Sudden Impact

It was dark and slick when the accident occurred, but not nearly as dark and slick as it was when she tried to get to the bottom of it

Finally, at the end of the report, Sinkes recorded Chapman's explanation for the accident: "As [Chapman's Honda] approached intersection at 23 St., [another car] proceeded through intersection without stopping. [Chapman's] vehicle's brakes locked up causing the impact with [my Sentra]...." Other than noting that it was a dark color, no more information was available concerning this mysterious car that apparently caused Chapman to jam on his brakes. No other information revealing how Chapman could have then skidded more than 50 yards before hitting my Sentra with enough force to demolish it A when he supposedly had been traveling just 30 miles per hour.

After puzzling over all this with a growing uneasiness, I called the insurance company named on the report, U.S. Security. A woman in the claims department said she couldn't find the policy number Chapman had given to Officer Sinkes. I read it to her again, and she tried variations. No such number in the company computer, she said, and asked the name of the insured. She found no policy for Chapman, Lopez, or Shindler.

Later that day I contacted the officer in charge of accident investigations for the Miami Beach Police Department, Sgt. Garth Hammond, who said he would try to verify the information on the accident report. When we spoke again the next day, he told me the registration on the report checked out. I protested that the insurance information was wrong, and furthermore, I couldn't even locate the man who hit my car; his address and phone number had been blanked out on the report.

Then Hammond said something that made me catch my breath for a second, though by now it didn't come as a surprise: "I think this Chapman is an officer on the Beach."

A quick call back to the police department verified that Ronald Denis Chapman was in fact a sworn officer. Another call confirmed that state law protects officers' addresses and phone numbers from release to the public. (However, no provision is made to inform the public why an address and phone number might have been deleted from an accident report.) Yet another call, this one to the state's Bureau of Financial Responsibility in Tallahassee, which registers all automobile insurance information, brought more unsettling news. The 1990 Honda in question was owned by a Carmen Lopez but her policy with Orion Insurance, according to the bureau, had been canceled in June 1992. And Orion Insurance was now known as Aries Insurance. Aries officials, in turn, said they couldn't match the number on the report to any existing insurance policy.

I called Sergeant Hammond again. "Well," he said, "you should call your insurance company and let them handle it."

"An employee of the Miami Beach Police Department put wrong information on an accident report," I replied evenly. "Isn't there something more you can do?"

Hammond said it wasn't his job to verify insurance policies and there was nothing more he could do.

"Listen," I began again, "I have at least two witnesses who watched the driver trying to leave the scene of an accident. He put false information on the report. And there's nothing you can do? I'll have to file suit against him."

Hammond, who has since retired from the force, answered calmly. "You can file a civil action if you want," he said. "You can call your insurance company. That's what your insurance is for. There's nothing more we can do."

It became clear that if they couldn't (or wouldn't) do more, I would have to. I checked Chapman's driving record (clean) and made arrangements to examine his and Sinkes's personnel files at the police station. I requested the 911 emergency and radio dispatch tapes from the morning of the accident. I reviewed state auto insurance requirements and laws applicable to driving and accidents (providing false information on accident reports, leaving the scene, exceeding safe driving speeds). And because my Sentra was clearly a danger to drive, I also had to rent a car at my own expense. That Thursday was Thanksgiving. No one ate the yams I contributed to a communal dinner. I've had better holidays.

The two officers' personnel files did not contain any complaints investigated by the department's internal affairs unit. Chapman's file portrayed him as a model officer in his six years on the Miami Beach force, consistently rated highly for his initiative, helpfulness to fellow officers, coolness under pressure, and professionalism. During field training in 1986 and 1987, Chapman was described by his training officers as displaying "a high degree of reflexibility and competence while driving in the rain," and "avoided a certain traffic accident caused by a citizen running through a red light." Another observation noted he "needs improvement in skid control technique."

Something in Chapman's file did stand out: he's had two accidents while driving police vehicles, in 1989 and 1990. In the first case, a motorist in Miami failed to yield at a stop sign and collided with the police motorcycle he was driving to work. The second time, Chapman wasn't able to stop his patrol car when a vehicle turned in front of him on Pennsylvania Avenue in Miami Beach. Neither accident, the reports noted, was his fault.

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