Southern Maryland Police Car Crashes Decrease: Training Cited

Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s county sheriff’s offices all have seen a decrease in motor vehicle accidents involving deputies in the past three years, and last year the number of preventable accidents was down in all three counties.

In Charles, 10 preventable accidents in 2008 occurred during priority response calls, “the vast majority of which were because they went around a curve too fast,” said Capt. Mike McGuigan, special services commander. There were six preventable priority response accidents in 2009 and four in 2010. Priority calls can be anything from domestic disputes to robberies.

“We look at each individual accident,” McGuigan said, including the officer’s conduct, whether the vehicle’s equipment was working properly and other contributing factors. “We’ll pull videotapes on cameras from businesses” that might have captured the accident, he said, adding that all of the reviewed material is kept on file.

“I think we’re doing pretty good because we put thousands of miles on our cars per day with very minor accidents,” he said.

Two accidents in 2009, McGuigan said, were caused by the same officer, who was eventually dismissed from the sheriff’s office for other reasons. Both of the crashes were minor, and neither happened during priority responses, he said.

In the first incident on Feb. 23, 2009, the officer ran into the back of a civilian car. The officer, whose name McGuigan declined to release because his dismissal is a personnel issue, hit a curb in the second accident, which occurred on March 4, 2009, the captain said.

He said deer were involved in 28 accidents involving deputies in 2008, 27 in 2009 and 25 in 2010. Damage caused by deer has been minor in recent years, averaging about $500 a car.

In 2009, Calvert recorded 46 total accidents involving deputies, with 21 called preventable or the deputy’s fault, nearly doubling the previous year’s tally of 12 preventable accidents. In 2010, Calvert recorded 37 total accidents with nine listed as preventable.

In the last three years in Calvert, three accidents involved deputies during high-speed chases, Calvert County Sheriff’s Office Assistant Sheriff Lt. Col. Thomas Hejl said. One killed 18-year-old Rachael Alexandra Campbell of Dunkirk while she was crossing Route 4 at Apple Way in July 2009. A deputy who was responding to a domestic violence call hit the side of her car at a speed of about 100 mph.

Hejl added that 2009 was by far the county’s worst year as far as deputy-related incidents.

Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans attributed the increase in accidents in 2009 to the hiring of new, young recruits right out of the police academy as several deputies retired. He also said that one deputy in particular had more than his share of preventable accidents in 2009.

Evans said that since that deputy was told that if he had one more he would be fired, “he’s been paying a lot more attention.” Many deputies are new to police work and they need to learn, he said.

After 2009, Evans said the sheriff’s office did “some serious retraining” and also incorporated new training at the Southern Maryland Criminal Justice Academy that, with the permission of Campbell’s parents, uses the scenario of the accident that killed her.

“We’ll keep trying to make things better,” Evans said.

While all Southern Maryland deputies are trained in driving in the same manner at the same academy, St. Mary’s County Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron said his office also shows videos at roll call about safe driving, focusing on things like distracted driving or seat belt use.

In Calvert, Evans said they, too, focus on safe and defensive driving tactics during roll call before shifts start.

In Charles County, McGuigan said that because the primary cause of deputy-related accidents there involves improper backing, the agency has added an annual refresher course as part of its annual training.

“We set some cones up, and if you knock the cones over, you fail and you have to do it again till you pass,” McGuigan said.

In addition, the Charles County Sheriff’s Office also offers yearly certification in the pursuit intervention technique maneuver — known as PIT — in which a deputy taps an offender’s car during a high-speed chase.

Charles’ sheriff’s office has about 500 vehicles in its fleet, followed by St. Mary’s with 189 and Calvert with about 125. Those numbers include vehicles operated by detention centers as well. Charles County leads in miles driven with just more than 6 million, St. Mary’s with more than 2 million and Calvert with more than 1.5 million miles in 2010.

While all three sheriff’s offices see accidents involving deputies as an occupational hazard due to the nature of the job and the miles driven, they all assess accident data and provide additional education to deputies.

“We want the preventable number to be zero,” Hejl said.

Cameron said the St. Mary’s office investigates all deputy-involved accidents and studies the statistics to make adjustments to policies if needed. In the three-year period from January 2008 through Sept. 21, 2010, St. Mary’s deputies were involved in 127 accidents, with 41 accidents cited as police being at fault, county records state.

The highest contributing factor to at-fault accidents in St. Mary’s was improper backing at 13, followed by driving too fast for conditions and failing to drive within a single lane at seven accidents each, and improper turning for six accidents. The sheriff’s office recorded 16 at-fault accidents in both 2008 and 2009 and 10 in 2010, Cameron said.

In Calvert, traveling too fast for conditions was the highest contributing factor of preventable accidents, with 12 during the past three years, followed by failure to give time and full attention and improper backing, both at nine.

Even though the Calvert sheriff’s office tracks about a dozen specific reasons for at-fault accidents, Evans said, “Most of them are inattentiveness.”

While not a deputy’s fault, of the 127 accidents in St. Mary’s, Cameron said “40 were deer strikes or animal strikes.” In Calvert hitting deer was noted as the cause of 27 accidents in the past three years.

Cameron said St. Mary’s deputies have tried deer whistles on fleet vehicles, but three of the police vehicles with which he himself hit deer all had whistles, which are supposed to deter deer. He said he hit a deer that went through his windshield in Hollywood on Route 235 a few years back on Thanksgiving.

Luckily, he said, he was going slowly due to fog so he was not injured.

In St. Mary’s the sheriff’s office reviews all accident statistics and assesses them using four categories: the pursuit policy, response to calls, distracted driving and the wearing of restraints or seat belts, Cameron said.

A few years ago the policy for responding to residential alarms was changed and deputies no longer respond as a priority call, unless there is a burglary in progress, he said. The office also adjusted its accident response guidelines, and if emergency personnel are on the scene he said it is not considered a priority call.

All three counties have progressive disciplinary policies that apply to deputies who are involved in preventable accidents. In Calvert, they may be asked to pay the insurance deductible when their vehicle is damaged, be required to take refresher courses on driving and be suspended without pay or fired if at-fault accidents are a continuing course of conduct, Evans said. If a deputy feels that he or she is in the right, he or she can request a trial board, but Evans said the office has had only one deputy request one.

If a St. Mary’s deputy is found at-fault, before determining any punishment Cameron said the office uses a disciplinary matrix, which reviews the severity of the accident, the deputy’s actions at the time and weather and road conditions, among other criteria.

“We look at the totality of the accident,” he said, and then determine what, if any, disciplinary action would be taken.

In Charles, McGuigan said the offending officer is referred to a retraining course, asked to sit down for a formal conference, forced to pay a fine or terminated.

Nationwide vehicle-related police deaths increased 43 percent from 51 in 2009 to 73 in 2010, according to figures from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, and in Maryland, four of the five police officers killed in the line of duty in 2010 died as the result of vehicle accidents.

Hejl said he has learned through reading law enforcement magazines that the increase in traffic accidents involving law enforcement officers has become a national trend. One of the possible reasons for the increasing numbers may be the increased amount of technology in a police vehicle in recent years.

“They’ve got all kinds of electronics. The vehicle’s their office,” Hejl said, noting that most patrol vehicles have computers, cell phones and license tag scanners. Technology can draw attention away from the road, he said, but police agencies don’t want to take the necessary tools out of the vehicles. There’s a correlation between accidents and inattention, he said, adding that police also scan areas sometimes when they respond to a call of a crime in progress as they search for people or things that look out of place.

“Distracted driving is a concern,” Cameron said, also mentioning technological devices in patrol vehicles.

In Charles, however, McGuigan does not view technology as a reason for inattentiveness, and it has not been cited as a reason for any crash reported in that county in the last three years.

“That’s a conclusion most people jump to right away,” McGuigan said. “For the first few months of having a computer in the car, yeah, it’s a little bit of a distraction. You see it blinking out of the corner of your eye. But you get used to that after awhile.”

As a precaution, he added, “We preach and preach and preach to our officers, don’t play with the computers while driving.”

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