When Las Vegas police officer James Manor died in a traffic accident this summer, after driving 109 mph without wearing a seat belt or turning on his emergency lights and siren, it was a preventable tragedy.
When officer Milburn “Millie” Beitel died in an October crash, also after speeding, not wearing a seat belt and not activating his emergency lights and siren, it was much more — it was a sign that many patrol officers had little regard for the laws they are charged with enforcing.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie realized as much, announcing Wednesday that the department was capping the speeds at which officers can drive, doubling the driving instruction officers will receive in their first five years and creating new policies to keep officers and the driving public safe.
“We realize, as an organization and as a profession, that this is a real problem,” Mr. Gillespie said. “What we’re truly talking about here in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is a cultural change in our driving habits.”
Following Mr. Manor’s death, Mr. Gillespie said the department had delivered a message to officers about the dangers of speeding and the legal requirement that they wear seat belts. Mr. Beitel’s fatal crash, which occurred even though he and his partner were not responding to a call, proved that message hadn’t gotten through to all officers.
Mr. Gillespie had to move beyond memos and create new standards and expectations. Now Las Vegas police can’t drive more than 20 mph over posted speed limits unless they’re in pursuit of a suspect. Mr. Manor was exceeding the speed limit by 64 mph; Mr. Beitel was driving 26 mph too fast.
Officers are prohibited from using their computers and cell phones while driving with lights and sirens on, and they must stop at red lights before driving through an intersection. And they’ll get lots more training, in each of their first three years, then every two years after that. Online driving courses must be completed every year.
This is all well and good. But it won’t matter much if officers face no consequences for ignoring their training and the new policies. Supervisors have discretion in disciplining officers. Mr. Gillespie said he knows of supervisors who have pulled over officers for not wearing seat belts. No word on whether they actually got citations and paid the fines.
Chris Collins, president of the officers’ union, wanted the speeding caps lifted when officers need assistance. “If my buddy needs help, I’m going to help him,” Mr. Collins said.
The department was fortunate that no civilians were seriously injured or killed in the accidents caused by Mr. Manor and Mr. Beitel. Given the circumstances of those crashes, the death of an innocent would have caused outrage — and cost taxpayers a multimillion-dollar judgment.
If Mr. Gillespie is serious about having his orders followed, perhaps he should establish a telephone line for residents to report speeding cops and officer seat belt violations.
The best way to prevent officers from dying in car accidents — the leading cause of police deaths in the United States over the past 12 years — is to hold them accountable when they break the law.