01/02/2006

FHP pulls trooper off road patrol after crashes

Sarasota Herald-Tribune (Florida)

Tiffany Ferrell's trainers warned she would be "a high-liability employee."

By TODD RUGER
todd.ruger@heraldtribune.com

If Tiffany Ferrell wasn't a Florida state trooper, the car crashes she has caused in the past year could have led to a 3-month suspension of her driver's license.

Instead, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Ferrell continued to patrol the county's roadways for traffic violations even after she was found at fault in three of six squad car crashes this year.

Her supervisors called a fourth crash "preventable," and her latest crash, on Dec. 11, is still under investigation but also appears to be her fault.

That driving record would likely leave citizens with four or five citations and enough points on their license for a suspension, fines and a court-ordered driving course.

But Ferrell continued to patrol until Dec. 22, when a Herald-Tribune inquiry into her driving record prompted supervisors to take her off the road.

FHP troopers who trained Ferrell in 2004 warned of her potential as a liability, raising questions about near-accidents, a lack of investigative skills and a lack of honesty during traffic investigations.

Her 10-week trooper training had been extended at least three weeks before she was promoted to solo duty in December of that year.

Despite those warnings and on-duty collisions in 2005, Ferrell passed her one-year performance review in July. The only injury in the crashes was to Ferrell during a crash the FHP found was not her fault.

FHP Director Col. Christopher Knight removed her from the road after reviewing her record, FHP spokesman Maj. Ernesto Duarte said.

Ferrell has been reassigned to administrative duties in Venice and no longer drives a squad car.

"The findings basically led us to the position to remove her from law enforcement patrol," he said.

An internal inquiry has been started "to determine whether there was some type of supervisory breakdown in the handling of this employee," Duarte said.

One trooper who trained Ferrell about a year ago called her driving "for lack of better terms, hit or miss."

Ferrell had near-accidents while trying to stop violators and broke traffic laws, according to field training program reports obtained by the Herald-Tribune.

In August 2004, Ferrell had to brake abruptly to avoid running a red light. In September 2004, she stopped for a red traffic signal, made a remark about debris on the side of the road to her training officer, then proceeded through the red light.

In October 2004, it took her three tries to park the patrol car before she struck the concrete parking block -- and the car was crooked and occupied two spaces. Later in the month, she skidded through a red light, almost causing an accident.

"She does not pay attention to stop signs and is easily distracted," a trainer wrote. "She must not depend on her FTO to drive the car from the front right seat!"

One sergeant noted, "At this point in her training, I am bewildered as to what additional help we can do to guide her in her driving skills."

One corporal who trained her in November 2004 said Ferrell's first instinct and reaction when she sees a violation or disabled vehicle is to apply the brakes -- no matter where she is.

"She then attempts to find a way to immediately get to the incident without observing the ramifications for her spontaneous reaction," the corporal wrote.

Another trainer reported Ferrell would lose control of the car when pulling out from the median after a speed violator because she accelerated too quickly before all four wheels were on the pavement.

In her last week of trooper training, Ferrell ran a red light at McIntosh and Fruitville roads.

Still holding reservations about her driving ability, crash investigation skills, communication skills and "lack of honesty and forthcoming on all items/issues," supervisors moved her to solo patrol in December 2004.

"I continue to believe that she will be a high-liability employee for the department," a field training officer supervisor wrote that month. "She also will be a member who will more than likely be a complaint generator for her supervisor."

Yet FHP officials decided that the troopers who trained her failed to properly document warnings on evaluation forms to the extent that dismissal would be possible.

They wanted to give her a chance and said it was up to Ferrell to fix those issues herself as she patrolled solo, supervisors said in FHP records.

But internal highway patrol investigations show those concerns turned into driving mishaps.

-- On Jan. 8, she backed into a parked truck after completing an accident report, causing several hundred dollars in damage to both vehicles.

-- On March 29, she could have avoided striking a reflective sign while pulling out from the highway median after a speeder, but didn't, causing hundreds of dollars in damage to the squad car.

-- On June 1, she backed into a car traveling down Beneva Road as she failed to complete a U-turn to pursue a violator.

-- On Oct. 8, she struck a car as it drove in the right-hand lane of Interstate 75 because she overshot the emergency lane while re-entering the pavement during a crash investigation.

-- On Dec. 11, her patrol car sideswiped a Toyota on Interstate 75 while going 70 mph as she tried to pull off the road to investigate an abandoned vehicle.

The four driving violations she was faulted for in the January, June and October crashes -- two for improper backing, one for careless driving and one for an improper U-turn -- could have totaled 12 to 16 points against her license had they gone through the court system.

If the Dec. 11 crash is found to be her fault, that would have been another four points, had she been issued a citation.

Twelve points in less than a year results in a suspension of the license for up to 30 days, while 18 points in less than 18 months results in a suspension of up to three months, according to the Florida Driver's Handbook.

Ferrell was not cited for the crashes.

The FHP always investigates accidents involving its squad cars, and the norm is to issue citations to troopers at fault, Duarte said.

However, an administrative path is chosen for any traffic infraction by a trooper if it is determined the trooper was responding to an emergency call, pursuing a violator or conducting business such as attending to an accident, he said.

An example of a trooper who might receive a citation is one who got into an accident while driving on patrol but without an active call.

Ferrell did not return phone messages left on her work number this week requesting an interview.

Duarte said FHP policy dictates that responses to inquiries are handled by the public affairs office, preventing Ferrell from commenting.

Ferrell, who earns $35,057 per year, wrote 1,600 citations in 2005 and earned 11 commendations for enforcement productivity, Duarte said.

She also received two commendation letters from individuals in the community who said she was professional and compassionate when notifying them of a family member's death.

To be hired, she had to pass a background check that includes an examination of her driving record, Duarte said. Having a few infractions doesn't automatically disqualify an applicant, he said.

The FHP's disciplinary action scale demands a written reprimand for Ferrell's third "sustained chargeable" crash within a three-year time period.

As an alternative punishment to a reprimand, Ferrell chose in the days after the Oct. 8 crash to attend counseling that requires a remedial driver's course. As of Thursday, she had not completed the course, Duarte said, but there are plans to provide it for her in near future.

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