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Wichita police policy on lights, sirens questioned

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, at 11:26 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, at 5:13 p.m.

How to report

Residents who see Wichita police officers speeding without lights and sirens or driving unsafely, may report them. Patrol cars are identified with numbers on the back glass. People can call 911 or a police substation to report a concern about an officer’s driving. The sooner a complaint is reported, the easier it is for supervisors to follow up, said Lt. Doug Nolte, the department spokesman.

Fatal incidents involving Wichita police

•  In 2007, a Wichita police car was allegedly going up to 80 mph in a 35-mph zone without lights and sirens when it struck and killed a man at 2:49 a.m. as he was crossing East 21st Street on foot. The officer had finished his calls for the night and was on his way back to a substation.

•  In 2009, according to testimony, a Wichita police car was going 20 to 33 mph over the 40 mph speed limit, with only part of the emergency lights on, responding to a report of gunshots. At about 9 p.m. on South Hydraulic, the police car hit a car turning left. The motorist died.

•  In 2012, a Wichita police car going without lights and sirens to a burglary in progress at around 7 p.m. hit and fatally injured a girl as she darted across South Broadway. A lawsuit alleges the officer was going 39 mph to 51 mph in a 30-mph zone.

When should police officers be allowed to exceed the speed limit?

The Wichita Police Department’s policy says officers can speed only if they have activated their lights and sirens, which are reserved for certain emergencies.

The rest of the time, police are supposed to obey the speed limit — even when responding to calls.

In reality, they speed.

“We know that officers speed, we don’t like it, and we will aggressively pursue officers that are speeding,” said Lt. Doug Nolte, a department spokesman.

The department wants the public to report officers who are speeding without lights and sirens or driving unsafely, he said.

Since 2007, three people in Wichita have been killed in accidents with officers who were allegedly speeding and did not have their lights and sirens on. The city has paid out $500,000 to settle two lawsuits. A third lawsuit, filed in December, is pending.

Two attorneys representing families of the people killed and one attorney defending one of the officers involved say the department needs to recognize that officers speed and change its policy to allow officers to use lights and sirens more often to warn other motorists.“Why can’t we just acknowledge that there’s a tendency to speed … sometimes a tendency to speed greatly, because they’re out there doing a service?” asked Wichita lawyer Craig Shultz, who represented the family of a person killed in 2007.

The department limits the use of lights and sirens because it can distract motorists and officers and cause accidents, Nolte said. Lights and sirens aren’t always effective because sometimes motorists don’t see, hear or heed the equipment, he said.

Family, officer affected

In the latest accident, at about 7 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2012, a police car going without lights and sirens to a burglary in progress hit and fatally injured 12-year-old Suhani Bhakta as she darted across South Broadway near her home. Under department policy, a burglary doesn’t call for lights and sirens. A lawsuit filed in December by the girl’s parents said the Highway Patrol calculated that the patrol car was going 39 mph to 51 mph in a 30-mph zone. The family’s lawyer, Dustin DeVaughn, said the patrol car wouldn’t have hit the girl if the officer had used lights and sirens or gone the speed limit.

“The Wichita Police Department is putting their own officers in a precarious situation,” DeVaughn said, “because they’re wanting the officers to protect and serve, but they’re not letting them use lights and sirens in most of the emergency calls.”

After Suhani died, a friend of her family, Sanjay Shah, led a petition drive for a law requiring officers to use lights and sirens when responding to a crime scene. He contends that the girl would not have run across Broadway if she had heard a siren or seen emergency lights.

More than 4,000 people from Wichita and around the nation signed the petition, said Shah, who lives in Hutchinson. He e-mailed it to the city but said he didn’t get a response.

The community still grieves over her death, but the officer who struck her also is a victim, Shah said. “He has to deal with” the death of a child. “Obviously, he was going to protect … it’s not his fault; it’s the law’s fault.”

WPD policy, trend

The Wichita Police Department restricts use of lights and sirens more than it did 20 years ago, said Nolte, the department spokesman. The policy is reviewed annually, and police consider public input, he said.

For example, an “officer in trouble” and a “rape in progress” call for lights-and-siren responses and give Wichita police officers authority to speed, as long as it is reasonable.

“We want that attack to stop,” Nolte said. “We don’t want it to be a secret that we’re on the way.”

A “robbery in progress” and injury accident wouldn’t necessarily call for lights and sirens, although in past years they would have.

“There are times when you don’t announce your arrival” with lights and sirens, Nolte said.

He gave the example of a report that someone is breaking into a building and there is no immediate threat to a person’s life. Officers know that a burglar caught in the act is much easier to prosecute. They want to get there quick enough to catch him and not warn him off before they close in.

If an officer isn’t sure how to respond, he or she can ask a supervisor for permission to activate lights and sirens.The Wichita police policy states that basic conditions for using lights and sirens are “where the protection or preservation of life is a consideration” or “During the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator.”

The policy lists five situations where an emergency response is authorized: 1. Officer in trouble. 2. Momentary use of lights and siren while pursuing a violator to alert traffic and command the violator to stop. 3. Pursuit of a violator where the person refuses to stop and where lights and siren are needed to warn others of hazardous conditions. 4. Where a supervisor authorizes an emergency response. 5. Where an officer “knows or has reasonable suspicion” that a fleeing suspect is committing, has committed or has tried to commit a violent crime.

Using lights and sirens doesn’t give an officer a pass to drive 100 mph down Rock Road, Nolte said. The idea is that using lights and sirens will cut a few minutes off the response time by helping to clear intersections. The officer still has to slow down at lights and stop signs as needed.

The guiding principle, Nolte said, is, “We’re trying to get as safely, as soon as possible, from Point A to B.”

$500,000 in settlements

The city has paid out $500,000 in settlements in two of the deadly accidents where officers were allegedly speeding without lights and sirens on.

Shultz reached a $200,000 settlement with the city in a 2007 case where a patrol car driven by Officer David Carter hit and killed 38-year-old Mark McCreary at 2:49 a.m. as he was crossing East 21st Street on foot, the Highway Patrol found. The officer had finished his calls for the night and was on his way back to a substation.

In 2009, Wichita police Officer Garrett Shaddix was responding to a report of gunshots with only part of his emergency lights on. At about 9 p.m. on South Hydraulic, his police car struck a car driven by 30-year-old Christopher Perkins.

About a year after the crash, the City Council agreed to pay $300,000 as a settlement with Perkins’ family, but a jury found Shaddix not guilty of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

According to testimony, Shaddix was estimated to be going 20 to 33 mph over the 40 mph speed limit when Perkins turned left in front of the speeding police car. But jurors said after their verdict that it appeared from evidence that Shaddix was doing what any other officer would do, that department policy wasn’t clear on how to respond to such situations and that speeding by police was standard practice.

Steve Ariagno, Shaddix’s defense attorney, said recently that he still believes that the policy the officer had to follow was too restrictive — that Shaddix should have been able to use emergency lights and siren on his way to the call, and would have been more visible.

‘It’s a problem that needs to be monitored’

Nationwide, not just in Wichita, police have become more restrictive on lights and sirens because of the distraction, said Tom Stolz, who until recently was a Wichita deputy police chief.

If officers feel pressure to speed to calls such as burglaries where lights and sirens aren’t authorized, the pressure comes from the officer, not the department, Stolz said.

Still, Stolz said, “It’s human nature — officers want to help people ... and they hurry to calls.”

One of the root problems is that “police routinely speed,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor of criminology who has studied traffic issues for 20 years. In a world where police don’t get ticketed by fellow officers when they break traffic laws while off-duty, it gives officers a “sense of impunity,” Alpert said.

A lot of departments have GPS capability to check speeds of their patrol cars. “It’s a problem that needs to be monitored,” he said.

The Wichita Police Department uses a countywide system that allows supervisors to check patrol car speeds and officers’ driving, and some officers have been disciplined as a result, Nolte said.

The department has disciplined 10 officers from December 2005 to April 2012 for violating Policy 605 — Emergency Vehicle Operation, Nolte said. One of the officers resigned while under investigation. The others received suspensions of one to 12 days. Five of the 10 officers were involved in the same incident and were disciplined last year. The list Nolte provided didn’t include officers’ names or incident details.

Restrictions vary by state

Policies on speeding and the use of lights and sirens vary from department to department.

The Sedgwick County sheriff’s policy calls for lights and sirens when immediate law enforcement presence could reduce the chance of injury or property damage, according to Maj. Mike Oliver.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department policy says officers going with lights and sirens to emergencies can’t exceed the speed limit by more than 20 mph, except in pursuits. In Wichita, there is no such 20 mph cap.

In most states, including Kansas, state law doesn’t allow officers to speed unless they are using their lights and sirens.

A handful of states have passed legislation allowing officers to speed without lights and sirens, but the speeding is heavily restricted and limited to brief durations and short distances, for example, to catch up to a speeder, Alpert said.

Speeding threatens officers as well as the public.

“We lose more officers to vehicles than we do to firearms,” Alpert said. Of 213 officers who died in crashes nationwide between 2004 and 2008, speed was a factor or probable factor in 70 percent of the deaths, according an article by Richard Ashton, with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

When officers need to speed, emergency equipment serves as a safety valve, Alpert said. “Lights and sirens warn the public of impending danger. Without lights and sirens, we in the public wouldn’t expect someone to be speeding.”

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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