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May 30, 2006
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Baltimore: Crash puts focus on police driving

STEPHANIE DESMON AND GREG GARLAND, SUN REPORTERS
Copyright 2006 The Baltimore Sun Company

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.

The biggest award in recent years went to the family of a woman who was killed when an officer ran a red light on New Year's Day 1995. Officer Keith N. Devoe admitted driving at more than 60 mph and hitting a 22-year-old college student returning home from a midnight church service. A jury awarded the family $2.1 million, but the amount was reduced to $500,000 on appeal.

This month's fatal crash was the third in recent years in which a collision between two police cars ended in the death of an officer. In 2002, Officer Crystal D. Sheffield died after her car collided with another police car racing to the same call. In 1998, Officer Harold J. Carey was killed on the way to assist a fellow officer when his police van collided with a cruiser at a midtown intersection.

Even when responding to emergency calls, regulations require police officers to follow most traffic laws. They are not allowed to drive faster than 10 mph over the speed limit, even with lights and sirens on, and they must come to a complete stop at stop signs and red lights before proceeding.

Training behind the wheel of a police cruiser is part of the training each recruit receives upon joining the department. For a long time, trainees learned on the streets of Baltimore, the same streets they work every day. Sometimes, traffic cones would be set up in the parking lot of Memorial Stadium and trickier maneuvers attempted.

About 10 years ago the department started to send new officers to Sykesville to drive on various courses as part of their training. One, called the urban grid, includes a variety of intersections, including blind ones with mounds of dirt 15 to 30 feet high, railroad crossings, simulated pedestrians, lights and more. Liebno's staff doesn't train city officers, but they use his training facility.

"We don't have the buildings, but we have an environment that's similar to Baltimore," he said.

Roussey said he thinks the training in Sykesville gives young officers a false sense of confidence in their driving skills, and he fears that it contributes to accidents. He said many young officers arrive from big cities where they haven't had to drive much, so their inexperience behind the wheel is a factor. And the typical recruit is a member of the category that insurance companies worry about the most: males between 21 and 25.

Roussey recalled an incident 20 years ago when he was on the midnight shift. He was waiting for a light to change at Fairmount and Linwood avenues, and a drunken driver hit him head-on. The car was totaled. Roussey ended up with a broken arm and a large bruise on his chest.

Safety is not only a matter of police driving; it's about the others on the road. When a police car with its lights and siren on pulls up behind a civilian vehicle, how the driver reacts is unpredictable. Some go to the left. Some to the right. Some just stop in the middle of the road.

"People run into us," Liebno said.

stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com greg.garland@baltsun.com 

Full story: Baltimore: Crash puts focus on police driving






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