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Traffic crash investigator loves putting the pieces together

ST. PETERSBURG — The students file into the portable with sass. They tease Officer Mike Jockers about doughnuts and the smell of bacon.

He clicks through his PowerPoint of bureaucratic jargon, explaining his work to the driver's education class.

Jockers, 44, has investigated some of the city's most devastating fatal crashes for the St. Petersburg Police Department. With hazel eyes and a boyish face, he stands with a gun and a Taser in his belt. He tolerates the students' ribbing.

Soon, he begins to talk about the crashes he has investigated. He shows photos.

By the end of his presentation, the students are sobered.

"I never want to drive again," says one.

• • •

"If you do not have a strong stomach, you do not have to look," Jockers says. It's the grand finale of his presentation, innocuously titled "Traffic Operations."

Jockers has been the lead investigator on about 50 fatal crashes during his 18 years with the police department. His cases include the young, the old and the in-between.

There was the 12-year-old boy killed in a hit-and-run on his birthday in 2006 as he walked home from buying himself a present.

There was the 94-year-old man who hit a pedestrian in 2005 and drove about 3 miles with the body on the top of the car.

And a 32-year-old disc jockey who was standing outside a pool hall when a car ran off the road and pinned him to a brick wall in 1999.

In the case of the elderly man, Jockers showed the students a picture of the victim's severed leg, which had been left at the scene.

"Did you pick his leg up?" a student asks.

"Yes," Jockers answers, and moves on.

This year, he headed investigations into the city's most notorious fatalities.

In May, he investigated the crash in which a 14-year-old girl drove her mother's car into a 5-year-old boy, killing him.

Last month, he handled the catastrophic wreck in front of Ike's Liquor-Lounge that killed a bicyclist and injured nine, one of whom is still on life support.

In the St. Petersburg High class, he narrates a slideshow of crashes and victims.

A woman crushed against a post. A beheading. Two people who burned to death. The conclusion of his presentation:


He gets up on his soapbox. The next time you think about doing something stupid behind the wheel of a car, he says, think again.

"That's what happens to bodies in crashes."

• • •

Jockers didn't plan for a job that wakes him up in the middle of the night to work in the glare of police lights.

But he believes God did.

Jockers wanted to be like his dad, a New York City firefighter and his hero. But when he graduated from training, he couldn't find a job. He prayed with his wife, Michelle, and became a police academy cadet.

At the St. Petersburg Police Department, he dreamed of being a detective. Instead, he landed in the DUI squad.

"I kind of started falling in love with traffic," he said. "You have an immediate impact."

He felt like this was the work that mattered to people. Most law-abiding citizens aren't likely to be murdered. But they risk a traffic crash every day.

Statistics bear him out. Last year in Pinellas County, 114 people died in traffic crashes, while 57 were murdered.

But it's not all doom and gloom for Jockers. Sometimes he has a little fun on the job, too.

In one traffic unit about a decade ago, he and his partner started an anti-speeding campaign called "Where's Jockers?"

It worked by having Jockers disguise himself to snag speeders with a radar gun. Some of his getups: A senior with a walker at a bus stop. A utility worker in a cherry picker. A homeless man asking for money.

It was so well-received that Jockers went on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

The police wrote thousands of tickets, including to a City Council member.

• • •

Jockers works a crash from beginning to end. He makes death notifications. He writes news releases. He testifies in court, explaining to juries concepts like occupant kinematics and conservation of linear momentum.

He loves piecing the puzzle together. He will search until he has found the exact point of impact in a crash. He'll return in the daylight to scour the scene again.

Jockers, whose politics a colleague once described as "two steps to the right of Attila the Hun," believes in right and wrong. He wishes he could drag legislators and lobbyists to the scenes of crashes where a motorcyclist wasn't wearing a helmet or the victim wasn't buckled up.

His convictions have affected his family life. His worst argument with his wife came when his daughter turned 15 and wanted a learner's permit. She got one, to his chagrin.

His eyes well with tears when he talks about his job. The carnage haunts him. He wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

He loves the science of the crash, the certainty of measurements and skid marks. But the mystery he can't solve is why. He has decided the reasons are unknowable. The work has challenged his faith.

"It rocks it to the core," he said. But at the same time, he relies on it to keep working.

"There's a plan," he says.

• • •

After the students file out, Jockers sits in a chair against a wall of the portable and sighs.

In the few minutes before the next class comes in, he chats with the two driver's education teachers, Steve Flanagan and Jim Mewha, about whether his talk made an impact.

He knows it's hard to get through to teenagers. He and his wife have two of them.

"People make their own choices in this life," he said later. "I can't make decisions for other people."

But when the mother of a crash victim hugs him at a Rays game, when prosecutors get a conviction based on his work, he knows his dedication is valued.

"I love what I do," Jockers says before another round of flippant students to scare. "I truly believe that on a case-by-case basis, I do make a difference in people's lives."

Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or [email protected]

Traffic crash investigator loves putting the pieces together 11/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 11, 2008 9:01pm]
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