The city department is one of the few in the state that make officers pay for damage to their cruisers in accidents deemed their fault. In January, Baltimore officers reported 41 accidents, 21 of which were ruled their fault. That's down from the same month last year, in which 56 police accidents occurred, again with 21 ruled the officer's fault.
Recent yearly statistics were not immediately available. But the 41 accidents in January, while down 27 percent from last year, put the department on a course for more than 490 crashes in 2011. That is down from a high of 554 in 1995 but much higher than the 255 in 1998.
Police academy recruits take a rigorous driving course administered by the Maryland State Police, and officers involved in preventable accidents are required to take remedial training. Police note that officers in Baltimore respond to about 1.2 million calls each year, and are driving in a compact and crowded urban environment.
The issue of police driving practices became a vital component of the Maryland Court of Appeals in rendering its decision in the Montgomery County case. Even though the judges ruled on a technicality involving due process, the judges called "police officers and the rules of the road … integral to the resolution of this case."
In Maryland, the court said, drivers of emergency vehicles can violate traffic laws in "precisely three circumstances" — responding to an emergency call, pursing a suspect and racing to a fire alarm. State law requires the drivers to slow at stop signs and red lights and exceed speed limits "only so long as the driver does not endanger life or property."
Just how serious Baltimore police take safe driving — at least in their rules — can be seen in the department's general orders, which state: "The operation of a motor vehicle requires the same care and caution as that required in the use of your firearm."
Rules for Baltimore police are more restrictive than state law, requiring that officers stop at all red lights and stop signs before going through and going no faster than 10 mph over the speed limit, which is 20 to 30 mph on most city streets (It should be noted that drivers have to exceed the limit by at least 12 mph to trigger the speed cameras).
None of the Montgomery County officers were responding to an emergency. The appellate judges concluded that whether fighting bureaucracy or crime, cops need to adhere to the law like everyone else.
In navigating the cumbersome system, the judges wrote, "the officers were no worse off than a regular citizen."