Friday, July 15, 2011

Tragic accident should spur evaluation of police pursuit, speeding policies

Yikes! Reports Matt Ledesma at the Wichita Falls Times Record News, "a Wichita Falls police officer was driving nearly twice the posted speed limit before a wreck that killed two teenagers June 30." Further, "The report indicates [Officer Teddy] Whitefield made no attempt to brake or avoid hitting the victims' Pontiac Grand Am." And "Sgt. Joe Snyder, police spokesman, said in the days following the wreck he did not believe Whitefield was responding to a police call at the time of the wreck. Whitefield, 29, a six-year veteran with the department, was still recovering Thursday from an arm injury suffered in the collision."

According to a preliminary report (pdf) on the incident obtained by the Times Record News under the Public Information Act, "Evidence at the scene also showed that the driver of (the police car) took no evasive action when a reasonable person would have." The driver of the other vehicle - an 18-year old pregnant girl with a 13 year old passenger - didn't have a driver's license, but it sounds like she's not the one who caused the accident.

Wichita Falls ain't that big a town. Like it or not, this heartbreaking accident will haunt the department and  help shape the public's opinion of WFPD officers for a decade or more. Town officials should ask themselves, when the episode is over, how will residents think about the city's response? Will they remember the chief or even the mayor blaming the dead girls, or will they remember officials who took responsibility and did everything in their power to make sure something like this never happens again? You don't get a second chance at a first impression and how officials respond in the next few weeks will shape how the public thinks about this tragedy for years to come.

As such, if I were the Wichita Falls police chief I'd be scrubbing departmental policies and penalties on dangerous driving and upgrading them if they aren't already strong enough to forcefully discipline the officer in this instance. For starters, WFPD needs to create or enforce, as the case may be, a policy that all officers wear seatbelts. Neither Officer Whitefield or the deceased teenagers were wearing them, the paper reported. And we know this is a common contributor to officer deaths.

What's more, especially if Officer Whitefield wasn't in pursuit but even if he was, there should be policies in place limiting speed, disobedience of signage, etc., to situations where it's objectively safe to do so. There are plenty of examples from other departments which have confronted the same issues if WFPD decided to improve theirs.

Should the officer be fired? I'm interested in readers' views. I don't myself have a strong opinion either way without a lot more facts than were presented in this article. But it's sure a horrifying tragedy and a cautionary tale for other agencies which may not have modernized their policies on high-speed chases and officers' responsibility to safely operate city vehicles.


Swede said...

Did he have good reason to be speeding that fast?

If yes, don't fire. Possibly prosecute for vehicular manslaughter dep. on investigation by prosecutor finding probable cause that will lead to conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.

If no, then fire and see above. The girls would have survived if they'd followed the law. No parties are without blame here, it seems.

Anonymous said...

An 18 year-old pregnant girl without a driver's license? I think that in itself says a lot about Texas - the state is glaringly lacking in ensuring the health and well-being of young people.

Driver's ed is no longer in most high school's -- the state is letting parents do it. And so it is no wonder so many young people don't have their driver's license.
I have succeeded in getting the proper training for my kids - but it was only after figuring out how to get through the convoluted maze of garbage the State now requires.

If the speeder was anyone other than a police officer this story would be spun a lot different!

Anonymous said...

Once they reach a certain speed, cops should back off let them go. They can hope to catch them another day.

Sasquatch said...

Did any of you commentators read the post or the original article? The cop wasn't chasing them. This isn't about their driving skills at all, nor is there any indication they were breaking any laws other than driving w/o a license. If you search Grits for "surcharges" you'll find many articles explaining why there are hundreds of thousands of Texans with no license. This cop should be prosecuted for vehicular manslaughter, and if convicted serve hard time. The enforcers of the law must be held at least to the same standard to which they hold the citizenry. Now y'all go practice your reading comprehension, ya hear?

Anonymous said...

Those of us who are regular followers of the injustice news feed already know that in most other states the officer would be prosecuted unless he was on his way to a call that required excessive speed. But this being Texas, nothing will happen to dissuade other officers from committing similar crimes while on their way to visit their mistress...

Victor Kruger said...

There are numerous questions that must be answered before we can even consider whether or not the officer should be fired/prosecuted:

- What specific language does the WFPD's pursuit, police driving, and emergency response policies use to address police vehicle operations during responses to calls for service, officer assists, etc.? We will need to see a copy of the WFPD's SOP's, policies, or directives on this.

- What was the type and nature of the incident to which the officer was responding? Was it a true emergency? Was it a "routine" call? Was it the kind of call to which a reasonable citizen should expect a rapid police response?

- What were the specific prescription medications ingested by the officer prior to the incident and were they capable of impairing his performance or judgment?

- If the medication in question WAS capable of impairing the officer's performance or judgmenet, what does WFPD policy say about this and did he tell his supervisor about his use of this medication prior to this incident?

- While the speed limit for this roadway is listed at 45 mph, what were the actual physical and environmental road conditions? In the absence of other vehicles, is this a road that can be safely traversed at a speed greater than the posted limit? If so, what would that speed be? If not, why not?

- What is the officer's disciplinary history? Do his evaluations and discipline files indicate any history of disregarding policies or laws related to vehicle operations? Is there a documented history of recklessness or disregard for safety procedures?

- Regarding the officer's training: What kind of training did the officer receive in emergency vehicle operations? When did he receive it? Who provided the training? What did that training say about traveling faster than the posted speed limits? What did the training say about safe and prudent practices for police responses to emergency calls?

- Were there any 3rd party witnesses at the scene of the collision? If so, what do they have to say about what happened? Did they see the police vehicle prior to the incident? Was he using his lights and siren? Should a reasonable person been able to see him coming?

- Was the police vehicle equipped with a video recording system? If so, what does the video show?

All of these issues will have to be fully explored before any meaningful opinion could be expressed about whether or not the officer should be fired or prosecuted. However, since none of us here know the answers to any of the questions above, we're all just making reckless speculations which are likely in line with our deeply held personal biases.

Anonymous said...

Was the "Hot" light on at Kripie Creme. He should be fired today!

Grandmom said...

Fire his a--. Send a message. I agree with anonymous

Anonymous said...

I live in Wichita Falls; police officers will pass everyone in a 45 mph zone, as if the drivers of the cars were sitting still. No lights on, nor going anywhere to a call, they all drive as fast as they can.

I don't know the rules, but should there be a rule for WFPD to not drive over the speed limit, the Chief of Police needs to make sure the officers follow the rule.

Most officers drive with seat belts on but will release them before the car is even stopped. I have many close friends who are WFP and have lectured them for releasing the seat belt before the car comes to a complete stop.

The girl driving was 8 months pregnant and there would be 3 people in car, not just two. They should have had seat belts on as well as the officer. Driving in the area of this accident there is a curve and a road feeds into Jacksboro Hwy.,the girls were feeding into the Jacksboro Hwy. which is where the office was driving 80 mph. Absolutely no reason for this accident to have happened.

Anonymous said...

A simple rule:

No high speed chases unless there are reasons to believe that the people fleeing are wanted for a violent felony (danger to the public if allowed to flee).

John said...

Grits added several comments to sensationalize this story. No where has it ever been mentioned (other than Grits rendition) that the officer was on a high speed pursuit - so why even mention that or allude to it in the title of your blog? Neither the Chief or Mayor has EVER blamed the dead girl - so why even mention that? For your information Grits, accident reports should include ALL contributing factors to remain unbiased. Not wearing seatbelts, no drivers license, speed, road conditions, etc. can all be contributing factors. One or more of these factors absent, and the accident may not have occurred. DPS conducted the accident investigation, but they are not the prosecuting agency. They report ALL FACTS to allow the decision makers to make the most correct decision.

Grits, you stated "If you were Chief...". If you were Chief, you would wait to review the final report to determine what action, if any is necessary. Not taking action at this junction is the prudent thing to do. I'm sure there is an active IA by now.

You say that policies need to be in place to limit speed and wearing of seat belts. There are such policies in place and training is given on a regular basis. The wearing of seat belts is a state law. Officers are held to a higher level of responsibility to follow the laws they are in fact enforcing. Everyone at some time breaks the law. You may have been lucky and not gotten caught or caused an accident.

I live on Wichita Falls and I can assure you that everyone in the PD and City offices are awaiting the final report to determine the next step.

I agree with Sasquatch. Some of those posting comments clearly need a course in reading comprehension and Grits needs to learn about ghost writing!

Let ALL the facts come out and see what action, if any, the City will take. Then you can make comments.

My heart goes out to the families affected by this tragedy! I'm confident that when all is said and done, the right decisions will be made by those with ALL THE FACTS!

AdamJ said...

Facts of this case notwithstanding, I find in general that cops drive like assholes. One such d-bag almost killed a jogger on my very suburban street at 9 AM while swerving around my girlfriend who wasn't driving fast enough for him (25 mph limit). The jogger had to dive out of the way. Cop didn't stop, or even slow down. Another trucked through a red light without sirens or lights on at a very busy intersection and would have T-boned my friend and his newborn if he hadn't seen the dick coming. Usually these guys are looking at their laptops and not watching the road. I say fire him and charge him for vehicular manslaughter. Cops are not above the law and apparently need to be taught this fact.

Anonymous said...

all you people know that if you had done this, you would allready be under the jail. the man was not on a call, he had been taking some kind of medication, it didn't say perscription med. he didn't hit his breaks, he didn't try to swerve and miss them, he should be charged with 3 counts of vehicular manslaughter. but living in wichita falls we all no better. the cops in this town get away with everything. none of them obey triffic laws. i was in mcdonadls drivethrew one morning when one cop pulled up to another cops bumper flored his unit burring the tires off it. i steped out of my car and said something to the cop. he told me to get back in my car and go home before i go to jail. thats the kind of cops we have in this town. i could go on and on about the laws they break, the tax payers money they waste. but i don't have that kind of time. so you can draw your own conclusions about this incendence.