City crash puts focus on police driving

Concerns involve accidents and effect on the force

May 29, 2006|By STEPHANIE DESMON AND GREG GARLAND | STEPHANIE DESMON AND GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTERS

Lt. Frederick V. Roussey is always warning younger police officers to be careful on the job. He's not so worried about gun-toting criminals. He's more worried about how officers handle the cars they hop into, lights flashing and sirens blaring, to head to a crime.

"You tell these kids, `If you get yourself in an accident on the way to the scene, you're not doing anybody any good,'" said Roussey, a 27-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department.

Roussey's passion about the subject comes not only from being a supervisor, it comes from being a father.

His son Jamie A. Roussey, 22, on the force for just over a year, was killed in an accident while racing to help a fellow officer six years ago. His cruiser was broadsided by another car as he went through an intersection and slammed into a pole. Every time Roussey hears of another officer killed or seriously injured in a crash, "I relive that night all over again."

Accidents involving police cars rival gunshot wounds as the leading killers of police officers around the country. In Baltimore, Officer Anthony A. Byrd was killed this month when the car he was driving was hit by one driven by another officer, both assigned to the midnight shift in the Southwest District.

The accident has renewed concern about what has for years been a troublesome issue for city police - the driving habits of officers. Seven of the past 11 city officers to die in the line of duty involved vehicle crashes. Nonfatal accidents involving police officers in the city occur at the rate of about 1.5 per day. Each year, there is one accident for nearly every one of the city's more than 600 police cars on the road.

"It's so rare that a police officer gets involved in a shooting," said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. "Most police officers never fire their weapons in the line of duty at all. They use their vehicles daily."

Paul M. Blair Jr., president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police union, said: "In congested areas, you're going to have more accidents [driving] seven days a week, 24 hours a day. There are no slow times. There's no breaks."

In the city, accidents involving police cars fell in 2005, and the number of crashes in which an officer is found at fault is falling. In 2002, 334 accidents were determined to be the fault of officers, according to statistics provided by the city. Last year, 269 accidents were deemed the officer's fault. Through May 19 of this year, an officer was found to blame in 98 crashes.

The fatal crash May 19 involving Byrd is under investigation.

Driving in the city is like navigating an obstacle course - narrow streets, blind intersections, pedestrians who tend to jump into traffic with little warning. Add to that an emergency - an officer responding to a life-or-death call while behind the wheel of a police car with lights flashing and sirens blaring, trying to drive safely while listening to the radio, adrenaline pumping as he or she prepares for whatever waits at his destination.

The mix is ripe for trouble.

"In a city, there's a lot of stuff to hit," said Doug Ward, deputy director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University and a retired major with the Maryland State Police. "You go off-road in the city, and you're going to hit something."

The concern isn't only about dings and dents to the city's fleet of 419 marked cruisers and 218 unmarked vehicles; there is a domino effect. Cars in need of repair can be a financial drain and can be an inconvenience if too many are off the road at a time. Injuries, even minor ones, keep officers off the job. Overtime often must be paid for replacements. Serious accidents can be career-changing, leaving an active beat officer confined to a desk.

"It's a severe drain on a department's finances, personnel-wise, equipment-wise," said Al Liebno Jr., administrator of the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commission's driver training facility in Sykesville.

More serious crashes are costly on another level, too. They can mean payouts to injured people out of city coffers. The city's liability is capped at $20,000 per person, $40,000 per accident, and $15,000 for property damage in cases in which police are responding to an emergency call, said Justin King, an attorney in the city solicitor's office.

If the accident occurs when the officer is not responding to an emergency, there is a $200,000 per person, $500,000 per accident limit on liability, King said.

For the fiscal year that ended in June 2004, the city paid $71,604 on 21 bodily injury claims involving the police and $59,008 on 35 property damage claims. For the fiscal year that ended in June 2005, the city paid $98,257 on 28 bodily injury claims and $111,104 on 62 property damage claims.

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