HOUSTON — Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said Thursday an investigation determined he was at fault in running into a pedestrian last week, and he has been given a one-day unpaid suspension as punishment. He also will take a defensive driving course.
McClelland said the punishment was issued by Mayor Annise Parker, adding it was more severe than what he would have handed down to an officer who had an at-fault accident. He will not receive a traffic ticket, but the accident will be a part of his driving record.
"I just want the public to know as leader of this organization, it's my responsibility to set the tone," McClelland said. "You have heard me say, 'If we mess up, we clean up, we fess up.' That's why I think it's very important for me, as a leader who issues discipline frequently, that I not hold myself to the same standards and accountable as the average officer — I hold myself to a higher standard."
McClelland's sport utility vehicle struck the pedestrian around 8:15 a.m. Sept. 4, about two blocks from HPD headquarters at 1200 Travis. Several hours after the accident, McClelland explained he had a green light and was turning onto Travis from Clay, but did not see the man in the crosswalk in front of him.
Shortly after the accident, a police spokesman said, "He made the left turn and suddenly an adult male stepped off the curb into a moving lane of traffic."
Surveillance video released Thursday, however, shows the man stepping off the curb before McClelland's vehicle even appears in the camera's view; the man was six steps into the crosswalk when he was struck by the chief's vehicle.
The chief said he has ordered HPD's Special Operations unit to begin monitoring busy downtown intersections during the morning and afternoon rush hours, in an attempt to cut down on jay walking and motorists who ignore traffic signals.
A private conversation
Pedestrian James Harris, 47, was thrown into the air and landed in the next traffic lane, and in the surveillance video could be seen flexing his leg. McClelland can be seen getting out of a city-owned Jeep Cherokee, and going over to check on Harris as he lay in the street. Harris was hospitalized with injuries to his arm and released the same day.
McClelland, who attempted to visit the accident victim in a downtown hospital the day of the accident, said he has since talked to him.
"I'm certainly sorry for Mr. Harris. It's very unnerving if you strike someone with a vehicle," McClelland said. "I'm very, very thankful that he wasn't more seriously injured."
The chief said he would keep his conversation with Harris private.
"He was in very good spirits, and I'm just thankful his injuries are what they are," said McClelland, as he addressed reporters. "I'll share one sentiment with all of you — he was concerned about the difficult time y'all were giving me."
Harris, reached at his residence Thursday, declined to comment on the accident or McClelland's punishment.
"I'm recovering," he said. "My arm's in a cast and will be in a cast for the next five weeks."
Officer: 'It's too harsh'
Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officer's Union, said Houston police officers are allowed to exercise their discretion in writing a citation after an accident. Hunt said that no citation usually is issued if the motorist acknowledges he was at fault, and there are no other contributing factors such as intoxication, not wearing prescription eye glasses, texting or talking on a cellphone.
McClelland explained HPD accidents are reviewed by an internal Accident Review Board, and an accident is given a numerical score based on the officer's background, accident and disciplinary history.
Hunt also said the chief's punishment was more than an officer would receive in the same situation.
"It's too harsh of a penalty. A police officer would have gotten a written reprimand for that type of an accident," said Hunt. "Apparently, the mayor is going to hold her chief to a higher standard than officers on the street, and I'm not sure that's fair to the chief, but she's his boss."
The chief, who will take a department-mandated defensive driving course in November, said the accident already has changed his driving habits.
"I certainly will be more cautious and attentive when I am driving, not only in the downtown area but anywhere, of pedestrians." McClelland said.