Sudden Impact: Part 2

There's no way to undo the damage to her mangled Sentra, but this car-crash tale has a satisfactory conclusion

People still ask me about my car, the little red Sentra that was totaled as it sat parked outside my apartment in the rain one early morning in November. An off-duty Miami Beach police officer plowed into it. I wrote about the whole experience in the January 20 issue of New Times. I told how at least two witnesses watched the officer trying to drive away before his car stalled, and I questioned the accident report (completed by a fellow Miami Beach police officer), which stated the driver of the car that hit mine had been going the speed limit (30 mph) and had not been driving improperly.

Miles Moss, a professional accident investigator who evaluated factors in the accident for New Times, also disagreed with the assessment of the investigating officer, William Sinkes. Moss concluded the driver, Ronald Denis Chapman, was probably guilty of careless driving, speeding, and disregarding special hazards (the wet roadway). He wondered, too, why the Miami Beach Police Department, like all local police departments, allows its own officers to investigate accidents involving fellow officers. A cooperative arrangement among departments, he believes, would probably ensure more objectivity.

"Don't look for any policy changes in Miami Beach, however," I wrote in my story, after speaking with Maj. Rocco De Leo, supervisor of the MBPD patrol division and defender of its Accident Investigation Unit (AIU), a specially trained group of seventeen officers who investigate wrecks involving the department's employees. The elite AIU wouldn't have handled my case, though, because it investigated only accidents involving on-duty employees.

That was before the story was published. I was wrong. The Miami Beach Police Department did make a few policy changes.

When I arrived at work on Monday, January 25, I had a message from Sgt. William Turner, the chief of the AIU. I called him back, and Turner told me the department was going to open an investigation of the accident "to determine if this incident was handled properly." He asked if I would meet him and Off. Mark Fidler at the site of the accident to show and tell my recollection of what happened. I said sure. Turner advised me his unit was going to interview all the witnesses it could, review the report New Times had commissioned from Miles Moss, and make its own measurements at the scene. "I want you to know," Turner said before we hung up, "we have no intention of covering this up or being unfair."

I didn't hear anything from the department after I met Turner and Fidler a week later. Rick Hegarty, my neighbor and one of the witnesses, told me he was impressed after two men from AIU interviewed him. "They seemed to really mean business," he said. The morning of the accident, Hegarty had run out of his apartment and after Chapman's car as it sputtered up the street, calling for him to stop.

In mid-February, Det. Al Boza, the public information officer for the police department, told me the investigation had been completed and had to make its rounds through the chain of command before it could be released to the public. Then I got a letter from Police Chief Phillip Huber on March 15. This is the second paragraph of the letter:

"After a close examination of the accident scene, as well as interviews with both participants and independent witnesses, and examination of the involved vehicles, it has been determined that Officer R. Chapman, while operating a private vehicle in an off-duty capacity, did violate Florida State Statute 316.1925, Carelesss Driving Resulting in an Accident. He has been so charged. Officer Sinkes will be subject to deparmental discipline for improper handling of a traffic accident case. In addition, as a result of this incident, our Department Standard Operating Procedure has been changed. We now require a qualified mem-ber of the Accident Investigation Unit respond to all traffic accidents involving police personnel, whether on or off duty at time of occurrence."

The eight-page report concludes Chapman's car was probably going 30 to 35 mph when it hit mine, instead of Moss's estimate of 41 to 43 mph. And the AIU report found "insufficient evidence to conclusively determine if Officer Chapman was attempting to flee the scene of an accident with unattended property damage." But he has been charged with careless driving, and is to appear in court on April 6. If Chapman pleads guilty, the penalty for careless driving is a $57 fine. A conviction in traffic court, however, could result in the suspension of his driver's license, a requirement that he attend traffic school, and a fine up to $500 plus court costs of $500 (State Attorney's Office spokesmen say such fines are never that high).

"If nothing else, this incident with you brought an interesting problem to our attention," says Sergeant Turner. "If an off-duty officer gets in an accident, there could be the appearance of impropriety, and it would be best handled by the Accident Investigation Unit."

Nothing earth-shaking, just a little more accountability. I'm not com-plaining.

 
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