Lights flashing and sirens blaring.
Speeding past other cars and rushing through intersections.
Someone needs help. A bad guy needs to be caught.
Racing to a call as fast as possible has become an accepted part of being a cop.
But as deadly crashes involving speeding police cars mount, more agencies, including the Metropolitan Police Department, are considering speed limits and other measures to make sure their officers get to their destinations safely.
“The most danger officers face today is not guns. It’s not violence. It’s speed and intersections. That’s what’s killing America’s finest today,” said Tulsa, Okla., police Capt. Travis Yates, an emergency driving instructor and owner of the policedriving.com Web site.
Two fatal crashes involving Las Vegas police in five months illustrate how driving to the scene can be one of the deadliest parts of a cop’s job.
Last year, more police in America died in traffic crashes, 44, than from gunshots, 39, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, which tracks officer deaths. That trend has continued through the first half of this year, with traffic deaths outpacing shooting deaths 35 to 22. For the 12th year in a row, traffic-related incidents remain the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers.
As police agencies come to grips with those statistics and find themselves dealing with their own deadly police crashes, they are reversing a history of less restrictive driving policies in favor of those that put safety ahead of expediency.
In the past year, the Dallas Police Department and the Illinois State Police revamped their driving policies to include limits on how fast their officers can drive. Both moves were prompted by officer-caused crashes that killed civilians.
The Metropolitan Police Department could soon follow suit once it completes a review of its driving policies that was ordered by Sheriff Doug Gillespie when officer James Manor, 28, died in a crash in May.
Manor, who was responding to a domestic dispute call, was driving at a speed of 109 mph without lights and sirens on Flamingo Road when a pickup turned into his path. He was not wearing a seat belt and died a short time after the crash.
Police have not released details of Wednesday’s deadly crash as they continue their investigation, but it appears that speed was a factor.
Officer Milburn “Millie” Beitel, 30, was killed, and officer David Nesheiwat, 25, was seriously injured and taken to University Medical Center.
Driving too fast and not wearing seat belts are two common factors in deadly police crashes, and those are two areas under review for potential driving policy changes, Gillespie said.
“Those are definitely a couple of areas I’m looking at,” he said.
As part of the driving policy review, Gillespie’s department has talked to both Dallas and Illinois State police about their new policies.
Dallas revamped its policy last October after one of its officers struck and killed a 10-year-old boy on a darkened road. The officer, who was responding to a report of a man with a gun, was driving at least 29 mph over the 40 mph speed limit without his car’s lights and sirens on
The agency’s new policy generally prohibits officers from driving more than 20 mph over the speed limit on major roads and highways, even with lights and sirens on. In school zones and residential neighborhoods, officers must obey the speed limit at all times.
The Illinois State Police changed its policy in November, one year after one of its troopers crossed the median on an interstate and crashed into an oncoming car, killing two teenage sisters.
The trooper was traveling 126 mph in his police cruiser on the way to an accident scene that had already been resolved. He was reportedly multitasking, talking on a cell phone and a shoulder radio at the same time.
The state police’s new policy created a four-tier system for how officers can respond to calls, including how fast they can drive and when they can use lights and sirens. Under the policy, troopers must notify supervisors if they intend to drive more than 20 mph over the speed limit, and supervisors must monitor the incident and intervene if necessary.
In a news release announcing the changes, Illinois State Police Director Larry Trent said he hoped the policy would become a model for other emergency service agencies.
“Having served law enforcement in four decades, I have never been part of such a dramatic change in the policing culture than we are about to implement,” Trent said. “I know it’s not going to be a popular decision in the law enforcement community, but it’s my responsibility to not only protect our officers, but to protect the innocent citizens who travel the roadways within Illinois.”
Under the Metropolitan Police Department’s policy, officers can drive with lights and sirens, called Code 3, in four situations, including a call of a felony in progress, an officer who needs help in a volatile situation and a call where a citizen’s life could be in danger.
If a patrol car is not responding Code 3, the officer is required to use due care and observe traffic laws, including speed limits.
Chris Collins, head of the Las Vegas police union that represents 2,500 rank-and-file officers, said he believes just a small percentage of officers violate that policy.
“Most, I believe, are violating that in the interest of doing their job or trying to save someone,” he said.
Collins said he doesn’t oppose or favor implementing a specific speed limit, but forcing officers to slow down could have dire consequences, he said.
“That’s all fine and good until it’s your family we’re going to save and we get there three minutes too late,” said Collins, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association.
Yates, the emergency driving instructor, believes police put too much emphasis on speed, especially in an urban environment with lots of intersections and traffic to navigate.
Add in everything else an officer is dealing with inside the car, such as calling on the radio, checking the computer and thinking about how to handle the call, and the officer can be overloaded, especially if the driving policy isn’t clear on what the officer should do, Yates said.
“There’s just a lot of things going on, so it’s unfair” to not give officers guidelines.
But any new driving policies must have training to back them up, not just initially but throughout officers’ careers, Yates said. Much like shooting skills, driving skills erode without constant practice and reinforcement, he said.
“A policy without training is just a piece of paper,” Yates said.
Las Vegas police officers train and qualify with their guns four times a year, but training on emergency driving comes every two years for patrol officers and every three years for everybody else.
As part of the Police Department’s driving policy review, Las Vegas police driving instructors have suggested giving new officers training every year for their first five years, which is when most crashes occur.
Gillespie said training will be a component of the upcoming policy changes, which would require “a significant organizational and cultural shift.”
He said his agency’s driving policies are already on the restrictive side and are among the most progressive in the country, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be improved. Yet even the best policies and training won’t prevent all human error.
“You’ve got human beings out there doing the job,” Gillespie said. “Even with the best training and policies in place, accidents do happen.”
After two deadly crashes in five months, officers throughout the valley have been more aware of the dangers they face behind the wheel, Collins said.
“It was certainly on the minds of every police officer in town,” he said. “You can drive these cars too fast and end up dead.”
Contact reporter Brian Haynes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0281.View the slide show