Commanders hope to steer officers to better driving

January 24, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Seeking to curb the bad driving habits of Baltimore police officers, department commanders have proposed holding officers responsible for some accidents -- and fining them for not buckling up.

In response, the police union is threatening to tell officers to refrain from using lights and sirens when responding to emergency calls, a move that would slow response time to people who need help.

The controversy comes as Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier tries to cope with an accident crisis. In 1993, the most recent year that statistics are available, 250 of 476 accidents involving patrol cars were considered preventable, an all-time high.

Lt. Kenneth Streets of the traffic unit said his officers now investigate about 500 departmental accidents a year. One this month killed an 18-year-old woman.

The commanders' proposals include establishing an administrative "point system" in which officers would receive demerits for violating rules, such as not wearing seat belts, and would be fined after being marked down several times.

Officers also could start getting traffic citations for minor accidents, which would mean fines and marks against their personal driving records, if they were found at fault in accidents.

"The commissioner has been concerned about the number of accidents since he arrived" last year, Sam Ringgold, the department's chief spokesman, said. "Something has to be done that gets the attention of officers."

But the president of the police union, Officer Gary McLhinney, said the new rules would "stifle our efforts to protect the citizens" by making officers reluctant to bend traffic laws to surprise criminals.

"You can go down the wrong way on a one-way street in order to surprise a drug dealer and make a good arrest, or you can come around the way he's expecting you and watch him run down the street," said Officer McLhinney, who heads the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3.

Mr. Ringgold said that for the first time officers will get a full day of behind-the-wheel practice as part of their yearly training exercises. Also, police academy recruits will devote one week to driving skills, instead of the two days of mostly classroom instruction they get now.

More than 70 percent of the preventable accidents are caused by officers with less than five years on the force, the department says.

As part of his crackdown, Commissioner Frazier recently overturned hearing board decisions that exonerated two officers involved in minor accidents. The police union has threatened to sue the department over the issue.

The proposals by department commanders have not been reviewed by Commissioner Frazier yet.

The proposal to issue traffic citations would expand current rules. Officers involved in accidents always could be given tickets. But such action usually was reserved for serious accidents or mistakes.

A memo written by Lieutenant Streets and distributed to commanders last week says that traffic officers would have to write tickets "at all departmental accidents when the investigating officers can determine fault in the accident. . . . The amount of damage and injury will no longer be considered in the issuance of a citation."

Officer McLhinney said that an officer who knocked out a taillight in a parking lot could be cited. "The average citizen would not get a ticket for pulling in his driveway and taking out a taillight," he said.

Under the point system, officers could be fined as much as $300 for violating departmental driving rules or state laws. A seat belt violation, for example, would earn the officer one point. Violating a rule while using lights and sirens would bring five points.

Accumulating seven points within three years would trigger a $50 fine. Twelve points in three years would lead to a $100 fine. The maximum fine is $300, payable in increments of $25 per pay period.

Lieutenant Streets said members of the Fleet Safety Unit -- a sergeant and four officers who drive around the city watching how officers drive -- would be responsible for noting violations and informing district commanders.

Supervisors also could note problems.

Maj. Alvin Winkler, commander of the traffic section, said the "point system" is just one of many options being reviewed to stem the accident tide.

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