By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP
The dashboard video1 of Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) Trooper Jane Watts’s pursuit on October 11, 2011, of uniformed, off-duty Miami, Florida, Police Officer Fausto Lopez, who was driving 120 miles per hour (mph) in a marked cruiser on the Florida Turnpike en route to off-duty employment, brought front and center the longstanding and pervasive issue of speeding cops. In the year prior to this traffic stop, Lopez averaged at least 90 mph on 237 days and 100 mph or higher on 114 days. Ironically, even on the days right after this stop, Lopez still drove in the 80-mph range and twice averaged 96 mph.2
One might consider the Lopez incident an anomaly. However, the Sun Sentinel examined the Florida Turnpike SunPass transponders assigned to law enforcement agencies and found that from October 2010 through November 2011, 793 law enforcement officers from a dozen agencies drove 90 mph to 130 mph on highways in Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties. Further, during this 14-month period there were 5,100 high-speed incidents, 96 percent of which involved speeds between 90 mph and 110 mph and more than half of which involved officers driving outside their jurisdictions—many of whom were driving regular routes, most likely to or from duty tours.3
The Orlando Sentinel analyzed all Florida crashes from 2006 through 2010 that involved vehicles owned by law enforcement agencies and found the following:
- Each year, an average of 7,400 law enforcement–involved crashes occur in Florida, killing 20 people, injuring 2,400 people, and causing $25 million in property damage.4
- Seventy-seven percent of these collisions occurred when officers were not involved in pursuits or emergency responses. However, officers nevertheless were exceeding the speed limit by at least 20 mph in 141 of those crashes—8 of which resulted in fatalities and 25 in serious injuries.5 (The aforementioned Sun Sentinel study found that Florida officers exceeding the speed limit have caused at least 320 crashes and 19 deaths since 2004.6)
- Twenty-six officers were involved in four or more crashes during that five-year period.7
- Officers were determined to be at least partially at fault in about 25 percent of these crashes. When they were found at fault, they were ticketed fewer than 11 percent of the time compared to at-fault nonofficers who were cited more than 64 percent of the time.8
(For a seven-year period [2004–2010], the Sun Sentinel similarly concluded that Florida law enforcement officers who were involved in 320 crashes caused by their speeding were cited in 37 [12 percent] of them, while nonofficers who were involved in 54,579 crashes caused by their speeding during that same period of time were cited in 29,752 [55 percent] of them.9)
Unwarranted speeding by both on- and off-duty police officers definitely is not limited to any single locale. Consider the following:
- While responding to a crash the day after Thanksgiving 2007, an Illinois State Police trooper lost control of his cruiser, crossed the median, and struck an oncoming vehicle, instantly killing an 18-year-old woman and her 13-year-old sister. The trooper was driving 126 mph, reportedly was talking on his cellphone and shoulder radio, and was charged with two counts of reckless homicide, to which he pleaded guilty, and two counts of reckless driving. This was the trooper’s third crash; the Illinois State Police was ordered in August 2004 to pay $1.7 million in connection with another crash.10
- A Corpus Christi, Texas, officer en route to a January 20, 2008, call for service, lost control of his cruiser, struck a concrete barrier, was ejected, and run over by another vehicle. He was driving 107 mph and was not wearing a seat belt.11
- A Frederick City, Maryland, officer lost his life on October 22, 2008, after losing control of his cruiser while traveling 102 mph. He also was not wearing a seat belt.12
- Two members of the Las Vegas, Nevada, Metropolitan Police Department died in 2009—and another one was seriously injured—during high-speed responses to nonemergency incidents while not wearing seat belts. On May 7, 2009, an officer traveling 109 mph, without the benefit of emergency lights and siren, to a 9-1-1 call of domestic violence died after striking a vehicle that had turned into his path. On October 7, 2009, officers were responding at 71 mph in a 45 mph zone—with neither emergency lights nor siren—to investigate an odor when they swerved to avoid colliding with another vehicle and struck a tree and a pole before overturning. The deceased officer was ejected.13
- A deputy from the Osage County, Oklahoma, Sheriff’s Department was responding to a burglary-in-progress call on December 2, 2009; left the roadway in his cruiser, which rolled over twice; and was ejected as he was not wearing a seat belt.14
- On January 23, 2010, a Broward County, Florida, sheriff's deputy responded to assist another deputy with a traffic stop, which ultimately was determined simply to be a burned-out tag light; accelerated from 24 mph to 87 mph in 24 seconds; and T-boned another vehicle as it turned left in front of the cruiser, slicing the vehicle in two and killing the driver’s 14-year-old stepsister. The deputy was terminated from the sheriff’s office and charged criminally with vehicular homicide and reckless driving.15
- On April 25, 2011, an Alabama state trooper was responding to provide traffic control at a crash when his cruiser rear-ended another vehicle, which was pushed into a field and caught fire. A husband and wife in the car, who were en route to pickup their daughters at high school, were killed. The trooper was driving at speeds of up to 120 mph in the seconds before the crash and was charged with two counts of criminally negligent homicide.16
Clearly, speed kills and injures, and it does not differentiate between good officers attempting to initiate positive actions and unprofessional officers speeding simply because they can. Excessive speed and unbuckled officers combine far too frequently to trigger a catastrophe. In fact, over a period of 27 years (1982–2008), “driving too fast for conditions or in excess of posted speed” was the second most prevalent driver-related crash factor (following “failure to keep in proper lane or running off road”). For 29 years (1980–2008), 42 percent of the officers killed in passenger vehicle crashes were not wearing seat belts.17
Chiefs and sheriffs need to act now to prevent the needless deaths of and the serious injuries to their officers and those citizens with whom their officers share the road. Reasonable policies need to be developed, taught, and enforced in order to
- safeguard officers and those they serve;
- uphold the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, which reads, in part: “Honest in thought and deed both in my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the law and the regulations of my department . . . . I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of police service. . . .”;18
- provide concrete information that supports promulgated policies and against which officers can appreciate the magnitude of their responses, instilling in them such facts as 90 seconds is the difference between traveling 10 miles at 80 mph and the same distance at 100 mph, and one minute is the difference between traveling 5 miles at 50 mph and the same distance at 60 mph; and
- hold officers strictly accountable for compliance.
Officers responding to emergency calls intend to arrive on the scene quickly to do good: to apprehend a dangerous felon, to back up a fellow officer in need of assistance, or to render lifesaving aid to a crash victim or a crime victim. They do not anticipate being involved in a crash where they are seriously injured or killed or where they seriously injure or kill others. Chiefs and sheriffs can promote the accomplishment of positive actions, for example, by causing calls for service to be better screened prior to dispatch; by restricting—consistent with applicable laws and with prevailing environmental, locality, and traffic conditions—response speeds to a maximum of 20 mph or 30 mph above the posted speed limit; by promulgating realistic pursuit policies into which technological advancements are incorporated; and by requiring all occupants to wear seat belts.
Florida law enforcement agencies have responded to the Sun Sentinel exposé. The FHP issued 31 troopers, including two sergeants and three corporals, oral reprimands for driving at excessive speeds and required them to attend a four-hour ethics course. Allegations against 17 additional FHP troopers are under investigation. Four officers and three detectives in Sunrise, Florida, sped excessively at least once without good reason, and the disciplinary actions imposed upon them ranged from a warning to the six-month loss of take-home-cruiser use. Nine Plantation, Florida, officers lost their take-home-cruiser privileges for anywhere from two days to more than three months. Finally, seven Margate, Florida, officers were deprived of the use of take-home cruisers for between one day and thirty-seven days.19
Law enforcement leaders recognize that bad things inherently will happen from time to time, no matter how many preventive efforts are introduced beforehand in terms of policy, training, and supervision. However, unforeseen occurrences should not support inaction. Proactive chiefs and sheriffs will go the extra mile and create policies to regulate the speed and the manner of expedited responses and to mandate the wearing of seat belts, provide appropriate training to ensure officers’ awareness and understanding of their agencies’ expectations, and demand that supervisors enforce agencies’ standards. The safety of officers and those they serve demands that speed be controlled and seat belts be worn now. ♦
1“FHP Arrests Miami Police Officer: Florida Highway Patrol Arrests Miami Cop Going 120 mph,” dashcam video, PalmBeachPost.com video player, http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid40682387001?bckey=AQ~~,AAAAAFNYtaY~,96UE5nFIXDGIJR9rDfa9L972GLYlYk0h&bctid=1251383740001 (accessed May 21, 2012).
2Sally Kestin and John Maines, “Miami Cop Sped Long before His High-Profile Traffic Stop,” Sun Sentinel, February 11, 2012, http://www.SunSentinel.com/news/local/speeding-cops/fl-fausto-lopez-speeding-cop-20120211,0,1362387.story (accessed May 21, 2012).
3Sally Kestin and John Maines, “Cops among Florida’s Worst Speeders, Sun Sentinel Investigation Finds,” Sun Sentinel, February 11, 2012, http://www.SunSentinel.com/news/local/speeding-cops/fl-speeding-cops-20120211,0,3706919.story (accessed May 21, 2012).
4Rene Stutzman and Scott Powers, “Day 1: Cops Crash Often, Ticketed Rarely,” Orlando Sentinel, February 11, 2012, http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-02-11/news/os-police-car-crashes-totals-mainbar-20120211_1_officers-crash-cops-crash-officer-mark-maupin (accessed May 21, 2012).
5Scott Powers and Rene Stutzman, “Few Agencies Follow Monroe Sheriff’s Lead on Cop-Chase Reform,” Orlando Sentinel, February 13, 2012, http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-02-13/news/os-police-car-crashes-agencies-mainbar-20120211_1_traffic-laws-red-lights-crashes# (accessed May 21, 2012).
6Kestin and Maines, “Cops among Florida’s Worst Speeders, Sun Sentinel Investigation Finds.”
7Stutzman and Powers, “Day 1: Cops Crash Often, Ticketed Rarely.”
9Cindy Jones-Hulfachor, “Fewer Tickets for Police,” Sun Sentinel, February 14, 2012, http://www.SunSentinel.com/fl-gx-1a-citation-pies.eps-20120214,0,7418145.graphic (accessed May 21, 2012).
10Leisa Zigman, “I-Team: For Law Enforcement, Driving Training Stops after the Academy,” NewsChannel 5, April 25, 2008, http://origin.ksdk.com/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=144649 (accessed May 22, 2012).
11Moises Mendoza, “Despite Fatal Crashes, Seat Belts Don’t Click with All Police: Unbuckled, but Unbowed: Despite On-Duty Wreck Fatalities, Police Who Don’t Wear Seat Belts Insist There’s a Reason,” Houston Chronicle, March 1, 2010, http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/6890303.html (accessed May 22, 2012).
12Justin M. Palk, “Bremer Traveling 102 mph, Not Wearing Seat Belt during Crash,” FrederickNewsPost.com, June 10, 2009, http://www.fredericknewspost.com/sections/archives/display_detail.htm?StoryID=97872 (accessed May 22, 2012).
13Antonio Planas, “Sheriff: Officers Speeding, Not Wearing Seat Belts at Time of Deadly Crash,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, November 1, 2009, http://www.lvrj.com/news/Sheriff-Officers-werent-wearing-seat-belts-in-deadly-accident-65008937.html (accessed May 22, 2012).
14Manny Gamallo, “Sheriff Praises Crash Victim As a Good Lawman,” The Oklahoman, December 4, 2009.
15Sally Kestin and John Maines, “21 People Killed or Maimed by Speeding Cops in Florida Since 2004,” Sun Sentinel, February 12, 2012, http://www.SunSentinel.com/news/local/speeding-cops/fl-speeding-cops-victims-20120212,0,4185114.story (accessed May 22, 2012).
16Jean Cole, “Alabama State Trooper Indicted in Death of Athens Couple,” News Courier, November 21, 2011, http://enewscourier.com/local/x1938320596/Alabama-state-trooper-indicted-in-deaths-of-Athens-couple (accessed May 11, 2012).
17Eun Yong Noh, Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes, January 2011, DOT HS 811 411, 22, 24, http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811411.pdf (accessed May 22, 2012).
18IACP, “Law Enforcement Code of Ethics,” October 16, 2001, http://www.theiacp.org/PublicationsGuides/ResearchCenter/Publications/tabid/299/Default.aspx?id=82&v=1 (accessed May 22, 2012).
19Jon Burstein, “FHP Disciplines 31 Troopers for Speeding,” Sun Sentinel, May 14, 2012, http://www.SunSentinel.com/news/local/breakingnews/fl-fhp-speeding-investigations-20120514,0,2163749.story (accessed May 22, 2012).
Please cite as:
Richard J. Ashton, "Speeding Cops," The Police Chief 79 (July 2012): 72–74.