Police driving a longtime concern Cruiser-related accidents have dropped in city since training was intensified

December 02, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police call it a Signal 13, an officer's urgent call for help. But twice in the past five weeks, someone has died as a result of officers speeding to the assistance of a colleague.

Both accidents -- which killed a city officer on Oct. 30 and a pedestrian Monday night -- remain under investigation. The deadly crashes highlight the danger of police cruisers speeding on crowded city streets.

The number of accidents involving cruisers has dropped significantly since 1995, when 554 were reported, 186 being listed as the officer's fault. This year, 255 departmental accidents have occurred -- 95 of them ruled the officer's fault.

"Training is much more intense," said Maj. Allen S. Kogut, who runs the training division, which includes 40 hours of driving instruction for recruits and frequent reschooling for veterans.

Driving habits of police officers have long concerned Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who in 1995 instituted strict rules to hold his troops accountable. He issued demerits for infractions such as failing to wear seat belts and ordered that tickets be issued to officers responsible for even minor fender-benders.

That and an increase in driving instruction from one day to one week for recruits have helped reduce the number of accidents.

Three of the four deaths involving police car accidents since 1995 were caused by officers responding to help their colleagues.

Monday's crash occurred in West Baltimore when Officer Marvin Gaynor hit and killed Martin Cook, 47, who was crossing North Fulton Avenue. Preliminary reports from witnesses, police said, indicated the officer had the green light.

Gaynor was responding to help another officer who was making a drug bust nearby. A dispatcher could not raise him on the radio and called the Signal 13 to make sure everything was OK.

"In this instance, the officer did everything he could to get there safely and quickly," said Officer Gary McLhinney, the police union president.

On Oct. 30, two police vehicles responding to an officer fighting a vagrant crashed at a midtown intersection, killing Officer Harold J. Carey. Investigators have not yet determined who was at fault, but police say one of their vehicles went through a red light.

Baltimore police have strict rules on driving:

High-speed pursuits are strictly forbidden, though officers are permitted to follow a fleeing car at reasonable speed.

Cruisers responding to emergencies with lights and sirens activated are required to stop at every stop sign and red light to ensure the intersection is clear before proceeding.

Police cars are forbidden from being driven more than 10 mph over the posted limit, which is 25 or 30 mph on most city streets.

The department rules state: "The operation of a motor vehicle requires the same care and caution as that required in the use of your firearm." District stations post photographs of police car accidents to remind officers.

On Jan. 1, 1995, Officer Keith N. Devoe slammed into a car at an East Baltimore intersection and killed a young woman who was heading home from church. He was driving more than 60 mph to reach an officer making an arrest, even though he had not been dispatched to the call and there had not been a request for assistance.

A police review found Devoe at fault, and a jury found him negligent. It awarded the victim's family, and the 12-year-old passenger who survived, nearly $2 million. The amount is still being debated in court.

In April 1996, Officer Robert L. Velte Jr., responding to a burglary call, struck and killed a 7-year-old boy who darted into the street from behind a parked car. The accident was ruled pedestrian error, but the department said Velte failed to "exercise due care and caution" because he was driving too fast -- nearly double the posted 30-mph limit.

Departmental action against Devoe is pending; he has a hearing scheduled for Jan. 12. Officials were unable to say yesterday whether any disciplinary action was taken against Velte.

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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