Crashes caused by cops leave victims wanting justice

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by Jeremy Rogalski/Investigative Reporter

khou.com

Posted on April 26, 2012 at 10:14 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 10 at 2:57 PM

HOUSTON -- What happened at Clear Lake City Boulevard and the Gulf Freeway feeder nearly four years ago, haunts Jessica Gunn to this day.

“I still fear and cringe going through the intersection,” Gunn said.
 
Gunn had the green light, but a Houston police officer on a chase ran the red light and ran right into her SUV.

“I got hit at probably a hundred miles per hour, the wheels flew off my car at impact,” Gunn said.

The impact also broke her ribs and left her face battered and bruised.

“I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
   
But Gunn said the worst part wasn’t her injuries, or her totaled vehicle, but what didn’t happen.

“Absolutely, it’s a double standard,” Gunn said.

What is she talking about? Houston Police investigated the crash and found the officer driving that car, Kurt Rogers, was indeed at fault. But he managed to avoid the one thing any citizen surely would have gotten—a ticket.

And it’s not the only case. The I-Team found 155 major accidents where Houston police were at fault between 2008 and 2012. The reasons include running red lights, stop signs, speeding, and just failing to use common caution.

But how many times did an officer get ticketed? Absolutely zero.

We took our findings to those who didn’t get off—Houston citizens—waiting at Municipal Court with their ticket in hand.

“It’s not right,” said Tangela Parker.

“They should be penalized just like anybody else,” added Wayne Derrick.

“It’s bull----!” said Charlene Smith.

“If I did it they wouldn’t let me get off, so why should they get off?” Smith said.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland Jr. declined an on-camera interview, so we tried the City Attorney David Feldman.

I-Team: “Why wouldn’t you write that officer a ticket?”

Feldman: “That officer is in the course and scope of his employment.”

I-Team: “And?”

Feldman: “As a commissioned officer paid by the City of Houston.”

I-Team: “So the city can cause harm and nothing happens and it’s OK?”

Feldman: “He should not have personal liability to pay the citation. The way you deal with that individual is you subject him to appropriate discipline.”

But just what is appropriate?

“If they do wrong they should pay for what they did,” said accident victim Juan Gaza.

Garza also got hit by a red-light running cop, and in his case, there was no emergency.

I-Team: “Did he have his lights on?”

Garza: “Nothing.”

I-Team: “Did he have his sirens on?”

Garza: “Nothing.”

The accident caused $6,000 in damage to his pickup truck and $60,000 in medical bills Garza said. But what happened to Officer Ernest Trevino? A one-day suspension.

“I just don’t like the system the way it’s working right now,” Garza said.

In fact, the I-Team discovered that over the past four years, the department never issued any formal discipline at all in 22 percent of the crash cases where the officer was at-fault.

And yet there’s another blow facing officer at-fault accident victims. That is, the law itself, which grants cities immunity from liability with very few exceptions.

“From the very beginning the deck is stacked against the citizen,” said attorney Tom Nixon, who represents Jessica Gunn.

“It can act on its own and do on its own,” said Nixon of the City of Houston.

“And essentially what they end up doing is, they harm people and they never pay for it,” Nixon said.

And that, according to Gunn, sends the wrong message to officers on the street.

“It is frustrating,” Gunn said.

“It is allowing them to continue to do it and continue to put civilians in harm’s way,” she said.

The officer in Jessica Gunn’s crash received a written reprimand. The City continues to fight her lawsuit, claiming it does have immunity because the cop was responding to an emergency call.
 
But in many accidents the City has paid out. In fiscal year 2011, it paid more than a $1 million to crash victims.

For Juan Garza, the City paid $5,300 to fix his truck. But his attorney said it made a low-ball offer to settle his medical bills and so Garza rejected it.

HPD Chief McClelland sent the I-Team the following statement in lieu of an on-camera interview:

“Officers of the Houston Police Department respond to approximately one million calls for service per year, which often requires an emergency response to life threatening or active criminal situations.  Officers travel thousands of miles on a daily basis responding to the urgent needs of citizens.  With as much driving that is required and expected of officers, often in very difficult circumstances, the probability of officers being involved in vehicle accidents increases. 

The Police Department and its employees work to reduce accidents every day.  HPD has seen a reduction in the total number of accidents involving police vehicles in the past two years including decreases in at-fault accidents.  HPD has had a 10% reduction in total number of accidents from 2010 to 2011.  In addition 265 Safe Driver Awards have been given to officers, honoring them for twenty plus years of safe driving without an accident.

Fortunately, most accidents involving officers are relatively minor with no injuries sustained and minimal property damage.  Example: officers backing up not in safety.  However, officers are keenly aware that they will be held accountable for any accident they have while on duty or in a city vehicle.    

Accidents involving police vehicles are handled by HPD through internal investigation and disciplinary procedures.  HPD like other law enforcement agencies in Texas [e.g. San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth and Harris County] does not issue citations to officers in these circumstances. 

Although citations are not issued, this does not mean that officers are not held accountable. 

Officers involved in accidents are subject to thorough investigation by Vehicular Crimes Division investigators who specialize in accident investigation.  The results of these investigations including the determination of fault are reviewed by the officer’s chain of command and the Department’s Accident Review Board.

Officers found at fault for an accident may receive counseling as to their actions or face discipline including and up to unpaid suspension or termination based on the facts of the accident.  They are also required to undertake remedial training such as defensive driving or more specific training such as a tactical driving course.  This internal investigation and disciplinary process ensures the police department can take the necessary training and disciplinary steps to address the actions of the officer.” 
 

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