ORLANDO, Fla. --
A Local 6 investigation has revealed that most law enforcement officers found at fault in vehicle crashes are never cited. Jennifer Bowman learned that the hard way.
“I was at a red light, getting off the 417, turning onto Lake Mary Boulevard. The light turned green, I went to go,” Bowman said.
Unfortunately for Bowman, a Seminole County deputy driving on Lake Mary Boulevard went through the intersecting red light and struck her car.
“When I did ask him about it, he said he was looking at his computer screen, didn’t even see me, didn’t even look up, didn’t realize the light turned, and just kept going,” she explained.
The deputy was found at fault, but not cited for the crash.
“If it was me who did it, I’m sure I’d get a ticket,” Bowman said.
Her case is not unique.
Local 6 pored over crash reports from various cities and counties and found dozens of cases of officer-involved crashes between 2009 and 2010. In not one of the following cases was the officer responding to a specific call or emergency.
• Orlando Police Department: Officers found at fault in 10 accidents (2010). Not one was issued a citation.
• Volusia County Sheriff’s Office: Deputies found at fault in 10 accidents (2010). Four were issued citations.
• Seminole County Sheriff’s Office: Deputies found at fault in 11 accidents (2009-2010). Not one was issued a traffic citation.
“To compare a deputy’s or a law enforcement officer’s driving to a civilian’s is apples and oranges,” stated Lt. James Clark, a spokesman from the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. “For citizens, they are asked not to be distracted. For law enforcement it’s a requirement.”
The lieutenant gave Local 6 a look inside a typical cruiser to explain why distracted driving is a requirement for his deputies.
“We’re operating in-car cameras, several radio systems, a mobile computer. But we’re trained to do it every day."
Local 6 got a similar response from the Orlando Police Department about its incidents of office-involved crashes.
“The numbers are not alarming by any means,” said Orlando Police Chief Paul Rooney.
Rooney said that the public needs to consider that officers respond to hundreds of thousands of calls every year.
“They’re in their vehicles 12 hours a day,” he said.
Reminded, however, that the officers in the incidents documented by Local 6 were not responding to calls, Rooney said, “They may not be responding to a call, or traveling to a call, but they’re always on call. They’re always on alert, because they are trained to look for things out of the ordinary.”
Gary Gentry, a civilian whose car was struck by an Orlando officer’s cruiser, sees it a bit differently.
“I think it’s a little easier for them to be distracted, but they still have to worry about safety.”
Ironically, Gentry’s accident happened in front of Orlando police headquarters.
“A policeman came up behind me. He said he was looking to change lanes, and his foot came off the brake and he bumped into my vehicle.”
Rooney explained that the department has a progressive discipline policy that ranges from oral reprimands to written censures, suspensions, demotions, and terminations. However, traffic citations are unlikely, the chief said, because of a contract stipulation with the union.
“Which is an agreement that means they can’t have double discipline,” he stated.
Seminole County has a similar discipline policy; however, deputies could face a hit to their wallets, as well.
“For the individual deputy, part of the progressive discipline includes restitution… out of their own pocket (for repairs),” said Clark.
Local 6 requested deputy-involved crash reports from the Orange County Sheriff's Office, as well. A representative from that office said the station would need to pay $1,600 simply to view the records. WKMG-TV had paid, in most cases, less than $150 to get actual case printouts from other agencies.
An attorney representing Local 6 sent a letter to Orange County, calling the fee excessive under state law. So far, that letter has been ignored.
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