Getting There: On driving safety, police aren't a monolith

Column prompts differing views

December 12, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Do Baltimore police have a problem with driving? It might depend on which officer you ask.

Last week's column dealt with two recent auto fatalities involving city officers within a short period of time this fall. The point was that these single-moving-vehicle crashes, in which it appears the officer was at fault, raise questions about the culture, training and management of the Baltimore force.

The column wasn't expected to please everybody, and it didn't. But just as interesting as the response was the non-response: Not a peep was heard from the Baltimore Police Department or Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III.

Two former cops were not as reticent. They weighed in with divergent views grounded in experience.

Objecting to the column was retired Lt. Frederick V. Roussey, who wrote in part:

Using the deaths of Officers Fowler and Portz as your catalyst for attack is way out of line. Just because the funerals are over doesn't mean that everything for those officer's families are magically back to normal, far from it, their journey into depression and emptiness has just begun. The deaths of these two fine officers are fresh, everything for their families and co-workers are still very much upside down. The last thing they need now is for some reporter who has never sat ... in a radio car questioning their loved ones final moments on earth.

In your article you question if Officer Fowler's crash was "weather related" no there was no ice or snow, but rain and fallen leaves on a roadway can be just as dangerous. ... Sometimes things just happen. Maybe a deer ran out, maybe another driver distracted him, any number of things could have happened. ...

You next attack Officer Portz, questioning how officers respond to emergencies. You mention high speed driving. Officer Portz was driving on the Highway to Nowhere, a posted 55 mph zone. Even if he was driving at 70 mph at best this puts him 15 mph above the posted speed limit perfectly acceptable in an emergency situation. Yes emergency! An injured person call can and often is a life threatening situation where even seconds can count. ... In any case again none of us knows for sure what happened in Portz's radio car, only he knows what went wrong! But what I do know is that his children are without their father because he responded in an attempt to help someone else and now he's being berated by you. ...

In some regard I agree with you far too many officers nationwide are dying as a result of traffic accidents and this needs to stop!

Agreeing on the last point, but apparently not much else, was former Baltimore police officer Skip Panowitz of Bel Air. He wrote:

This is not a new situation. I remember clearly as a rookie city cop 40 years ago that we had driver training, including in-vehicle evaluation, while in the academy. The instructor commented that the record was so poor for the city that we would likely be fired if we were "professional" drivers.

He noted that during the civil disturbances of 1968 police cruisers were almost the only cars on the street and they were still colliding with each other. A few years later we were required to give up a leave day, with pay, to attend a driver training class because the accident experience was so poor. But officers were disciplined for accident frequency including giving up days off, paying for damages and/or being transferred to less desirable non-driving assignments (i.e foot posts, security details, etc).

I was very surprised to learn a few years ago, when police-involved accidents became a news item in the Baltimore Sun and other local media, that little or nothing was being done to discipline officers with accident frequency records, or to improve driving skills in general. It appears things have not changed. Smaller cars have not seemed to help.

One issue that the city grappled with 40 years ago the same as now is that a lot of recruits have little or no driving experience before joining the department, especially those from urban environments. Current officers tell me that driver training does not seem to be a training priority. This is a big issue and a big concern as your article implies. Hopefully priority attention will be given to driver training soon. If not, this trend will not change.

Obviously, Panowitz and I largely agree.

So I'll say this in response to Roussey: You have a point on Fowler. Details of that incident remain murky, though weather alone is never a satisfactory explanation for a crash.

Even if it hurts, however, Officer Portz's heroic but unnecessary death cries out for examination — for the lessons it can provide on preserving officers' lives. One of those is that "seconds can count" for a responding officer too.

The extra seconds an officer takes to drive safely to a scene seem well worth the risks of showing up too late. Their safety and that of others — such as the firefighters injured in the Portz crash — shouldn't be jeopardized on the remote chance that seconds will make a difference in responding to a call for help.

If there is evidence of life-and-death urgency when a call goes out, that changes matters. But no information has emerged in the case of Officer Portz to suggest the priority shouldn't have been his own safety. That he responded at high speed raises more questions about his training and police doctrine than about him. That the department hasn't confronted these issues openly reflects directly on its leadership.

The full text of the officers' e-mails can be found on the Getting There blog, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/traffic/

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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