Crashes Involving Police Are Up Accidents Between Police And Civilian Vehicles Rose 30 Pct. In 5 Years, Police Documents Show. Officers Were Rarely Punished.

Posted: June 12, 1998

Accidents involving police vehicles and civilian cars have risen 30 percent since 1993 and have cost Philadelphia taxpayers almost $29 million in legal settlements since 1992, according to documents filed yesterday in a federal civil-rights lawsuit.

The documents - summaries of Police Department statistics, departmental reports and sworn depositions by top police officials - also show that 61 percent of the 3,835 police accidents that occurred from January 1993 through last Aug. 19 were deemed preventable by investigators.

Of those judged preventable, 250 - about one in 10 - were subject to disciplinary review or resulted in any punishment for the driver, the documents show.

During that 4 1/2-year period, no police officer involved in an on-duty accident was demoted, fired, or charged with violating state criminal or motor vehicle laws, the documents state. When departmental discipline was imposed, it almost always consisted of a suspension of three days or less, the documents show.

The material was filed in U.S. District Court in a lawsuit against the city by relatives of LeeMore Rich.

Rich, 39, and his 7-month-old son, LeMore Jordan Rich, were killed last Aug. 19 when they were struck by an out-of-control police car on a South Philadelphia sidewalk near 22d Street and Snyder Avenue. The police car had been struck by another patrol car as both raced to assist an officer trying to make an arrest a few blocks away.

The lawsuit contends that the two deaths resulted in part from the department's failure to curb reckless, high-speed driving by officers. The documents, meant to support that assertion, were attached to a pretrial memorandum in the case, which is scheduled for trial in August.

City Solicitor Stephanie Franklin-Suber said the data cited by the plaintiffs were irrelevant to the Rich case.

``Basically, our point is that this was an auto accident, and it was tragic,'' Franklin-Suber said. ``What happened in '92 or later in '97 is irrelevant. There was no intent by the officers to hurt these people.''

In depositions, top police commanders said the department had increased penalties for improper driving even before the Rich accident, imposing longer suspensions, revoking driving privileges in some cases, and requiring officers to undergo retraining.

``I believe that we do more than almost anybody that I've seen . . . in terms of ensuring that our people are driving properly,'' Deputy Commissioner Thomas J. Nestel said in a deposition March 26.

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney was out of town yesterday and unavailable for comment. A police spokeswoman, Capt. Linda MacLachlin, said the department would have no comment on the court filing.

The city has already paid $500,000 to Rich's survivors to settle state law claims for ``negligent and outrageous conduct'' and the wrongful deaths of Rich and his son.

But that settlement did not resolve federal civil-rights claims, which contend that the city violated the Riches' constitutional rights by condoning dangerous high-speed driving by police.

The federal suit, filed by Shanin Specter, contends that current police practice is ``a monumental invitation to disobey both procedure and law . . . Even when a collision does follow a violation, review and punishment are usually nonexistent.''

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling last month in a case involving a Sacramento, Calif., teenager killed when he was struck by a pursuing police car, has made it more difficult in general for victims of police accidents to sue for damages in federal court.

The high court held that for a lawsuit involving a high-speed police pursuit to pass legal muster, a plaintiff must prove the police conduct was ``so egregious, so outrageous, that it may fairly be said to shock the contemporary conscience.''

Specter contended that the new standard would not affect the Rich lawsuit. The Sacramento ruling applies to a narrow set of circumstances involving a police pursuit of a suspect, Specter said.

``Mr. Rich and his son were not suspected of a crime, nor were they fleeing from the police,'' says Specter's pretrial memo. ``Their deaths did not result from a police officer imperfectly balancing core tenets of law enforcement against public safety during a pursuit. Rather, Mr. Rich and his infant son were innocent bystanders on a public sidewalk . . .''

The driver of one of the patrol cars was given a three-day suspension. The driver of the other car is awaiting a disciplinary ruling by the Police Board of Inquiry, an internal tribunal.

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