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A 34-foot skid mark is burned into the asphalt on Benning Road NE. It stops suddenly, just before the intersection of Benning and 18th Street. That’s where 43-year-old Dyane Edmonds-Anaya was struck by a Harley Davidson on the night of April 21. After the motorcycle hit her, it went crashing to the ground and slid about another
160 feet, wearing grooves into the road.
Edmonds-Anaya was two blocks from her house when she was hit. A little after 10 o’clock that night, she’d stepped off the curb to cross Benning Road. She’d made it all the way into the fourth lane of traffic, but no farther.
In gold paint, police investigators have outlined the skid mark and the spot where the motorcycle came to rest. Like the bike, Edmonds-Anaya’s body ended up tumbling to the other side of the intersection. Within the hour, the former D.C. school social worker was pronounced dead of “multiple blunt impact injuries” at D.C. General Hospital. In the hallway outside of the emergency room, police officers offered their condolences to her husband and son, both of whom had witnessed the accident.
In accidents involving mortal injuries, the driver is intentionally taken to a different hospital than the victimso that family members don’t happen across him. That night, the pilot of the bike went to Howard University Hospital, where he was treated for cuts and bruises and then released.
The driver would have been easy to spot because he was wearing a police uniform. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) traffic-enforcement officer James E. McCoy Jr. was returning his Harley Davidson to its storage site at the D.C. Armory when he hit Edmonds-Anaya.
Accounts of witnesses and police have been colliding ever since that night. The police say the officer was breaking no laws when he encountered Edmonds-Anaya, who was walking against the light and outside of a crosswalk. Witnesses say yes, Edmonds-Anaya was out of the crosswalk, but she had the light in her favor, and Officer McCoy was flying through that intersection at high speed. It’s a he-said, she-said debate, except one side is wearing a badge.
It’s not as if cops are out there heedlessly running over people they are sworn to protect. But while Edmonds-Anaya’s death is tragic, it is not entirely astonishing. D.C. police vehicles get into accidents at a rate higher than those of comparable departments across the country, according to department records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Washington City Paper.
The records indicate that about one out of every three of MPD’s 1,400 vehicles gets into an accident each year. (This figure does not take into account that some vehicles could be involved in more than one accident apiece.) From 1993 to 1996, MPD vehicles were involved in an average of 475 accidents a year. That’s roughly 1.3 accidents a day. During that same period, Detroit, a city with 215 more police cars on the road and 450 more officers, had an average of 313 accidents a yeara third fewer than D.C.
MPD’s accident rate of 34 percentroughly one in three cars banged up annuallyis also far higher than San Francisco’s rate of 16 percent and San Diego’s of 21 percent. Among the six cities surveyed by City Paper, only Dallas’ figure was close to D.C.’s abysmal accident rateand that number still came in two percentage points lower than MPD’s. Austin and Seattle also kept a much higher percentage of their vehicles out of the shop (see chart).
At accident scenes in the District, too many police cruisers take part in the action as opposed to the cleanup. In D.C., accidents involving police represent about 3 percent of all crashes; in Detroit, by contrast, police accidents account for just 1 percent of all traffic accidents each year.
As of late March, MPD’s maintenance division had registered about 92 accidents for 1998. Although the yearly accident figure has declined slightly over the last five years, the numbers still outpace those of comparable citiessuggesting that D.C. cops have trouble keeping their eyes on the road.
And behind the numbers, anecdotes tell the story you already know, just from walking and driving around MPD cops: Some of them are careful and conscientious drivers. Too many of them are sloppy and distracted. And some of them are just plain reckless, speeding and weaving on their way to what looks like no place in particular.
“There is large room for improvement for officers obeying the traffic laws,” says veteran MPD Sgt. Charles Burch of the 1st District. “Every officer in their routine patrol observes officers on a daily basis breaking some traffic law.”
Depending on whom you ask, the reasons for cops’ tendency to run into things, including citizens and their cars, range from shamefully inadequate training to morale and vehicles that are both in disrepair. And the aftermath of police crashes can add insult to injury. D.C. law and city government indifference deter victims of police accidents from pursuing their claims in court. When the guy in the other car carries a badge, the mysteries often go quietly away, unsolved and unquestioned.
Around 10 o’clock on the night Edmonds-Anaya was killed, Kim and her daughter went to the 7 Food Store on the corner to pick up some groceries. But as they walked out of the store, Kim’s daughter started yelling. “Look, mommy, look!” she said. Out in the intersection, Edmonds-Anaya was crossing the street with the light, Kim claims. But there was a motorcycle barreling straight toward Edmonds-Anaya as if she weren’t even there, says Kim, who asked that her last name not be used out of fear of police retribution.
“The man was going fast, maybe 60 or 70 miles an hour,” Kim says, eyes wide. “It didn’t make any sense.”
Kim is more angry than surprised by what she says she saw. “All the time, [the police] run red lights, without their siren on, without their lights on,” Kim says. “They’re reckless.”
Police descriptions of Edmonds-Anaya’s death read with surprising clarity, but tell a remarkably different story. In so many words, they suggest that she more or less threw herself under the wheels of that thousand-pound Harley. The accident report states that Edmonds-Anaya was crossing against traffic, outside the crosswalk. “Pedestrian…was in violation of posted sign indicating location of crosswalk,” reads the report. “Information obtained on the scene supports Driver…as having right of way with a solid green signal.” The department’s press release describes the same scenariothat Edmonds-Anaya “apparently ran into the intersection, outside the crosswalk and against the light, and collided with the motorcycle.”
The markings on the ground tell their own tale, one that makes the cops’ neat and tidy assessment difficult to digest. Greg Manning, an accident reconstructionist based in Edgewater, Md., has been studying skid marks for 25 years. A former Maryland state trooper, he has investigated more than 3,000 vehicle collisions in 27 states.
At City Paper’s request, Manning measured the markings on the ground at the accident site and plugged those numbers into established physics equations used by accident reconstructionists. (He has no connection to the case and was not paid for his services.) On the basis of those numbers, he believes that Officer McCoy was traveling at least 56 mph before he saw Edmonds-Anaya. That’s 26 mph over the 30 mph speed limit. Manning did not account for the exact weight of the motorcycle or Edmonds-Anaya’s weight, because neither is known with certainty. But if he had, he says his estimate of the officer’s speed would have been higher.
In his professional opinion, Manning says, “Had the officer been doing the speed limit, the woman would have made it. She’d be alive.” Based on the length of the skid mark before the motorcycle hit Edmonds-Anaya and the length of the bike’s slide after impact, Manning has calculated that McCoy had slowed to a speed of 49 mph by the time he hit Edmonds-Anaya. Had he been originally going the speed limit of 30 mph, he would have been able to slow down to 11 mph by that point, Manning says. When hit by a motorcycle at that speed, pedestrians “generally survive,” he says.
But had McCoy been going the speed limit, he probably wouldn’t have hit Edmonds-Anaya to begin with, Manning adds. Remember that Edmonds-Anaya made it all the way out to the fourth lane of traffic before she got hit. Even assuming she was trotting across the road at twice her normal gait, she had already been in the road for about 3.7 seconds before she was hit. The officer should have reacted sooner than he did, Manning says. And in any case, if he’d been going 30 mph, Edmonds-Anaya would have had more time to make it across the road to safety. “That means that had he been doing 30 mph, the pedestrian would have had an additional 3.19 seconds to clear his path and would have traveled an additional 29.7 feet,” Manning says.
From her vantage point at the curb, Edmonds-Anaya might have seen McCoy, Manning speculates, but assumed she had plenty of time to get across. When she stepped into the street, Officer McCoy was 303 feet away, according to Manning’s calculations. That’s longer than a football field. “But all of a sudden here’s a policeman doing 56 mph. And it changed the rules,” Manning theorizes.
McCoy, a 10-year veteran, has been involved in at least three other accidents since 1993, according to police records. By contrast, Sgt. Burch says he has been involved in just three accidents in all of his 28 years on the streets. But an MPD official says that while McCoy’s rate “may be a little higher than normal,” it may just mean McCoy is a hard worker. After all, the officers doing the most dogged work on any given shift are more likely to get into minor crashes than the ones on doughnut patrol at the 7-Eleven.
Of the 27 officers under Capt. Charles Moore’s command at the Traffic Enforcement Branch, only three have been designated Master Patrol Officers. McCoy is one of those threebearing a title reserved for “officers who have distinguished themselves through knowledge and skills required by the job. They set the example in leadership, demeanor, performance, initiative, responsibility, and maturity,” Moore says.
“McCoy is an excellent officer, well-chosen to be a Master Patrol Officer, well-chosen to be a motorcycle officer. I find him to be reliable, dependable, and efficient. He has my respect,” Moore says. Speaking only from his knowledge of McCoy and not from any knowledge of the accident investigation, Moore adds that he would be “surprised” if McCoy were traveling 26 mph over the speed limit the night Edmonds-Anaya was killed.
Moore will not comment on Manning’s findings at this time, except to say, “We’re certainly interested in your study, but we’ll be proceeding independently of that.” McCoy has not been suspended. He is currently at home, “recuperating from his injuries,” Moore says. McCoy did not return messages left in his department voice-mail box.
The D.C. Medical Examiner’s office has yet to finish the autopsy report on Edmonds-Anaya. A month after the crash, Donna Blackledge, Edmonds-Anaya’s sister, received a polite letter from the Crime Victims Compensation Program, informing her that she would not receive the money she had applied for to defray funeral costs. “The circumstances of your sister’s accident do not meet the eligibility requirements of the Program,” the letter states. Because the accident report characterized Edmonds-Anaya’s death as a traffic accident resulting from a pedestrian violationwalking outside of the crosswalk, and, according to the police, against trafficEdmonds-Anaya was not the victim of a crime, the letter explains.
MPD’s Traffic Enforcement Branch is conducting an investigation into the accident, as is standard procedure for all vehicular deaths involving police. Seven weeks after the fact, they’re still investigating, and MPD does not release any information on pending investigations. Time is on the department’s side. “We don’t have deadlines for investigations,” says MPD spokesperson Sgt. Joe Gentile. “It just takes a while for them to do their investigation. They’re very meticulous.”
Maybe. Maybe not. Manuel AnayaEdmonds-Anaya’s husband and a witness to the accidenthas yet to be contacted by the investigators, he says. At the hospital the night Edmonds-Anaya died, a police officer promised to come check on him the next morning. No one ever came, he says.
Anaya speaks very little English, but in Spanish he says that the police officer was traveling about 60 to 70 mph by his estimates. And he says Edmonds-Anaya had the green light in her favor.
“He was driving down the road too fast, and he was looking away,” Anaya says quietly. When the officer saw Edmonds-Anaya, it was too late. He braked and tried to swerve around her, but then plowed right into her, Anaya remembers. “When she saw him, she jumped out of the way. But he was going too fast.” The motorcycle pushed Edmonds-Anaya along the street before launching her into the air, he says.
Since the accident, Edmonds-Anaya’s family has splintered apart. Her teenage sons went to live with Blackledge in Maryland. Blackledge says she’s now fighting their biological father for custody. And Anaya has moved out of the apartment he and Edmonds-Anaya shared off Benning Road. He says he can’t live in a place that reminds him of his wife.
“They ruined a whole family. Her husband is one place, his stepchildren are in another placebecause she’s no longer there to keep them together,” says Blackledge, rage creeping into her voice. “If it was just a regular citizen behind the wheel, they’d be charged with manslaughter at least. But because you happen to have a badge, or you’re in a visible position, you go unscathed.”
Kim says the cops can say that Edmonds-Anaya just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but she knows what she saw. “That man hit her,” she avers. “He didn’t even have his siren on, and he killed her.”
As fatal police accidents go, Edmonds-Anaya’s death was exceptional: Officer McCoy was not responding to an emergency call, nor was he chasing a vehicle in hot pursuit. He was just drivingno siren, no flashing lights, no urgent matter down the road.
Most deadly police mishaps here and elsewhere spiral out of high-speed chases. D.C. was one of the last major jurisdictions in the country to adjust its chase guidelines with an eye toward fewer casualties. The change came after a string of brutal accidents involving police cars in pursuit: In 1991, six people were killed when caught in the path of D.C. police chases. In May, a woman and her 8-year-old nephew were killed by a man fleeing police in a stolen car. Five months later, a young pregnant woman and her 3-year-old daughter were killed when they collided with a police cruiser assisting in a stolen-car chase. And in December, two sisters were killed when their car was hit by a suspected drug dealer fleeing the police. The year before, five MPD officers had been seriously injured after their two patrol carsblazing to the same callsmashed into each other at a Southeast intersection. They had been racing to arrest a disorderly man and control a crowd.
Since the rules of engagement were changed in early 1992, MPD officers can now give chase only if they are pursuing suspected felons believed to be dangerous to public safety. And supervisors are required to evaluate their decision-making processes after the fact.
That’s not to say police chases can’t still create havoc. In 1995, a man fleeing D.C. police in a stolen car smashed into a funeral procession. And in 1996, four FBI agents were injured, one critically, after a car being chased by police crashed into their vehicle on 3rd and K Streets SE.
The vast majority of cop crashes are not that dramatic; they’re just bumbling. Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, has spent the last 15 years studying accidents involving police vehicles and says most are caused by vehicles backing into something.
Last month, two cop crashes occurred within three days on Capitol Hill. In one, an MPD officer T-boned a Capitol Police cruiser at 6th and D Streets SE, sending the Capitol Police officer to the hospital with a concussion, a separated shoulder, and a broken collarbone. Then two Federal Protective Services cars rammed into each other at 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
By and large, cops make mistakes for the same reason we all dothey’re not paying attention. The primary reason for careless cruising is indifferent managers, Alpert says. Cops pay attention if they’ve got supervisors back at the station waiting to bust them for every dent, every scratch, Alpert says. Then again, so many District squads are banged up from prior accidents that it’s hard to tell when a new ding appears.
While high-speed chase accidents seem to have been reined in, cops and civilians alike report that everyday negligence by police still thrives in D.C. The department may have restricted the number of chases, but it has done little to address the more fundamental problem of poorly trained officers who operate in a consequence-free vacuum.
When new recruits go through Driver’s Ed at the Police Academy, they are instructed to be role models for safe and careful driving. “They set the example for the rest of the community, and driving a car with a light bar on it does not exempt you from the rules of the road,” MPD Training Director Steven Cass says he tells his students. But that message seems to stay in the garage when many MPD officers pull out for a shift. Many cops treat District streets like their own private playground, ignoring basic regulations and exhibiting driving behavior that would land civilians in court.
“It’s more lax than aggressive,” says Officer J.V. Robinson Sr. of the 6th District to characterize his fellow officers’ driving. “We’re like cab drivers. You get mad, hot, and tired,” he concedes.
The exemptions start with the turn signal. Hell, you’re a cop, right? You know the rules, and you’re the judge and jury on how to drive. So you have earned discretion, to decide when a red light is worth obeying and when it’s not. To set your own speed limit, based on road conditions, traffic, your own impatienceanything but the arbitrary numbers posted on the sign. To pick and choose stop signs and red lights worthy of your respect. And why not? You won’t get busted, that’s for sure.
Sgt. Burch says he “verbally counsels” any officers he sees breaking traffic laws on the streets. And he thinks more supervisors should do the same. “It would behoove the police department to hold officers to a higher standard of obeying the traffic lawsbecause they enforce those laws, and it’s unfair for an officer to give a ticket for the same violation they commit.”
If that guy in the Honda Civic watches a police officer blow through a stop sign, there is no citizen complaint commission to call. There’s no “How’s My Driving?” 1-800 number on the patrol car’s bumper. And given the department’s reputation, few people have enough faith to ring up the cops directly. That lack of oversight allows police to drive the way we all wouldif there were no cops on the road.
When MPD Sgt. Steve O’Dell dared issue a traffic ticket to a fellow officer who ran a stop sign a couple of years ago, he learned a painful lesson about policing the police. After O’Dell refused to surrender the ticket to his commander, the 27-year police veteran faced retribution from all sides, receiving tardy slips he says were unwarranted and facing suggestions from his superiors that he transfer to another police district.
He should probably stay right where he is at the Traffic Enforcement Branch. Or maybe right outside of it. During a one-hour period on a recent Friday afternoon, at least seven police vehicles committed brazen violations of traffic laws on the busy streets surrounding the Traffic Enforcement Branch at 501 New York Ave. NW. What should be the exception is very clearly the rule: MPD cops on patrol are too often moving violators.
•12:45: A motorcycle cop made a left turn from 6th Street onto L Street with his right-turn signal flashing.
•12:50: Two police vans, one following the other, went the wrong way down a one-way streetturning from L Street onto 5th Street before pulling into the Traffic Branch parking lot. Neither van used turn signals at any point.
•12:55: Another motorcycle cop turned right out of the Traffic Branch and then, one block later, turned left on a red light onto 7th Street.
•1:15: After walking out of the Traffic Branch and getting into his illegally parked, unmarked MPD sedan, an officer turned left from 6th Street onto L Street with no turn signal.
•1:30: A police van turned right from New York Avenue onto 5th Street with no turn signal, after bellowing over its loudspeaker to the hesitating car in front of it to “get out of the way.”
•1:45: An officer in an MPD cruiser traveling on the 400 block of New York Avenue was not wearing her seat belt.
In front of the Traffic Branch, a rusty and dilapidated sign tallies the number of traffic deaths in the city. This year to date, the sign reports, 13 people have been killed, two of them pedestrians. It doesn’t mention that one of them was run over by a cop. The message “Please Drive Safely” is printed hopefully at the bottom of the sign.
“We’re human like everyone else,” says an MPD official who requested anonymity but who has been involved in traffic-enforcement and training programs for more than 15 years. “What you gotta understand is that we got a job to do. Most of us are probably aware that we are further scrutinized if we don’t use a turn signal or come to complete stop, but there are a lot of distractionstalking on the radio, looking for a suspect, going out on a call. There’s a multitude of reasons.”
True enough. Cops travel a lot of ground, sometimes under enormous stress. And even if they don’t have their lights whirling and sirens wailing, they may still be responding to a call.
But D.C. drivers know that cops are among the most slovenly drivers in a town full of them. For many reasons, the District is something of a capital for auto anarchy. The city’s dysfunctional history has whittled away at the credibility of the rules and at streetside civility. And disregard for traffic laws is only perpetuated by MPD’s lackadaisical enforcement. Not only don’t the cops play by the book, but they don’t set the bar very low for others, either. According to Capt. Moore at the Traffic Enforcement Branch, MPD officers issued 84,000 moving violations in 1997down 23 percent from 1995. Moore’s staffcharged with investigating all traffic deaths and critical injuries in the city, inspecting commercial trucks and buses, and running D.C.’s traffic schoolhas been cut by about 50 percent in the last few years, he says.
When homicide rates are a city’s hallmark, a vast array of driving offenses becomes just part of the landscape. Advisory neighborhood commissioner Anne Renshaw has made a hobby out of banging on the police to control the autobahnlike traffic in front of her house at 30th Street and Military Road NW. After a year and a half of complaining, she finally got a traffic light. Now she notices an epidemic of red-light running, she says, voicing a common complaint. “There’s been a great disregard for traffic regulation…within the last five years,” Renshaw says.
In a city where you can’t raise cops’ eyebrows by telling them your car has been stolen, it’s downright delusional to think they’d care about that one speeding down the road. Renshaw recently watched a car blow through a red light at an intersection near her house and then had to repeatedly wave at the cop lounging in his car behind her before he finally took off after the speedster.
Some MPD officers freely admit that D.C. police get in accidents far more frequently than they should. But they point their fingers upward, toward their supervisors. MPD’s deep and pervasive management failures leave officers to navigate through a culture of lawlessness and rock-bottom morale. Police vehicles cruise the streets without the repairs they badly require. Driver training essentially halts after officers leave the academy. And even if cops were driving week-old Mercedes and attending yearly grand-prix training conventions, it wouldn’t make up for the infectious disregard for detail that characterizes the entire department, from top to bottom.
At a March 30 hearing before the D.C. Council’s Special Committee on Police Misconduct and Personnel Management, MPD officials shared embarrassing stats on police training in the city. Training Director Cass reported that MPD maintains a training staff about one-third the size of most comparable police departments’. And there are just five people on the department’s vehicular training staff.
Officers in the field “are crying out for training. They want training,” Cass testified. But MPD is the only major police department in the nation where in-service trainingthat is, anything after the training that new recruits get at the academyis not mandatory. So when the budget shrinks, the department cuts training spending even more.
The average MPD cop has one workweek of driving training under his belt. At the academy, recruits spend 40 hours over five days in classrooms and behind the wheelmastering courses down at RFK Stadium and practicing with one of the department’s two “skid” cars, which recreate out-of-control driving scenarios. That’s an adequate amount of training for new recruits, Cass says. The problem is, that 40 hours is often a lifetime total.
After that, the vast majority of officers receive no further vehicular trainingeven if they get into recurring accidents, Cass says. He estimates that in the past couple of years, only a “very small percentage” of MPD officers have received any in-service training, when bad habits can be addressed. Not that Cass likes it that way. “We should get everybody back who’s had an accident and try to tailor some training to that accident,” he says. Whether or not the retraining sticks, sending officers back to school serves as a disincentive in and of itselfor it used to, anyway, says Sgt. Burch of the 1st District. “No officer wants to go though that,” Burch says.
Cass points out that D.C.’s streets are difficult to navigatepacking a lot of dense traffic into very few square miles, kinked by strange intersections, circles, and tunnels. But he does believe training has an impact on police accidents. “I believe that we have a lot of people who are not at a [driving] level that I would like to see them be at. I think training would go a long way to help that,” he says.
But if the training division is already sorely understaffed, the department may want to think about buying bumper cars for its next batch of squads. Cass said his budget for 1998 was slashed by more than 50 percentleaving him with a mere $500,000, down from $1.2 million.
In the case of Edmonds-Anaya’s death, training may not have been the driving issue. The department’s 40 motorcycles fall under the purview of MPD’s Special Operations Division, which handles presidential motorcades and other executive-protection duties. Inspector Michael Radzilowski, the commander of Special Operations, insists that his “motormen” are handpicked and thoroughly trained. Motorcycle cops go through four weeksor about 160 hoursof training, he says. They practice in parking lots and then in traffic. And they have to pass a demanding final course before they can get their bikes. “Most people fail the course,” Radzilowski says. Motorcycle officers also get a one-day refresher course each spring when the sidecars are removed from the motorcycles. “We probably have the finest motor unit in the country, even though the police department has problems,” he says.
Better training may do part of the job, but officials say that many police accidents have little to do with skills or the lack thereof. “The majority of accidents are caused by not paying attention,” Cass adds. And systemic inattention is hard to reduce through training, no matter how much you do.
But even the officers who know how to drive are too often wrestling with cars so crippled that Richard Petty couldn’t keep them out of a ditch. “In a lot of cases, it’s not the officers; it’s the equipment,” says public safety activist and former FBI agent Carl Rowan Jr. Testifying before the D.C. Council committee on June 1, MPD fleet management head Robert Rose said he was short six mechanics. And he said he would need about 200 new cars a year for the next five years to bring the fleet up to date.
“Officers are very reluctant to take cars down to the shop, because the shop is understaffed and underequipped. The employees that are there are good, but underpaid,” says the MPD official. “Chances are, if you need new tires, there are no new tires available. You’re forced to drive on bald tires or park the car.”
Many officers perpetuate the problem by neglecting their vehicles, according to both Rowan and the MPD official. Because only a select few MPD officers can take their cars home with them, most don’t really care what happens to the cars. “In departments where people have take-home cruisers, there’s more pride in the cars,” Rowan says. But in D.C., “Most cars will run three tours of duty with three different drivers each day. You pay a lot less attention to whether you’re going to hit that curb or take that corner too tightly when it’s not your car….If it gets broken, let the next guy take care of it.”
Motorcycles get better repair because they go to their own shop, Radzilowski says. And motorcycle cops tend to take better care of their vehicles because they’re the only ones who drive them. But a recent crackdown on taking vehicles home has affected the motorcycle division as well. Officers used to be able to take their bikes home if they had a garage to store them in. “Now I got $20,000 machines rusting out in the rain,” Radzilowski gripes.
Pinching pennies in training and maintenance is a false economy in the long run. An MPD official says traffic accidents involving cops represent “the most frequent and most expensive causes of lawsuits” against the police. But because MPDlike most large police departmentsis self-insured, data on the costs of cop accidents are hard to come by, according to Lauren Eib of the Public Risk Management Association in Arlington. “Self-insured means decentralized,” Eib says. “They’re not insurance companies, and so they don’t collect data like insurance companies.”
Even basic analysis of accidents involving police is scattered and meager in D.C. “Where you get information is from a department that keeps good information and isn’t scared to show it to you,” Alpert says, explaining the invariable Catch-22 in gathering data from government agencies: If they have everything you want to know, you probably don’t want to know.
MPD released basic accident figures to City Paper, but unlike departments in other cities, D.C. police claim to have no detailed, comprehensive analysis of the causes and costs of police accidents. And while higher-ups acknowledge room for improvement, they seem unsure about the extent of the problem or its significance. “Some of our officers are 21 years old and have only been driving for a short period,” says Capt. Moore of the Traffic Enforcement Branch. “Our training is not what it could be. So yes, some people’s driving is wanting. But for me to categorize the driving of the Metropolitan Police Department in one sentence would not give you a meaningful statement,” he adds.
Aside from training problems, equipment shortages, and a lack of accountability, Rowan and others ultimately point to cops’ desperate morale as a core reason for traffic accidents. “In far too many cases, there’s just a general sloppiness in the way business gets conducted,” Rowan says. “That comes from a lack of pride and a lack of professionalism.”
After Edmonds-Anaya’s death, her sister Donna Blackledge asked around for the name of a top auto-accident lawyer in town. She called the law firm of Greenberg & Bederman, located in Silver Spring, but a lawyer there told her that she didn’t have a strong enough case for him to pursue, she says.
Roger Greenberg, a partner in the firm who has been litigating personal injury cases in this area for 25 years, will not comment on the specifics of Edmonds-Anaya’s case. But in more general terms, he says cases like hers are costly and rarely productive. Unlike the majority of states, D.C. has a contributory negligence law for auto accident cases. If victims are even 1 percent negligent, they usually cannot recover any damages, Greenberg says. In other words, even if a lawyer could prove that the officer ran a red light and was speeding when he hit Edmonds-Anaya, her family would most likely still lose the case because Edmonds-Anaya was not crossing in a crosswalk. Add in the fact that Edmonds-Anaya was known to drink now and again, and a jury award for damages becomes an even dimmer prospect. (No one has suggested that Edmonds-Anaya was drinking on the night of her death.)
The contributory negligence standard baffles potential plaintiffs. “[It] is really scary,” Greenberg says. “People don’t like it. They don’t understand it.”
The courts are generally quite forgiving of police officers who crash in the line of duty. Just last month, for example, the Supreme Court affirmed that the threshold is sky-high for lawsuits against police involved in high-speed pursuitsruling that police cannot be held responsible for injuries caused by chases unless their actions are so egregious that they “shock the conscience.”
The other disincentive for filing such a case is the city itself, Greenberg says. He practices law in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. But he says no city governments are as aloof as the District’s. “My experience with the District is that any claim made against the D.C. government is going to go to litigation….It’s like punching a marshmallow trying to get them even to respond to you.” That means a lot of time and moneyfor both sides.
“It’s nuts to me,” Greenberg says of D.C.’s unresponsiveness. “I think they could save a tremendous amount of money on claims if they investigated early without having to get their attorneys involved.” So unless the case is a sure thing, promising significant damages, Greenberg says he will not take on D.C.
Other personal injury lawyers report similar frustrations with the city. “D.C. doesn’t have enough money to settle personal injury cases, so they don’t pay attention until the last possible moment,” says Eric May, an attorney in town for the last 25 years. “[The police] sort of circle the wagons and adopt an us-vs.-them mentality when it comes to an injured member of the public,” says Patrick M. Regan, a D.C. attorney who has represented victims of police accidents.
“The real story is how many valid claims aren’t made because of how difficult it is,” Greenberg says. “That’s the scary thingto have to say to a client, ‘Yeah, you have a great case, and I can’t make it.’”
Anaya’s boss gave him the number of a lawyer to call, but Anaya says he’s not sure if he’ll pursue the case. He says he’s trying to move on from his loss. “Well, the police, they have the law behind them. They can do what they want to do,” Anaya says. He looks small and tired, sweating in the sun after a day at the lumberyard where he works. He does not look ready to relive the crash nor to take on the police and the courts.
Acceptance does not constitute forgiveness, though. “They’ll put you in prison for killing
a dog,” Anaya says, shaking his head. “This was