Smashed police vehicles put a hurt on department budgets. Photo Dale Stockton
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Looking through the Nikon's viewfinder, the police Crown Victoria throwing a rooster tail of gravel and dried brush seemed enormous as it skidded broadside toward me at a high rate of speed. I was looking through a wide-angle lens, and the visual distortion meant that the errant Ford didn't just look big, it was nearly on top of me. How ironic, I recall thinking. Not only was I about to be killed by a driver who was a friend, but all in the quest for a police-magazine cover photograph that would pay less than two C-notes.
Then a sense of self-preservation kicked in; I let the camera drop onto my chest by its neck strap (like a duty weapon, you don't fling a $1,200 camera into the weeds merely because you are about to die) and executed an Olympic-caliber lateral broad jump to safety. The Crown Victoria slid past mere inches away, the driver still valiantly sawing away at the wheel.
Equally ironic: The driver was not only a friend, but also the chief driving instructor for his department. Worse, on his very next lap he went off the track yet again, though this time I'd prudently fitted a long telephoto lens and was standing well away from my earlier perilous location.
Was this display of driving ineptitude a major surprise, particularly in light of the fact that this instructor, charged with training his department's officers in high-speed driving techniques, had logged thousands of laps on this very track? Hardly. He'd admitted to me privately that he'd been appointed chief instructor despite his disinterest in an academy assignment. He also said the subject of his driving skill had never arisen. And he was the first to admit he wasn't a particularly talented driver. In fact, he tended to crash a lot.
An added irony: Only days before I'd had a request from the same department's shop supervisor to photograph for him the record number of wrecked patrol vehicles littering his storage lot. He was preparing a command-staff presentation, asking either for better driver training to reduce accidents or a larger budget to repair the mangled units. Their answer was to increase funding for repairs.
Are these extreme or isolated situations? Unfortunately, no. It's the same in departments across the country.
Driver Training, or Lack Thereof
U.S. police departments pay far more attention to firearm training than driver training. Yet by an order of magnitude more officers are injured and killed annually in motor vehicles than by weapons.
According to FBI statistics, from 1995 2004 some 404 officers nationwide died in car crashes. This doesn't include 120 who were struck by vehicles while out of their own cars, and 60 more killed on motorcycles. Total: 584. During the same period, 594 officers were killed feloniously, and 16,565 were assaulted and injured.
The FBI doesn't track the number of officers injured in car crashes, and there's no central repository for those statistics. But ask any department about the number of officers injured in car crashes versus the number wounded by deadly weapons, and the ratio will likely be on the order of 20:1 or higher, probably much higher. As a result, cities lay out substantial bucks not only for the resulting workers' compensation claims, but also to settle lawsuits by citizens in the aftermath of accidents involving police vehicles. The combination adds up to serious dollars for many departments.
Take the Denver Police Department, an agency with 1,405 sworn officers and a total fleet of some 950 vehicles, including those used by the detective division, administration, special-ops and non-patrol duties. A study by the Rocky Mountain News concluded that from 2001 late 2004, the city of Denver paid $2.5 million in workers' compensation benefits to officers injured in on-duty auto accidents. During the same period, the city shelled out $3 million-plus to settle lawsuits stemming from police cars crashing into civilian vehicles (this did not include pursuit-related incidents) and paid another $2.4 million to three officers forced to retire from injuries sustained in car accidents. Total tab: over $7.9 million in benefits and lawsuit settlements alone. Add the cost of replacing vehicles and repairing the salvageable wrecks, and we're talking serious money.
This period came a few years after one of Denver's less auspicious public moments, one captured for posterity and seen even today on television reruns. The driver of a patrol unit running hot to a routine call with a "Cops" TV cameraman behind the cage, shooting through the windshield blows a stop sign and runs headlong into a blind intersection without so much as lifting off the gas. The first time I saw the footage, I thought, "Geez Louise, better not be anybody coming from the right." There was a huge bang as he was T-boned by another Denver unit running to the same call. Officers were injured and both cars were mangled but fortunately, nobody died. There was another stroke of luck here: If the second car had been a civilian ride, even a first-year law student probably could have won the inevitable megabuck personal-injury court settlement.
Okay, maybe the officer was distracted by the TV crew's presence. Yet right there on camera, courtesy of Fox-TV, we can witness the onset of tunnel vision and his subsequent disregard for common sense, departmental policy, state law and, not least, one of the most basic elements of driver training: situational awareness.
But Denver is far from unusual. Other departments of similar size have similar accident records. And why not? An untrained civilian could well have made the same mistake. And that's the problem. With few exceptions, police officers are no more skilled at controlling a car than they were before entering the academy.