A veteran Los Angeles police officer was killed and a rookie cop injured Friday morning when a dump truck slammed into their patrol car in Beverly Hills, marking the department's first on-duty death in six years.
The officers — one a nearly 16-year department veteran, the other three months out of the academy — were responding to a call and heading northbound up a hilly Loma Vista Drive near Robert Lane when their cruiser was struck by the southbound truck about 8 a.m.,
The truck skidded down the curving Loma Vista Drive, leaving a long stretch of tire marks before it tipped on its side and spilled the small excavator it was carrying. The police cruiser was mangled beyond recognition, with twisted, black-and-white chunks of the vehicle scattered in the street. The top of the cruiser had to be peeled off to remove the officers trapped inside
"The police car is almost unrecognizable even as a vehicle, let alone a police car," said LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith. "It's a miracle that anyone survived."
Officer Nicholas Choung Lee, a 40-year-old married father of two daughters, died at the scene. He had been with the department since 1998, serving in both the Wilshire and Hollywood divisions, and had received 70 department commendations.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck described him as a family man who was "extremely well-respected."
"A man of greatness and selflessness," Beck tweeted. "Nick was a great cop. May he rest in peace."
What caused the collision remained unclear, though authorities said their initial investigation pointed to a mechanical failure with the truck, perhaps involving its brakes. California Highway Patrol Officer Leland Tang said a "huge question mark" remains about how the truck hit the cruiser: whether it side-swiped the patrol car or actually drove over it.
The impact was so intense, authorities said, that Lee's body was pushed from the driver's seat to the middle of the car. The other officer escaped with a concussion and bruises to her face, and told officials she could be released from the hospital as early as Saturday.
The truck driver was hospitalized in serious condition but expected to survive.
Authorities at the scene — along with Beck and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti — stopped to salute as Lee's body was pulled from the wreckage, draped in an American flag and taken to a coroner's van. The van detoured to LAPD's Hollywood station, where nearly 100 officers and civilian personnel lined the street, their hands in salute or over their hearts.
LAPD officers wore black mourning bands on their badges as condolences poured in from agencies across the country. Garcetti ordered city flags lowered to half-staff, a move echoed by Beverly Hills.
"We grieve a hero," Garcetti said.
Lee was the first LAPD officer killed on duty since 2008, and the first in Beck's tenure as chief. The two officers most recently killed both died while on military leave in Afghanistan in 2010.
"It's a sad day today in the city of Los Angeles," Beck told reporters.
National statistics showed traffic-related fatalities topped the list of law enforcement deaths last year. According to preliminary data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 46 of the 111 officers who died in the line of duty in 2013 were killed in either automobile or motorcycle crashes, or when they were struck outside their vehicle.
Friday's crash came amid LAPD's efforts to improve traffic safety. Department officials have deemed 2014 the "year of traffic," allocating more resources to traffic enforcement.
CHP investigators spent most of the day at the scene, photographing the scattered wreckage and spilled oil, and looking for surveillance cameras that might have caught the crash on tape. Authorities said they were also trying to determine whether the patrol car's sirens and lights were on and how fast both vehicles were traveling. Tang said the truck and patrol car would be examined to help identify what went wrong.