While on patrol in a residential district, an officer receives a call for service. Dispatch is reporting that a citizen is having difficulty breathing and there is a 15-minute ETA for the ambulance to arrive. The officer activates his lights and heads to the call. While traveling through the streets, his speeds reach 40 to 45 mph in the 25-mph zone. He intermittently utilizes his siren to move vehicles aside while passing them in a no-passing zone. As he rounds a corner with lights on, a vehicle suddenly pulls out from a side street and the two vehicles collide. Who is at fault for the crash?
The review of a law enforcement vehicle crash will typically fall on the shoulders of the first-line supervisor. It is his or her duty to obtain all of the pertinent information and document the circumstances of the crash. In most situations, however, this supervisor abdicates that responsibility to a senior patrol officer or traffic officer, stating that these officers are more qualified to conduct the investigation.
While it is true that these officers are more adept at obtaining and documenting the information for the report, the actual investigation of the crash itself must be conducted by the supervisory officer. It is that officer’s final notations in the document that will not only determine the cause of the crash but assist with ensuring his or her officers are safe for the future.
Each year, our profession will suffer the loss of many law enforcement officers due to motor vehicle-related incidents. According to the statistics promulgated by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, motor vehicle crashes are second only to officers being shot and killed in the line duty. The first-line supervisor in your agency is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that your agency does not add to these statistics.
The supervisory officer reviewing this crash must examine all pieces of the puzzle to make his or her determination based on the totality of the circumstances. Although we don’t want to take a position that our officer was in the wrong, we must base our determination on reasonable observations. With the advent of video recordings now integrated in our operations, this makes our job easier. The supervisor must take these videos into account and review them prior to documenting a final judgment on the reports.
Supervisors must review the speed the officer was travelling in relation to the posted speed limit and traffic conditions in the area. They must review the use of the lights and siren being applied by the officer during the course of travel, and determine if they could have been utilized more effectively to warn others of their presence. They must review the overall response of the officer in relation to the type of call he or she was responding to in order to see if the operation of the vehicle in such a manner was truly justified. Once these items are reviewed in conjunction with the statements obtained and evidence recovered, the first-line supervisor can document his or her findings on the official report. However, this is just the beginning of the supervisor’s responsibility.
The real work of the first-line supervisor begins after this report is complete. In most circumstances, it is this part of the job that never occurs because it is the most difficult to do as a supervisor. Upon completion of the report, it is the investigating supervisor’s responsibility to review the crash with the officer, and make him or her aware of the situation that led to the crash. If the supervisor believes that others on their squad may be making these same errors, it is his or her responsibility to debrief the squad about these circumstances so that others may learn from this incident and the agency can reduce similar crashes in the future. In some situations, that supervisor may share this information with the command staff so that agency-wide training may occur.
In addition, a “meaningful review” of the incident typically takes place within the agency’s Office of Professional Standards or Internal Affairs Division. This unit is tasked with ensuring this responsibility is being fulfilled. Its review must ensure that the supervisory officer conducted this type of thorough investigation and debriefed the officer, squad or others as to the cause, so that this type of incident can be minimized in the future.
In short, the officers who work for our agencies are our family, and our most important asset. It is the responsibility of our agency and its supervisory staff to make every effort to protect them from harm. By ensuring that our supervisors properly investigate motor vehicle crashes and share the lessons learned with the officer and others, our profession can enhance officer safety, assist us with our responsibility of protecting our employees and reduce law enforcement officer deaths throughout the nation.
Jim Harris is the President/CEO of the J. Harris Academy of Police Training, whose primary focus is assisting officers in their preparation for upcoming promotional examinations with a secondary focus on providing officers and agencies with in-service and other specialty classes. The Academy is based in New Jersey, with services available nationwide. Harris is a captain with the Toms River Police Department, and an FBI National Academy Graduate.