Wednesday, June 29, 2011

With Authority Comes Great Responsibility

In today's Spokesman Review we have a piece of reportage in which we learn:

A Spokane police officer who hit and killed an intoxicated pedestrian in his patrol car in January was typing a message into his onboard computer just before the crash.

This was ruled a contributing factor to the pedestrian's death. A "clearly contributing factor" was that the pedestrian who was intoxicated. The pedestrian was also wearing dark clothing at night, had a history of alcohol abuse, had been struck by a car before and had been cited for being in the roadway. Apparently it does not matter that the deceased John A. Van Curler was in a crosswalk when he was struck by a speeding police car whose operator was distracted as he typed a message into his onboard computer.

The Revised Code of Washington allows for operators of authorized emergency vehicles to be exempt from the restriction of sending, reading, or receiving a text message. The officer's onboard computer could easily fit within the definition of a wireless communications device.

But when it comes to crosswalks, the Revised Code of Washington also states:

The operator of an approaching vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian or bicycle to cross the roadway within an unmarked or marked crosswalk when the pedestrian or bicycle is upon or within one lane of the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning.

There are no exemptions for intoxicated pedestrians or pedestrians wearing dark clothing at night. The code also states that pedestrians will not suddenly leave the curb "into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to stop". There was no mention of Van Curler suddenly darting out into the crosswalk. And how would we know? Officer Gordon Ennis struck him while speeding and distracted.

What we have is a heavily intoxicated Van Curler wearing dark clothing and a speeding Officer Ennis distracted by typing a message. Investigators believe Ennis had a green light but no supporting evidence for such a claim is given in the article. If you look at the intersection of Monroe and Montgomery, you'll find it's well marked with no obstructions and it has two overhead street lights.

For me, the primary issue here concerns holding a police officer responsible for his actions. Much is made of the dangers the police face as a part of their duties. Being former law enforcement myself, I can appreciate that. But does protecting public safety excuse an officer when he violates public safety? Are officers not accountable for their actions when someone they mistakenly victimize is too drunk to know what's going on?

It looks like the answers to these questions is, "yes". From the article:

Spokane police policy allows the use of the “mobile digital devices” as long as officers remain attentive drivers. (Bolding mine)

Officer Ennis admittedly was inattentive and it resulted in the death of an innocent man and Officer Ennis remains on the police force.

Sadly, not only will Officer Ennis have to live with this for the rest of his life, he'll also be able to do it again.

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