When police investigate themselves, families cries foul
Wednesday , April 25, 2012 - 12:22 PM
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The scene is repeated throughout South Florida: A cop is involved in a deadly crash, and the investigation that determines fault and possible criminal charges is done by the officer's own agency.
In some states and parts of Florida, outside agencies are called in to investigate serious police crashes. But the sheriff's offices in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and many larger police departments, often handle their own.
"That is not an unusual scenario," said Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center in Los Angeles, a nonprofit agency working to strengthen police oversight. "Does it create a conflict? It does."
He said police officers, like doctors and lawyers, frequently investigate themselves when one of their own is accused of a crime or kills someone whether it's in a shooting or a traffic crash. But the practice can lead to charges of bias and cover-up by victims' families.
"No sheriff's office should be investigating themselves," said the Rev. Patricia Wallace, of Pahokee, whose son was run over by a Palm Beach County Sheriff's deputy in 2007. "There should be a law against it. How are you going to investigate objectively?"
Wallace's son, Jonathan, was a cop himself. He and another deputy, Donta Manuel, died on a dark rural road near Pahokee while trying to remove a tire deflation device set up to nab a car thief.
The driver who hit them: another sheriff's deputy, Greg Fernandez. He was going 111 mph trying to catch up to the stolen car.
The sheriff's investigation blamed the two victims for stepping into the road and not attaching a lanyard to remove the spiked tire strips from a safe distance -- a conclusion Wallace, who worked for the Sheriff's Office herself for 24 years, still does not accept.
"Justice wasn't done," she said.
Her son was 23 and engaged to be married.
"His life had just begun," Wallace said. "His dreams of becoming a husband and a father were all cut short."
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said he empathizes with Wallace, but the investigation was thorough and reviewed by outside experts, who agreed with the findings.
"There's no cover-up," the sheriff said. "The deputies made a mistake that cost them their lives."
Wallace insists an independent agency, such as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, should have handled the investigation. "I just wanted somebody other than the Sheriff's Office," she said.
Fred Rice, who teaches crash reconstruction for the Idaho State Police, understands that concern.
"People don't like police investigating themselves," he said. "Even if you do it perfect by the book, what about the civilian's family? They're going to question: Are they protecting their own?"
In Idaho and other western states, outside agencies are brought in to investigate fatal police crashes.
"I think it just lends credibility," Rice said. "We like to get it right and we want the public to trust the police."
At least three Florida sheriff's offices -- Brevard, Collier and Jacksonville -- call in FHP when an officer is involved in a serious crash.
The Collier County Sheriff's Office has "full faith in the impartiality" of its traffic investigators, said spokeswoman Michelle Batten. But in deputy crashes, "we feel that the public has an expectation that an outside agency should be involved."
Sheriff Bradshaw and South Florida police spokesmen said that investigating their own crashes creates no problems.
"Doing crashes is no different than investigating your own police shootings" or misconduct by officers, Bradshaw said. "We call it like it is. You can't farm everything out."
At the Miami-Dade Police Department, officers in crashes are scrutinized more "than your average person," said Detective Javier Baez.
Broward Sheriff's Office spokesman Jim Leljedal said their investigators "are highly trained, and they know that their investigations and findings will be dissected by lawyers and outside experts, so they have to be extremely thorough and precise."
BSO and Miami-Dade police investigate their officers' wrecks anywhere in their respective counties -- even when they occur in cities with their own police departments.
"It's an obvious conflict of interest," said Lance Block, a Tallahassee lawyer who represented Eric Brody of Sunrise, a college-bound teen who was permanently impaired by a speeding off-duty BSO deputy in 1998.
The wreck that left Brody barely able to walk or talk happened in Sunrise, a mile from that city's police headquarters. Sunrise officers arrived on scene ready to investigate, Block said.
"BSO got there and told them to go home," he said.
The ensuing sheriff's investigation blamed Brody for turning in front of the deputy. But BSO used incorrect data that underestimated the deputy's speed and lost key evidence, including the patrol car's front bumper, Block said.
The investigation "was either terribly botched or an intentional cover-up," he said.
Brody's parents sued BSO, and a jury found it wasn't the teen who caused the crash but the deputy's negligence.
South Florida prosecutors said their involvement in fatal police crashes, including reviewing the investigations for possible criminal charges, ensures fairness. In Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, a prosecutor goes to the crash scene.
"We want to be sure the evidence is secured, that the investigation is going appropriately," said Terri Skiles, chief of major violent crimes for the Palm Beach County State Attorney. "We know the public is inherently suspicious any time a police agency is investigating itself."
Broward prosecutors do not go to the scene unless asked, for legal reasons, said Jeff Marcus, assistant state attorney in charge of felony cases. Their presence could make them a witness, he said.
His office often hires independent experts to review police investigations. Bill Wright, a West Palm Beach accident reconstructionist, was brought in recently on a Fort Lauderdale Police investigation of one of their own, Sgt. Jaime Costas.
Costas struck a bicyclist, William Schramm, as he drove his patrol car on Las Olas Boulevard about midnight on April 17, 2010. Schramm died two days later from his injuries.
The police investigation faulted the bicyclist for turning in front of the officer and determined Costas was driving 31 to 37 mph.
Wright's review found the police car was going 44 mph -- 9 miles over the speed limit. He identified other problems with the police investigation -- an incomplete report, missing documentation and "a lack of critical analytical skills" -- but concluded the crash was unavoidable. Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges.
Schramm's widow, Lorraine, waited nearly two years for the results of the investigation but said she still doesn't have answers.
"I have no idea whether (the officer) was driving at the speed limit or over the speed limit, whether he was on the phone or tweeting," she said. "I have no idea."
Married almost 30 years, the Schramms traveled the Caribbean on their 42-foot sailboat and decided to settle in Fort Lauderdale shortly before his death. They bought a condo in Las Olas Isles but had not yet moved in, she said.
On the night of the wreck, the couple rode their bikes downtown. She didn't drive, and neither did her 65-year-old husband, who was legally blind.
After dinner and a movie, he wanted to stop for a drink, and she proceeded home. Waiting for him at their street corner, she witnessed the deadly collision.
"I try not to think about it," said Schramm, 59. "I'm kind of biding the time right now."
She said she was not surprised by the outcome of the police investigation.
"With any organization, you're always going to be protecting your own," Schramm said. "That's the way of the world."
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