This week I read about a cop in Massachusetts who was responding to a call with his blue lights on, and on the way to the call he struck a 70 year old man. The story read that the guy that was stuck was in a crosswalk. The last I heard, the pedestrian was in critical condition. Naturally, that got me to thinking about the subject of lights, sirens and pursuits.
Every cop, well, maybe many cops, learn hard lessons early in their careers about racing around the city in their cruisers with their lights flashing and sirens wailing. Police vehicles have lights and sirens for a reason, however the use of them can be very dangerous to both the officers involved and the law abiding public.
I learned my lesson in the second or third year of my police career. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt in my case, and actually, I learned two lessons.
I can’t talk about these lessons separately, therefore, I have to tell you the whole story in order to provide context and insight.
If I haven’t lost you yet, I’ll start by telling this incident happened during what I would describe as a really bad week at work. It was during the summer, and I was working my favorite shift, 6PM to 230 AM. I liked that shift for several reasons, one of them being that those 8 hours were normally the busiest 8 hours during the 24 hour day in terms of calls for service. We usually kept busy on that shift, and that was fine with me and the other officers who bid for that shift.
We worked 4 days on and 2 days off, which was a day off schedule I enjoyed. First night on, this particular week, I got involved with a foot chase, standoff and apprehension of a patient at one of the Emergency Rooms in the city. This Eddie Murphy / Beverly Hills Cop type of chase took place inside, outside and around the hospital. Ultimately it ended with a trip for myself to the Emergency Room, followed by a series of somewhat painful injections to ward off any number of communicable diseases I may have contracted during the final melee.This was the end result as I tried to take this wayward patient back into custody.
I figured I was in line for some type of attaboy for my role in this rather violent event. Instead of a “well done” from my supervisor, when I reported for duty the following afternoon, my shift commander informs me he was bringing me up on charges for losing my prisoner, conduct unbecoming and whatever else. I didn’t mention it was not my prisoner that escaped, but that of an officer from a neighboring department. Needless to say I went right to my Union Rep, who told me not to worry, and those charges never materialized.
My last night on duty that week ended when I went to a house to take a past tense burglary report, and being so hot, and being that we had manual roll up windows at the time, I left my front windows open because I was in a pretty decent neighborhood. When I came out, I found a puddle of urine on my seat and floor. To add insult to injury, my brief case which contained a two year collection of various cheatsheets and other reference material to help me out when I was in the street was gone. Along with that brief case, my subpoenas, court dates, my case notes were also missing. This was a problem on many levels, beyond the stink and wetness of urine that permeated the cruiser. I quickly received a formal, written reprimand for that Charlie Foxtrot. Thats how my week ended. It was not a good week for my monthly evaluation or my personnel file, or, maybe more important, my ego.
This night, was the night after the hospital incident, and as I mentioned, when I came in, the shift commander read me the riot act and said he was bringing me up on charges. I don’t remember much else about that evening.
I do remember that I had just pulled my cruiser into the Lincoln Street Plaza, and pulled up in a spot where I could watch whatever activity was going on. Suddenly, a yell, really a scream for help crackled over the radio. A two man walking post was yelling for help outside of one of the local drinking dives. They were trying to arrest someone for something, and I guess they found themselves in the middle of a shit show (yes, shit show is actually in my thesaurus!) and they needed help. I was in striking distance, so I immediately picked up my mike, informed dispatch I was responding. Somehow, the dispatcher was able to pick out my transmission from about twenty other units that yelled they were responding. The dispatcher confirmed I was responding, then told me, needlessly, to respond Code Three. This meant blue lights and siren. As it turned out, that fact that they did assign me as primary unit responding and ordered a code three response didn’t hurt me at all during the internal investigation that followed what was about to happen.
I turned on my blues and siren, and turned northerly on Lincoln St. and stepped on the gas. Lincoln St. is a two way street in a very densely populated area of the city. The neighborhood was a high crime area, and made up of various wood framed box-like three and six family dilapidated tenements which were spaced very closely together.
The problem was, that there was a stop sign at every intersection. As I approached each stop sign, I would tap the brakes and if it looked safe, I rolled through the intersection. That worked out fine until I reached the corner of Spruce St. On the S/W corner of Spruce and Lincoln was a market. The market was actually on my left, which made the intersection a blind intersection for anyone traveling north on Lincoln or east on Spruce. I slowed down again, as I did at the other stop signs, then suddenly, there was a pick up truck immediately in front of me. I had no time to react, and I don’t even remember if I had time to hit my brakes. What I do remember is that last minute feeling deep in my stomach a fraction of a second before I collided with that truck. If you’ve ever had a traffic accident where you knew only at the last moment that you were going to collide with something but couldn’t do anything about it, you know how that feels. It doesn’t feel too good.
I remember T-boning the truck with my cruiser. That means I drove into it’s side at a perpendicular or right angle. The force of the collision pushed the truck out of the intersection onto the sidewalk on the opposite corner (off to the right) of the intersection. I was terrified. I was really afraid I killed or seriously hurt someone. I ran to the pick up truck (which was pretty much totaled from the collision) to check on the occupants. I found there were two, a male and female, and to my immense relief, neither was hurt seriously, although very shaken up as you could imagine.
I immediately called in the accident, asking for both a supervisor and an ambulance. Looked at my cruiser, at the time it was a Chevy police package, I forget the model, and although it needed to be towed from the scene, it wasn’t too bad. Like I say, the truck was a different story. I felt really bad, and, although I was using lights and siren, responding to an authorized Code Three call, I knew I was at fault in the accident for rolling the stop sign at this blind intersection, at least under NH M/V law. The law allowed me to violate the rules of the road, but it did not protect me if I was reckless in doing so. I knew the fact that I had this collision while rolling the stop sign which caused a significant amount of property damage as well as personal injury could be considered reckless by anyone who reviewed it.
Seconds, maybe a few minutes had passed, and being a warm summer night, the inevitable crowd started to gather. I had to protect the scene, beyond that, I had to wait.
During this time, a guy, maybe around 30, came up to me and told me he had seen the accident, and wanted to make a formal statement. I immediately figured this guy was not my friend, but I told him that a supervisor should be on the scene momentarily and I asked him to wait and speak only to that supervisor. Eventually, other cops, a patrol sergeant, ambulance and the FD showed up. Both occupants were transported to the nearest hospital for evaluation and the on scene accident investigation began. Because I was both a cop and city employee, SOP dictated a thorough investigation be conducted. So there was both the accident investigation, and a separate internal investigation into my conduct leading up to the accident. I had to give separate statements for both that night.
In the end, I was found at fault in the accident by my own police department. I knew I would be. However the department decided not to summons me to court for a stop sign violation, which they often did in these cases. I did however, receive a formal written reprimand for not coming to a complete stop at the stop sign. If you are wondering, the answer is no, the PD didn’t whitewash or cover up my or the city’s liability for the accident. I am just thankful, to this day, I didn’t kill or hurt anyone seriously in this event. So now to the lessons I learned.
The first one was that no matter what kind of call I ever responded to after that time, I decided nothing would ever be worth hurting or killing an innocent person responding with lights and siren. From that day on, I ALWAYS came to a complete stop at intersections, red lights and stop signs. Sometimes, when going to a “Hot Call” if there is such a thing, there were cops behind me also running with lights and siren, and my cautious approach drove them crazy. But, I didn’t care. I’ve also been in my share of motor vehicle pursuits, but I wasn’t big on them and often glad when the OIC called one off, and often made that decision on my own.
The second lesson I learned was, if you are going to a hot call, like an officer yelling for help or a baby not breathing, just two examples, you aren’t going to help anyone if you don’t get there! And that’s exactly what happened that night. I may or may not have been the closest unit to where these cops were yelling for help, but, if their safety and survival depended on me, they were in a lot of trouble. Due to my accident, I never got there. Fortunately, other officers did. It wouldn’t be an entirely inaccurate analysis if someone (like me) came to the conclusion that I had this accident for no compelling reason. It didn’t matter that night that I never got there. Someone else did. The situation was dealt with on a timely basis even though I never arrived to help. What if I killed someone…
As the accident investigation went on, I later learned that the witness told the sergeant that he was traveling a few blocks behind me. He saw me pullout with lights and siren, and he said that he couldn’t tell if I stopped at each stop sign or not, but he did see my brake lights go on at each intersection and it appeared I slowed down before going through each one. He wanted us to know that. His statement, most likely saved me from more severe punishment. It showed I was proceeding with a degree of caution and not just blowing one stop sign after another. More importantly, he certainly did not have to stop and offer his observations.
Maybe that was a third lesson. I didn’t have a lot of time on the job, but I was starting to develop the often inevitable “us against them” paranoia cops sometimes develop. I think it kind of creeps up unnoticed in many younger cops. It comes by dealing with the criminal element within our society day in and day out, hour to hour. In fact, an early observation I made in my career was that a large portion of crime victims I was dealing with were themselves criminals who were victimized by other criminals. Many people who came to the police for help did so because we were their last resort for help. Many other victims became victims because of poor decisions they may have made, which is frustrating to cops. Most cops come on the job to help victims of crime and apprehend criminals and hold them responsible for their behavior. It doesn’t take long for those seemingly perverse dynamics to start coloring a cop’s values, and his or her previous idea of what our society looks like and how the system works, and for whose benefit that system actually works for.
Add to that when the police are summoned to a situation, criminal or not, the people who call the police often expect that officer to solve whatever problem they are called for, no matter how complex, no matter how long it had gone on. Whether the problem was a long running neighbor dispute, burglary or theft with no leads, the discovery of sexual abuse of a child by another member of the family or trusted friend, or a serious assault. Often, the responding officer cannot resolve those problems in the time he or she are at the call. This causes many members of the public, who often have unrealistic expectations of the police (and the system) to turn on the very officers that are trying to assist them. And, of course, if a cop uses bad judgment, makes an honest mistake, there are plenty of members of the law abiding public that will pounce upon that cop, or the profession as a whole in a public and boisterous manner. So it was that I automatically assumed this person, who I knew nothing about other than he was a civilian, was going to try to hurt me in a legal or professional way.
So, I think that type of paranoia was starting to build inside of me, and after I found out that this witness wanted to help, rather than try to bury me, it caused me to conduct a serious self evaluation of my self and my career. I didn’t want to turn into one of those cops who developed a poor attitude or a general distrust of the public on its entirety.
I went on to work to become more approachable to all segments of the community I served. I think this has always been a problem in general with cops. Many people in the community don’t look at cops as being approachable. Not always the cops fault, but I always thought we never did enough to erase this perception. I tried to become less judgmental towards the folks I dealt with, and tried to look at things from other peoples point of view before I made decisions. Its why during my career, at different times, I was involved in outreach to underserved populations within my city. Those populations included the Gay, Black, Latino, poor and immigrant populations, which traditionally do not trust cops.
I came to believe that no matter how heinous the crimes committed by the persons I arrested or built cases on, I tried not to take it personal. After all, they didn’t do anything to me. I even tried to treat suspects who committed the most abhorrent crimes with a high degree of civility and dignity, no matter what I personally thought of that criminal. Doing so had benefits. Not the least of which was, treating people with respect made me a better and more effective detective later in my career.
The job went on, the years flew by. There were more than enough people out there who considered me a PIG, and told me as much to my face. Black and white, male and female. Not much I can do about that. But I always tried to rise above those problems. I tried to correct those negative impressions whenever and wherever I could. I was surprised how easy it was to develop these types of prejudices and cynicisms on this job. It was way too easy, and it was happening to me and I never even knew it! Maybe that is the scariest part of all. I think and hope I became a better police officer for it all.
Oh by the way, after the investigator went to the hospital to interview the occupants of the truck I hit, a supervisor was called to the scene and he arrested the driver of the pick up truck for DUI, because she was DUI. Didn’t help me at all, as it turned out. And I’m sure the City paid out a pretty penny to the owner of the truck, and it’s occupants. Oh, did I mention that this wasn’t the first or last reprimand I received that week? It wasn’t.