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LAPD vows to better probe crashes involving officers

March 13, 2012 |  6:43 pm

Acknowledging major problems with the quality of its investigations into serious traffic collisions involving police officers, the Los Angeles Police Department on Tuesday announced new rules intended to improve the thoroughness and credibility of the inquiries.

The move follows a pair of Times’ articles in January that examined the human and financial toll of officer-involved accidents. Police caused about 1,250 crashes over the last three years -- an average of about one a day--The Times found. Most of the crashes were minor, but some resulted in life-threatening injuries or were the result of the officer violating traffic laws, according to LAPD records.

In at least two incidents, the driver of another car was killed.

Under the terms of the revamped policy, any time a cop is involved in a traffic accident in which someone is killed or injured badly enough to require hospitalization, a team of detectives and officers trained in crash reconstruction will respond to the accident scene immediately.

The team will preserve skid marks and other physical evidence needed to reconstruct the crash, interview witnesses and compel the officers involved in the crash to give their account of what happened, Cmdr. Michael Williams told the L.A. Police Commission at the oversight board’s weekly meeting.

Until now, LAPD officers involved in crashes were not required to speak with investigators, while witness interviews were conducted by regular officers who sometimes failed to ask pertinent questions, and crucial physical evidence was often compromised because accident scenes were not secured, Williams said.

He added that crash investigations have suffered from a lack of continuity and expertise since investigations are typically started by the department’s crash experts and then reassigned to detectives who are not required to have experience with traffic accidents.

Going forward, the crash response teams will handle the investigations from start to finish.
Calling driving “one of the most dangerous things that our officers do,” Chief Charlie Beck said the new rules were a much needed change.

“It’s not just about money, although money is important. It is about officer safety and the safety of the public.”

The LAPD’s poor investigations, Williams said, have created “serious obstacles” for police officials and city attorneys as they attempt to determine whether officers are to blame for crashes and to defend the city against lawsuits.

If an officer interviewing a witness, for example, fails to document whether the witness saw the police vehicle’s emergency lights and sirens on at the time of the crash, it can weaken the city’s position during settlement negotiations or trial, Williams said.

Curtailing traffic-related lawsuits--and lawsuits in general--has becoming a top priority for the LAPD over the last year.

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