pelvis and ended up missing months of work after his cruiser collided head-on with a truck as he was responding to a reported domestic dispute.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....