Collision with the law, Day 2: Cop crashes leave devastated families

Disasters and AccidentsHighway and Road DisastersTransportation DisastersCrime, Law and JusticeHighway and Road TransportationMark BrownPalm Beach County Sheriff's Office

Almost three years after her brother's death, Aluria Clarke is still furious.

Victor Steen was riding a bicycle in 2009 when a Pensacola police officer tried to pull him over. The 17-year-old didn't stop, so Officer Jerald Ard shot him with a Taser from his moving patrol car. When Victor fell to the ground, the patrol car ran over him and dragged him more than 20 feet, killing him.

The officer was not ticketed or charged.

"If any one of us had done it, we'd be in prison," Clarke said.

An Orlando Sentinel investigation found that from 2006 to 2010, 118 people were killed in fatal crashes involving Florida law-enforcement vehicles.

In 32 accidents that killed 33 people, the officers were at least partially to blame, the Sentinel found after analyzing five years' worth of vehicle-crash data. In 10 of those crashes, the officers were solely to blame.

Even so, many faced little or no traffic or criminal penalty, the analysis found.

Of the officers in those 32 accidents, two were prosecuted, four were ticketed, 17 faced neither, and nine were killed, according to the data.

The two treated most severely, according to crash data, were:

•A Greenacres officer who struck and killed an elderly Lake Worth woman while driving 80 mph in a 45-mph zone in 2009. Gary Chan, 40, was charged with vehicular homicide, but prosecutors dropped the charge in August.

•A Jacksonville officer who was driving 98 mph in a 40-mph zone and struck and killed an 86-year-old man. A judge has sealed court records, but Officer Marcus D. Kilpatrick was sentenced to a year of probation after pleading no contest to culpable negligence, according to the Florida Times-Union.

Ard and Chan would not comment; Kilpatrick could not be reached.

'Tear-jerking' fatal crash

In 2009, Miami-Dade Officer Frank N. Rivera was speeding through a neighborhood, with no lights or siren, trying to find someone reported to be driving 100 mph when he ran a stop sign and crashed into the Nissan Altima of Ana-Yency Velasquez.

The impact drove her car through a metal fence and into the bedroom of a house, according to crash records. The 23-year-old mother of three was killed.

Rivera was not ticketed or charged.

"I heard the story," said state Sen. Oscar Braynon II, D-Miami. "It was tear-jerking." Braynon is sponsoring a bill that would pay $1 million to the children of Velasquez.

"For me, it's very important that we realize that there are victims in these crashes," Braynon said.

Palm Beach County Deputy Geral Ramirez fell asleep while driving home from work in October 2008 andcrossed the median of U.S. Highway 441 going 73 mph in a 50-mph zone. He crashed head-on into the van of 60-year-old Manuel "Shorty" Matute of West Palm Beach, who was headed to work.

The impact drove Matute's Dodge Caravan into the front of a 44,000-pound garbage truck, then into another car, killing him. The case was investigated by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, Ramirez's employer. He was not ticketed.

The State Attorney's Office in Palm Beach County reviewed the evidence but did not prosecute.

Ramirez would not comment for this story.

Crashes: Risk of job

Crashes are an unfortunate risk of the job, said Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Capt. Mark Brown. Last year his agency patrolled 34 million miles, he said.

"With that much driving, our members are placed in situations that your normal drivers are not put into, and, unfortunately, some crashes are going to occur," he said.

When they do, the Sentinel found, the victims are often cops.

A Monroe County deputy died in a 106-mph crash. A Hollywood officer died while driving 100 mph trying to chase down a speeder. A Miami-Dade officer crashed and died while driving 98 mph.

Motor-vehicle crashes — not gun deaths — are now the nation's No. 1 cop killer, according to a series of national studies.

In 2009, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department buried three officers who were victims of crashes within six months, said Deputy Chief Marc Joseph.

"I can still hear that blue crinkly bag from the coroner's office as they stuffed my officer into a bag at the end of the night," he said. "It doesn't need to be."

His agency has since implemented a series of reforms designed to make officers slow down, buckle up, drive more safely and survive crashes.

Travis Yates, a Tulsa, Okla., police captain who is president of The Association of Law Enforcement Emergency Response Trainers International, does not agree that police must accept, as a duty hazard, occasional poor driving decisions, crashes, injuries and deaths.

"Our profession needs to say, 'Hey, we are messing up,' " Yates said.

Brevard County Deputy Vincent Marino-Vitani struck and killed a pedestrian, 65-year-old Henrietta B. Strong, on Sept. 6, 2010, in Cocoa.

The state trooper who investigated the crash concluded the deputy was guilty of careless driving and speeding. He was given a speeding ticket, but a judge later threw it out.

Strong's daughter, Amie Walker of Port St. John, thinks that's a problem.

"Justice would have been if he'd been charged with something other than just the speeding ticket," Walker said. "This individual killed someone."

rstutzman@tribune.com or 407-650-6394. smpowers@tribune.com or 407-420-5441.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Disasters and AccidentsHighway and Road DisastersTransportation DisastersCrime, Law and JusticeHighway and Road TransportationMark BrownPalm Beach County Sheriff's Office
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