Every day, about 20 Florida police cars crash into something: another vehicle, a person, a utility pole. Every year, those crashes kill 20 people, hurt 2,400 others and cause $25 million in property damage, an Orlando Sentinel investigation has found.
The Sentinel analyzed five years of Florida vehicle-crash data — 1.6 million crashes — to determine how often Florida law-enforcement officers crash while in department vehicles and how often they're at fault.
About 7,400 crashes a year involve cops. In one out of every four, they're at least partially to blame, and they seldom are ticketed, the data revealed.
In fact, though average drivers receive citations if they are at fault in crashes more than 64 percent of the time, officers are cited less than 11 percent of the time.
"We're in the public-safety business, and ... I think we need to get a handle on it and have an understanding of what's causing these crashes," said Paul Sireci, president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association and chief of the Tampa International Airport Police Department.
After being briefed by the Sentinel on its findings, Sireci persuaded his group to launch a study of the problem, in partnership with the Florida Highway Patrol, he said last week.
The crashes in which officers are at least partially to blame are usually preventable, the data show. Cops drive too fast. They look at their on-board computers while on the road, but mostly they drive carelessly, individual crash investigators concluded.
The Sentinel investigation looked at all Florida crashes from 2006 through 2010 that involved agency-owned vehicles and found:
•One out of every 44 crashes in Florida — or an average of nearly 7,400 a year — involved a law-enforcement vehicle.
•Most cop crashes happen while officers are simply driving — not while they're chasing someone or racing to an emergency with lights and sirens deployed.
•Many officers crash repeatedly. In fact, 26 officers had tallied four or more crashes in that time period.
•The associated costs are staggering. During the five-year period, crashes involving officers caused more than $126 million in property damage. That doesn't include medical expenses or legal claims paid to people who were hurt or the families of those killed.
The human toll is more difficult to tally.
Erskin Bell Jr. was stopped at a red light on Maitland Boulevard in November 2008 when Altamonte Springs police Officer Mark Maupin plowed into his car at 104 mph.
Bell was studying to become an air-traffic controller at Miami Dade College. Now, the 23-year-old cannot walk, talk or hold up his head.
He requires around-the-clock nursing care and spends much of his day in a hospital bed in the front room of his family's Ocoee home or in a wheelchair.
He responds to a few commands: He'll open his mouth to have his teeth brushed and unclench his fists when his stepmother asks him to relax. And he smiles when friends visit.
Maupin, who was also seriously injured, later told investigators he could not remember what happened. He was not on a call and not in his patrol zone. The Sentinel could not reach him for comment.
The officer was ticketed for failure to use due care and not wearing a seat belt. Maupin, now 52, paid a $1,100 fine and lost his drivers license for 90 days. He resigned as the department prepared to fire him.
The city agreed to settle with Bell's family for about $2 million after city officials were notified that the Bells planned to sue.
Many other officers, however, face little — or no — traffic-law penalty when they cause crashes.
In 2008, a Palm Beach County deputy fell asleep while driving 73 mph in a 50-mph zone, crossed into oncoming traffic and killed a man on his way to work. The deputy was not ticketed or charged.
A Pensacola officer in 2009 tased a 17-year-old boy on a bicycle from his moving patrol car, trying to stop him, then ran over and killed the teen after he tumbled to the ground. That officer was not ticketed or charged.
For 20 years, FBI analyst Chuck Miller has studied what kills cops in the line of duty. When he started, the No. 1 killer was criminals. For the past 15 years, it has been motor vehicles.
Miller studies only crashes that kill cops. Nevertheless, his studies indicate that many of those crashes are avoidable, often the result of an officer driving too fast or failing to buckle up.
"Now," he said, "it's more dangerous to give an officer a car than a gun."
Central Florida numbers
In Central Florida, the percentage of crashes caused, at least in part, by law-enforcement officers during the five-year period is 30 percent, slightly higher than the statewide average of about 27 percent.
In Orange and six surrounding counties, there were 6,286 police-vehicle crashes from 2006-10. More than 1,900 were caused — at least in part — by the officer, and those crashes left 602 people injured and four dead.
The Central Florida agency with the most officer-caused crashes in 2010was the region's largest, the Orange County Sheriff's Office, with 65 crashes in which deputies were at least partially at fault.
Ed Soistman, a 91-year-old lay minister driving to the hospital to pray with patients in August 2010, was hit and killed by Orange County Deputy Malinda Miller, who was driving 86 mph in a 40-mph zone with no emergency lights or siren.
She was racing to back up an officer on a nonemergency call: The other deputy thought he had spotted a van reported stolen.
Miller, then 28, was ticketed for speeding and failing to use her emergency lights, but a judge threw out both tickets. The Sheriff's Office fired her for violating agency policy and causing the crash.
She did not respond to a letter from the Sentinel seeking comment.
Sheriff's Office Capt. Angelo Nieves, in an email, called Soistman's death "tragic" and said "the deputy was held accountable and terminated."
In August 2010, Orange County Deputy Eric Wheeler, blew through a stop sign at 45 mph on State Road 50 near Bithlo, crashing into a car and seriously injuring its driver and two other people, according to crash records. Wheeler, 29, was ticketed for running a stop sign, but a judge threw it out. Wheeler would not comment when contacted by the Sentinel.
In his email, Nieves said Orange County deputies drive 1,800 vehicles and cover 25 million miles a year. Citizens expect a quick response, he wrote, and officers drive "with the utmost respect for the community."
Sireci, president of the Police Chiefs Association, wrote in an email that most Florida police agencies require officers to report even minor accidents, such as backing into a post.
Given that there are nearly 51,000 cops in the state, he wrote, 7,400 crashes a year "is concerning but not a high number."
That is little comfort to the family of Erskin Bell.
"On a daily basis we pray, and we ask God for a miracle," said his stepmother, Phillipa Bell, even though doctors say he has only a 1 percent chance of improving. "That's our entire focus."
Her feelings toward the officer who altered her son's life so dramatically?
"I'm angry," she said. "How could he do such a thing? He's supposed to be protecting."
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