Ronnie Polaneczky: Live-Stopped: Left out to dry

Brian Walsh and son Dalton, who say they were stranded by cops after a stop. (Yong Kim/Staff)
Brian Walsh and son Dalton, who say they were stranded by cops after a stop. (Yong Kim/Staff)
Posted: September 29, 2011

I'D LIKE to know why two Philly police officers left a worried dad and his sick son on the side of the road on March 10, 2010. Was it lack of training? Or did the cops just not care?

That evening, Brian Walsh was rushing his 8-year-old son to a hospital emergency room when the cops stopped him near 7th and Callowhill streets for having an expired registration.

Walsh says that after impounding his truck, the cops stranded him and his kid on the street.

That's a no-no, according to Police Department protocol regarding Live Stop (the state law that allows police to confiscate the vehicles of drivers who are unlicensed or whose vehicles are unregistered or uninsured).

"Under no circumstances shall the occupants of any vehicle impounded be abandoned on any city street or highway," reads the department's directive. Occupants are to be transported either home or to another address within a "reasonable distance," or to the closest public-transit hub or police station where the occupants can "safely make alternative arrangements."

No driver can be forced to accept the offer, but Walsh says that the cops offered no help at all.

Instead, he says, they abandoned him and his kid, who had a 104-degree fever and uncontrollable diarrhea. Father and son had to walk eight blocks to a friend's house. By then, the child had soiled himself.

"I had asked," says Walsh, "if I could go find a bathroom for my son, because he couldn't hold it any longer. One of them said,'Let him s--- on the sidewalk.' They couldn't have cared less."

So, were the officers not trained to offer transportation help to Walsh? Or were they too heartless to do so?

Walsh is one of four Live-Stopped drivers I've spoken with who claim that they were left on the street - one of them late at night, in sketchy surroundings - after their wheels were impounded. According to Center City attorney Steve Sheller, such drivers number "well over a hundred," which he discovered after going public in May with a lawsuit that he filed against the police on behalf of his daughter, who he says was abandoned during Live Stop.

"My phone began ringing nonstop" with calls from drivers with similar tales, says Sheller. He has since filed both individual suits and a class-action suit, with civil-rights attorney David Rudovsky, on behalf of the drivers, and says that the class size is growing.

This is not the impact that Live Stop was supposed to have when it went citywide in 2002. The goal was to bring into compliance scofflaws who'd otherwise ignore their traffic tickets because, honestly, what was the incentive to go legit? A happy feeling inside?

Once cops started confiscating vehicles, though, drivers scrambled to comply.

That's the main point made by Police Lt. Francis Healy, an attorney and special adviser to Commissioner Ramsey, when I ask him to discuss Live Stop, which pulled about 23,000 cars off the street in 2010. The program has made the streets safer for all of us, he says, since the last thing anyone wants is to be mowed down by a reckless or uninsured driver whose license was revoked or whose dangerous beater should've been scrapped eons ago.

"Public safety is our primary concern," Healy says.

While he wouldn't comment on the pending litigation, he confirms the importance of the no-abandonment policy.

"We can't leave people hanging out on the street, [sometimes] in the middle of the night," he says.

That's why the policy is a reasonable one. Live-Stopped drivers are accused scofflaws, not accused homicidal maniacs. Immobilize their cars? Sure. But don't expose them to physical harm just because their paperwork isn't in order.

"I find the allegations alarming," says City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who was so concerned after reviewing the briefs filed by Sheller and Rudovsky that he asked Mayor Nutter to ensure that the entire Police Department is aware of the no-abandonment policy.

"If the people at the top aren't clear about it, how would officers in the street know what they should be doing?"

Through training, that's how. And then they need the heart to use it.


Email polaner@phillynews.com

or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie.

Read Ronnie's blog at www.philly.com/RonnieBlog.

 

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