Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie on Wednesday announced several changes to Metropolitan Police Department driving policies, including a cap on speed limits, to change the culture in a force that has lost three officers in fatal accidents this year.
Officers no longer will be able to drive at any speed. They now are restricted from driving more than 20 mph over posted speed limits, except in vehicle pursuits. The amount of training officers receive in their first five years on the job will double. And officers will be required to wear seat belts at all times, with one exception.
Instituting the changes is one thing, but getting officers to follow the new policies is another. State law has required officers to wear seat belts for years.
"Policy is just that: policy," Gillespie said. "What we’re truly talking about here in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is a cultural change in our driving habits."
The changes, which were started Dec. 5, come more than seven months after the death of officer James Manor, who crashed while not wearing a seat belt and driving more than 100 mph. After Manor’s death, the sheriff formed a panel to study the department’s policies. Since then, traffic accidents have killed two more officers and seriously injured a third.
"We realize, as an organization and as a profession, that this is a real problem," Gillespie said.
Officers will be allowed to forgo seat belts in one situation only: when they are approaching a crime scene and might need to get out of the car quickly. But Gillespie said the officer can unbuckle only if the car is moving slower than 15 mph.
Other changes emphasize safe driving under "code 3," with lights and siren on. While driving code 3, officers are not allowed to use the computers in their cars or talk on cell phones. When going through an intersection on a red light, officers now must come to a complete stop before passing through. Texting or e-mailing is prohibited while driving under all circumstances.
The department also created a new code, "code 2", which allows officers to drive with lights on and siren off. Gillespie said officers can use code 2 under "very limited circumstances" but did not detail what those circumstances were. Gillespie also said that the policies would be given to the media Wednesday, but they weren’t released.
The changes will be coupled with more training. New officers will go through driving training each year in their first three years with the department and every two years after that. And they will have to complete online training every year.
"In all of these training courses, it will be made clear that the Metro driving policy emphasizes that emergency vehicles do not have absolute right-of-way, and department members will operate police vehicles reasonably and always with due regard for the rights and safety of others," Gillespie said.
The changes were cautiously praised by Las Vegas Police Protective Association President Chris Collins, whose union represents the department’s officers. The union unsuccessfully sought to change the cap on speeding. Collins said the union wanted the cap lifted for incidents in which officers are under duress. Collins said he suspects officers will not abide by the limit in such circumstances.
"If I’m working in a black and white and it’s a 444 (officer needs help), I don’t know that I’m going to stay under 20 mph," he said. "If my buddy needs help, I’m going to help him."
Collins said the new policies will make officers safer, particularly regarding seat belts. "It’s obviously going to be adhered to more," he said. "It’s obviously going to make our officers safer."
The policies were praised by Tulsa, Okla., police Capt. Travis Yates, an emergency driving instructor and owner of the policedriving.com Web site.
"Most agencies will not do this," he said. "They see the money, the loss of manpower, and they’ll say we can’t dedicate that kind of hours and manpower (to training)."
After Manor’s crash in May, two other officers were killed in crashes.
In October, Milburn "Millie" Beitel lost control of his patrol car while driving 71 mph in a 45-mph zone. Neither Beitel, who died, nor his partner, David Nesheiwat, who was seriously injured, was wearing a seat belt.
In November, corrections officer Daniel Leach died when he struck the trailer of a dump truck on U.S. Highway 95 near Searchlight.
Gillespie said Wednesday that Leach was wearing a seat belt and going between 67 and 73 mph in a 65-mph zone when the crash occurred. The dump truck driver was not cited.
Changing the policies involved input from more than 200 officers. A panel conducted focus groups of officers working various shifts and jobs. They looked at other police departments and at UPS to see how the shipping company kept its drivers safe.
The sheriff was not clear about what, if any, consequences officers who do not abide by the rules will face. Collins said there are no defined policies for violating such rules. As with most disciplinary actions in police departments, the penalty is left up to the officer’s supervisors, he said.
Gillespie said he is already noticing changes. He knows of supervisors who have pulled over officers for not wearing seat belts.
Yates said the problem is not exclusive to Las Vegas. For the past 12 years, motor vehicle accidents have been the leading cause of officer deaths in the United States, he said.
"We all bear some responsibility here," Yates said. "We all have seen some colleagues speed a little bit and not reported it. We’ve all not worn our seat belts to some calls, and just because it didn’t end in tragedy doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong. We cannot ignore it any more."
Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at email@example.com or 702-383-0440.Video of sheriff’s news conference