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On June 23, Secret Service Officer George Colvin collided with a Blue Bird bus at the intersection of 15th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. He was killed. No one knows exactly what caused the accident, but a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) traffic investigator cited a possible suspect: the left-turn signal at the intersection was partially hidden from the view of motorists headed north on 15th Street.
Immediately after the accident, an MPD officer told his dispatcher to notify the D.C. Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) about the turn signal. Whenever a police officer sees a life-threatening hazard, he is supposed to report it to OEP, which is then responsible for ensuring that the information is passed on to the appropriate agencyoften the Department of Public Works (DPW). In this case, however, OEP didn’t treat the broken light as any kind of emergency. A month after the accident, the light was in the same condition.
“Whether [the broken light] was a contributing factor or not [in Colvin’s death], no one knows but the bus driver,” says a federal law enforcement officer, who requested anonymity. “But you’d think when an officer is killed and it’s called in, there’d be greater priority put on it.”
Not necessarily. Police officers across the city say that the only emergency at OEP is a chronic lack of action. “Nothing happens; it’s a stupid [phone] number,” says a veteran officer in the 3rd District. “It’s almost like it’s a fictitious person.”
The same day that Colvin was killed, a hit-and-run at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Minnesota Avenues SE took the life of 7-year-old Andre Waters. Even though the driver was reportedly speeding through a red light in a stolen car, another factor was working against him: “That stop light was obstructed by tree branches,” says the federal law enforcement officer. “We’d been calling the command post forever about it. It took the death of a young kid before they did anything about it.”
DPW spokesperson Linda Grant says the department has no record of reports that the traffic light at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Minnesota Avenues SE was hidden by branches. Grant maintains that the light was clearly visible even though she acknowledges, “About a month or so [after the fatal accident], we went out, and to further broaden visibility [at the traffic light, tree] limbs were removed.”
Lou Cannon, president of D.C.’s Fraternal Order of Police, says most MPD officers have an OEP horror story. “During one of the recent rainstorms we had, I was in the cruiser listening to [the scanner], and I heard them call about a tree that was ready to fall and ask the mayor’s command post [OEP] to be notified. Several hours later, I was in the car, and I heard them get on and say that the tree had now fallen. And it had fallen on a car….”
The communication snafus start as soon as a cop radios the dispatcher about a road hazard. “Emergency Preparedness is an office that should be contacted when the agency responsible is closed,” says Lt. Eric Mines, acting head of MPD’s Traffic Division. “Too many of our guys are calling [OEP] or asking the dispatchers to call [OEP]” instead of calling the relevant city agency directly. “[OEP isn’t] a switchboard just to transfer calls.” However, Mines notes, “I understand the frustration of the officers….They don’t see these things getting fixed.”
OEP Director Samuel Jordan says his office passes on calls about road hazards “right that day” and dismisses the possibility that his office is losing track of the messages. “[Those messages] had to have been passed on to the responsible agency,” he says. Jordan says that if the ball is being dropped, it’s another agency that is doing the dropping.
But OEP Deputy Operations Chief Kerry Payne concedes that the urgency behind some requests may get lost in the chain of command. “It might go from an officer saying, ‘We need that fixed right away,’ to a dispatcher calling us and saying, ‘We have a light out,’ and that’s it,” Payne says. The OEP doesn’t prioritizethat’s the agency’s responsibility, Payne says.
Payne also says that much of the information OEP receives is inaccurate. For example, the command post recently received a report on a dump truck that had dropped a load of concrete on Interstate 295 South. In fact, the mishap had occurred on the Southeast Freeway. OEP personnel managed to track down the concrete and then coordinated the emergency job, ensuring that MPD shut down the roadway while DPW cleaned it up.
Since OEP doesn’t have any mechanism for follow-up, and doesn’t keep strict records of which call is patched through where and when, there is no way to pinpoint communication breakdowns. An OEP brochure notes that its offices received an average of 1,900 calls a day in 1996. To hear Jordan and Payne tell it, every one of these calls was relayed to the appropriate city agency.
But the numbers don’t quite add up. Jordan says that his office referred 141 calls to DPW’s Traffic Signal System Division in July. William McGuirk, chief of the division, says that the number is 40, although he notes that a higher figure could be correct since his workers don’t count calls for complaints already noted.
The crossed signals create problems far greater than a mere jurisdictional dispute. “These are genuine safety issues,” says the federal law enforcement officer. “People get hurt, and they will continue to get hurt.”
On July 21, a DPW crew was finally dispatched to the light at 15th Street and Constitution Avenue…for a separate problem. In the course of those other repairs, McGuirk speculates, the light must have been fixed.
In April of this year, after a car crash at the intersection of 43rd Place and Brandywine Avenue NW, an officer called OEP to note that a stop sign at the intersection was almost entirely obstructed by a tree. “You don’t see the stop sign ’til it’s at your right front bumper,” the officer says. “It’s blocked by the tree. Not by the leaves, even, but by the trunk.” The woman hurt in the accident was lucky, says the officer: She suffered only minor injuries, though her Dodge Caravan was totaled. Three months ago, the officer had told his dispatcher to call the repair in to OEP. As of today, however, the stop sign remains almost completely hidden behind the tree. DPW’s Grant says that DPW has no record of any complaint about that stop sign, and adds that OEP has no record of it, either. CP