Police at the wheel

June 08, 2006

Of the last 11 Baltimore police officers to die in the line of duty, eight were killed in vehicle crashes. That's a surprising statistic considering the nature of police work and level of violence on city streets. Officer Anthony A. Byrd, the latest victim, died last month in an early morning car crash about a block from the station house. Officer Byrd, an 11-year veteran and the father of two young girls, didn't have to die; the city police cruiser that struck his car was racing through a stop sign en route to a call.

The accident could have been avoided. Regrettably, that's the case with most police-involved car accidents since 2002 - they were preventable. Of the 2,433 police-involved accidents, 1,313 were found to be preventable, police figures show. If reducing accidents has been a high priority for police officials, as a spokesman contends, it hasn't happened.

The overall number of police-involved accidents has not appreciably declined. From a total of 534 in 2002, they increased the next two years, and fell to 547 last year. The department's record on preventable accidents isn't much better. They numbered 334 in 2002, fell to 286 in 2003, rose to 326 in 2004 and fell to 269 in 2005. Is that progress?

The consequences can be deadly - two civilians have been killed in police-related accidents since 2002 - and costly. An injured officer may be days or weeks off the job, his crashed vehicle in the shop. Victims sue the police, and city lawyers spend time in court.

Claims paid as a result of police-involved accidents have declined somewhat. What have decreased significantly are injuries, from 137 in 2002 to 31 so far this year, partly attributable to additional vehicle safety features.

But what's key is this: Police who were rushing to the scene of an emergency accounted for slightly more of the accidents. The rest occurred on routine patrol. That suggests officers either are not adhering to emergency response procedures or aren't following the basic rules of the road. Concerned about its accident rate, the Dallas Police Department recently revised its emergency response policies to try to reduce crashes while police are in pursuit.

Driving habits may not be the only causes of accidents, experts say. Other factors include staffing, fatigue, familiarity with terrain and changes in assignments. The department's staff shortages and decision to return desk officers to the street to offset the loss may be a contributing factor as well.

Police say they are disciplining their bad drivers, but taking away their licenses and banishing them to a 30-day foot patrol sounds like punishment for an immature teen, not a professional police officer.

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