Troopers, public at risk from State Police cruiser crashes
Nice and Michael Greeley were just a few miles from home when Michael caught a glimpse of a State Police cruiser hurtling toward their SUV. He had just enough time to say “Oh my god,” and lean toward his wife before the cruiser slammed into the passenger side of the couple’s Honda Pilot, spinning the car into a light post and sending the couple to the hospital.
Trooper David N. Stewart later received a verbal warning for running a red light in the April 2013 Chelmsford crash, the police report shows. The couple’s lawyer criticized the officer for failing to switch on his sirens or pause at the light to make sure the intersection was clear before speeding through — even if he was pursuing a suspect.
“It’s not only negligent,” said Todd Beauregard, the Lowell attorney who recently sued police on behalf of the Greeleys. “It’s reckless.”
Over the past five years, Massachusetts State Police have been involved in more than 1,800 accidents — almost one a day — leaving behind a trail of battered vehicles, expensive lawsuits, and painful injuries to officers and civilians alike. Though many were the fault of other drivers, State Police acknowledge that hundreds were the result of troopers driving too fast, ignoring traffic signals, or violating other safety rules.
State records show that about 100 people a year are injured in State Police-involved accidents, and, over the past decade, the department has paid out more than $3 million in settlements from crashes, a total that might have been considerably larger if not for the statutory $100,000 limit on negligence claims against government agencies in Massachusetts. At least four of the crashes in the last decade were fatal.
And Massachusetts is not an outlier; police crashes are an everyday occurrence at major law enforcement agencies across the country. Though there are no national statistics available, several other state police departments contacted by the Globe reported similar crash rates.
And the three largest municipal police departments in Massachusetts racked up a total of more than 400 crashes in 2013, including 306 in Boston alone.
Law enforcement officials said part of the reason for the large number of crashes is the sheer number of miles that officers log while out on patrol. The average Massachusetts State Police cruiser travels 22,500 miles a year, nearly double the typical mileage for US drivers.
But even adjusted for the heavy mileage, police appear to be involved in roughly twice as many crashes per mile as drivers overall in both Massachusetts and nationwide, according to data the Globe collected from eleven large law enforcement agencies and the US Department of Transportation.
Yet the cost of police crashes — in lives, injuries, and lawsuits — has drawn little notice compared to police shootings, even though, nationwide, crashes are more common, killing dozens of officers and civilians a year and injuring countless more.
“Nobody has paid attention to it,” said Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, who says he is one of a small number of researchers who studies police crashes. “The issue is killing people. The issue is hurting people. This issue is costing an inordinate amount of money.”
Alpert cited several factors that contribute to the high rate of police vehicle accidents.
Officers often drive at high speeds to pursue suspects or respond to emergencies. They frequently drive during foul weather when most other drivers stay off the roads. Police also face an array of distractions, from laptops mounted in their vehicles to frequent chatter on police radios. And some officers have been hit by careless or inebriated drivers while parked at construction sites or on the side of a road.
But police sometimes speed, even when not responding to emergencies.
Two years ago, the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Florida, found nearly 800 police officers in the state reached speeds of 90 miles per hour to 130 miles per hour while driving, including many who were off-duty, based on calculations of how fast they traveled between detectors on toll roads. It found 1 in 5 police officers had driven at least 90 miles per hour on South Florida toll roads, well above the 70 mile speed limit. Many observers say police are reluctant to stop or ticket their fellow officers, which can encourage officers to bend the rules.
“They don’t worry if they speed,” said Alpert, the University of South Carolina professor. “They think they are above the speeding law.”
It’s a topic some law enforcement agencies seem reluctant to talk about, even as they regularly remind the public to drive carefully and obey speed limits.
The Massachusetts State Police, which had the most crashes in 2013 among the largest law enforcement agencies in New England, declined repeated requests over the past six months for interviews about the subject. The union that represents troopers, the State Police Association of Massachusetts, also declined interview requests.
The department, which has nearly 2,200 troopers and the largest fleet of patrol vehicles in New England, averages close to 400 accidents a year, according to State Police.
Though the department declined interview requests, a State Police spokesman said in an e-mail that most of the crashes are not the police officers’ fault.
“Cruisers are frequently hit in the breakdown lane either on detail or while conducting stops,” David Procopio wrote.
Colonel Timothy P. Alben, who oversees the State Police, noted in a statement that his officers often drive for long hours in severe storms, gridlocked traffic, or in other challenging conditions. And they frequently must pursue fleeing suspects at high speeds.
“The very nature of a police officer’s job puts him at a greater risk of being involved in a crash,” Alben said in the statement. “To hold up a handful of individual occurrences to support a claim of systemic driving failures is both inaccurate and fundamentally unfair.”
However, the State Police’s own investigations found officers were partially or fully to blame in more than one-third of the accidents, resulting in more than 640 verbal or written warnings since 2009.
In addition, 55 officers were assigned to remedial driver training and eight cases were referred to internal review
for a deeper investigation and potentially additional discipline.
Blaming the victim?
Academics who study law enforcement say it’s possible police were actually responsible for many more accidents than the investigations indicate, because police are often quick to blame civilians.
“When police investigate accidents, they are almost always going to come down on the side of the officer,” said Thomas Nolan, an associate criminology professor at Merrimack College and a retired Boston police officer.
For instance, the State Police blamed a man for not getting out of the way of an officer driving more than twice the speed limit in a small town in Central Massachusetts three years ago.
Police records show Trooper David M. Fleming Jr., was traveling as fast as 95 miles an hour in a 45-mile-per-hour zone as he passed other vehicles on a curved road in North Brookfield.
Moments later, he slammed into a car ahead of him that was making a left turn into a driveway, injuring the other driver.
The police report said Fleming, who has two other accidents on his personal driving record since 2006, had his emergency equipment activated because he was responding to an unidentified “disturbance.” But the other driver, Raymond Olson, never noticed any lights or sirens.
And the equipment was in the off position when another officer arrived at the scene at the crash to investigate, the report said.
It’s also unclear why Fleming was in a rush. State Police records indicate that Fleming had been called to assist another department to deal with a complaint about a hunter — but he had been waved off the call about 13 minutes before the crash. (State Police later said Fleming decided on his own to continue onto the call anyway “in an abundance of caution.”)
Nevertheless, the State Police cited Olson for not yielding to the officer. A district judge later dismissed the ticket.
Olson, who has a wife and four children, said he was stunned when he received the citation in the mail. “It was so overwhelming, I just cried,” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything.”
Olson, 60, said he has been unable to work since the accident and is saddled with thousands of dollars in medical bills.
He said he can’t even buy life insurance to protect his family because of his injuries, and still suffers from headaches, halting speech, and short-term memory loss.
“It’s changed my life completely,” said Olson, who filed a lawsuit against the state in June. “Now it’s just sitting each and every day figuring out how to pay my bills.”
State Police insisted the trooper was using his sirens and said Olson — unlike some other drivers — failed to move out of the way.
“Trooper Fleming did everything he could to avoid the crash, turning suddenly to the left while braking,” said Procopio, the police spokesman. “The public has a legal obligation to pull over for emergency vehicles trying to pass.”
Similarly, Richard Chmielinski told the state his daughter was wrongfully cited for failing to yield after she was “rammed by an unmarked speeding State Police cruiser” in June in Truro, near the family’s summer home. The State Police refused to provide a copy of the accident report or photos of the crash to the Globe, saying it was still under investigation.
Chmielinski said his daughter was not seriously hurt in the crash. But not everyone is as fortunate.
In a particularly tragic accident six years ago, State Trooper Mical O’Brien fatally ran over a good Samaritan who had fallen and was lying on the edge of Route 2 on a wintry evening in Phillipston. A few minutes before the crash, Andrew S. Castonguay had been trying to help another driver on an overpass when he apparently hopped over a guardrail to dodge another car and wound up toppling roughly 20 feet onto the road below.
Procopio said there was no way for the officer to have seen Castonguay in time, given the darkness and other conditions, though Castonguay’s father remains haunted by the crash.
“I am 100 percent convinced that I would have seen him,” said James Castonguay.
The State Police settled a wrongful death suit brought by the family for $10,000 in January.
The danger to police
It’s not just civilians at risk from accidents.
Three State Police officers have died in one-vehicle crashes in the last decade: Captain Richard J. “Rick” Cashin died in 2009 when his car struck a utility pole on Route 1 in Saugus. Trooper Paul Barry was killed in 2006 when his patrol car drifted into the breakdown lane on Interstate 495 in Wrentham and hit a parked dump truck. And Trooper Vincent Cila died in 2005 after he lost control of his motorcycle on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Boston. Two other officers, Trooper Ellen E. Engelhardt and Sergeant Douglas A. Weddleton, were killed by drunk drivers during that span.
State Police said they took several steps to upgrade its system for investigating and reviewing crashes four years ago. The agency also noted in its most recent annual report that it began using new reflective material for cruiser decals and modified the emergency lights after noticing “an inordinate number of cruiser crashes occurring during night-time hours.”
But the agency declined to provide copies of any memos or studies the agency may have issued related to car crashes. And Procopio, a State Police spokesman, said the agency never completed a safety report it publicly announced three years ago after several officers were hurt in accidents.
In addition, State Police took eight months to provide the Globe with five years of crash statistics and resisted providing more detailed records.
For example, the State Police estimated it would cost as much as $130,000 for copies of all the accident reports over the last decade. A spokesman justified the estimate by saying there were so many reports that would need to be reviewed and redacted.
The department eventually agreed to provide a sample of 30 reports for free, but wound up withholding half of them because the collisions were still under “investigation.” The state also provided a list of cruiser crashes, but it was missing some key information, such as the name of the trooper involved and the cause of the crash. That makes it hard to know why the crashes occurred or whether a small number of troopers account for a large percentage of collisions.
Even so, the Globe found several officers who were involved in multiple crashes or had a history of traffic violations. For instance, the State Police said Trooper Nicholas Internicola has been involved in 10 on-duty crashes, in addition to a half-dozen other collisions listed on his personal driving record from more than two decades ago.
At least one of the crashes caused significant injuries. Internicola was working a road maintenance detail at Logan Airport when his cruiser suddenly drove forward, pinning a worker against a truck and partially crushing his legs in 2009.
Internicola said he put the car in park, but it slipped into drive because of problems with the automatic transmission. However, the State Police said they found no defects with the vehicle. The state wound up settling the lawsuit for $98,000, close to the statutory $100,000 maximum.
“It’s just a freak accident,” Internicola told the Globe, though the State Police found Internicola “fully at fault.”
A few months earlier, Internicola was reprimanded for failing to report a more minor accident to supervisors – he said he hit a concrete barrier in a crowded parking lot in the rain.
But Internicola said he recalled only one of the other eight on-duty crashes (which he said was the other driver’s fault) and insisted he wasn’t responsible for any off-duty crashes. “I have a perfect driving record,” he said.
Procopio said the State Police took “appropriate remedial action” for all the on-duty accidents where Internicola was found at fault.
Like the Logan accident, a number of State Police crashes have resulted in lawsuits, including the one in Chelmsford last year involving the Greeleys. The State Police said the couple were “treated and released relatively quickly.” But the couple’s attorney told the agency that Nice Greeley suffered multiple injuries, including a sprained ankle and bruised leg, while Michael was diagnosed with neck strain.
Stewart, the trooper involved in the crash, apparently had his emergency lights activated when he sped through the red light to catch another driver who went against the light, but the State Police found he should have stopped at the intersection first to make sure it was clear.
The trooper previously received a pair of tickets for failing to stop at a stop sign or signal, and a half-dozen others for speeding, including one in Burlington in 2011, the year before he joined the State Police, according to his personal driving record. In fact, he received so many citations that his license was briefly suspended in 2001. He also has three at-fault accidents on his personal driving record since 1995. “It is what it is,” Stewart said, referring additional questions to the State Police.
Some other police departments have taken steps to reduce accidents. The Prince George’s County police department in Maryland, one of the larger local agencies in the country, started a campaign a year ago to talk to officers every week about the importance of safety and issue other reminders after several officers died in crashes. And the Worcester police reduced the number of crashes per year by nearly half over the past decade by creating an accident review board to investigate every crash.
But nationwide, some say more needs to be done to reduce the number of crashes and protect civilians and officers alike.