Reckless police driving in city? Child killed: Don't let rumors direct community response to police car accident.

April 30, 1996

BALTIMORE'S police department will make a bad situation worse if it unnecessarily delays a thorough report on the death of a 7-year-old child hit by a squad car. Already there have been misinformation and conflicting stories about the incident Saturday that left Melvin Bettis dead.

Emotions are understandably high. The situation won't be defused by taking, as police spokesman Sam Ringgold suggests, "several weeks" to complete a traffic investigation.

The public already knows Baltimore police seem to have more problems than usual when it comes to driving in the city. Earlier this year it was reported that the department has been averaging more than 500 patrol-car accidents annually. Police officials themselves concluded more than half the accidents were preventable. Seventy percent of the accidents have been caused by officers with less than five years experience, but that's most of the force.

Preliminary reports indicate one of three police cars headed to the scene of a burglary struck the Bettis child, who was crossing Reisterstown Road at Virginia Avenue after leaving a corner store. It is believed that the lead police car was being driven by Officer Robert Velt, 22, who has only been on the force 16 months.

An 18-year-old woman, Valerie Lynette Taylor, was killed last year after leaving a midnight church service on New Year's Day when a police car broadsided her vehicle at Orleans and Caroline streets. The squad car driver was Officer Keith N. Devoe, 21, who had only been on the force 20 months. Ms. Taylor's parents have filed a $5 million wrongful death suit against the city.

Litigation is likely in the Bettis case as well. The city must be thorough in its investigation, not just to protect itself in a lawsuit but to ensure the truth is known. It should complete that investigation as rapidly as possible to dispel misinformation that has already further soured community relations with the police.

The public should know as soon as possible the speed of the police cars and whether their sirens and flashing lights were on. The public should know what precautions are being taken to safeguard the lives of pedestrians during emergency police responses. Our condolences are extended to the Bettis family. No report will bring Melvin back. But it could lead to corrections that will help prevent future tragedies.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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