Police are generally a protected class in our country. Justice is usually only reserved for the more blatant and egregious crimes they commit. Most of the time, they get a token slap on the wrist.
In Texas (and in probably every other state as well), they mostly get away with the car wrecks they cause. Here’s Houston’s KHOU:
It was supposed to be a routine drive to work for Tracy Greeno, but in her rear-view mirror, she spotted danger.
“I see him coming closer and I’m saying to myself, ‘Are they going to slow down? Are they going to slow down,’” said Greeno.
As seconds passed, the answer to her question was becoming eminently clear.
“We’re at a red light, are they going to slow down,” said Greeno. “They didn’t slow down.”
But it wasn’t just any careless driver who who rear-ended Greeno at a stop light, but an on-duty Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy. “He didn’t have any sirens on, there were no lights blinking, no emergency,” said Greeno.
The June 2011 accident at the intersection of Kuykendahl Rd. and Cypress Dr. was all captured on videotape from the dashboard camera in the patrol cruiser. And while accident investigators with the Harris County Sheriff’s Department found Deputy Ryan Musil at fault in the wreck, there was no ticket written up, no fine, not points in his license.
“It’s not right that they’re getting away with this, we get ticketed if it’s our fault,” said Greeno. “I mean that’s not right at all, and not only to me but to everyone else who has been in my situation.”
Daborah Howard was in the situation too.
“Doesn’t he see us, is he going to stop,” she recalled of the January 2012 accident.
According the crash report, Deputy Christopher Garza was in pursuit of a domestic abuse suspect at West Lake Houston Road and Lakeshore Landing, when he made an unprotected left turn.
Garza’s sheriff’s patrol car crashed into the side of Howard’s Buick sedan.
Howard: “I can remember flipping over and like, ‘Oh my God, you know, what happens next?”
I-Team: “Did you think you weren’t going to make it?”
Howard: “Yes I did.”
The I-Team told Howard that the at-fault deputy never received a ticket for his actions.
I-Team: “You don’t believe it?”
Howard: “No I don’t.”
I-Team: “Is that right?”
Howard: “No it’s not.”
Turns out, the I-Team found 546 accidents over the past three years in which deputies were at fault. In many, Sheriff’s investigators confirmed they violated traffic laws, such as running red lights, blowing through stop stops, speeding, or failing to yield the right of way. So we had some questions for Captain Darryl Coleman, who ran the Harris County Sheriff Traffic Enforcement Division for many years.
I-Team: “How often are they receiving citations, tickets?”
Capt. Coleman: “Citations? I would say none.”
Not a single ticket was written to a Deputy who caused a crash.
I-Team: “Why should they be treated differently?”
Capt. Coleman: “Well, I don’t think they’re treated differently.”
I-Team: “If you or I in our personal cars were to cause an accident we could be cited for that.”
Capt. Coleman: “Well, we have a discipline process here.”
But the I-Team examined the disciplinary records and 24% of all at-fault crashes between 2011 and the end of 2013 resulted in no discipline at all. As for the rest, 72% ended with a letter of reprimand–the lowest form of discipline.
And then there is the cost of it all. Joe Raska said an at-fault Sheriff accident wiped him out financially with nearly $50,000 in medical bills. It happened in January 2011 outside a Katy nightclub. Raska was waiting for some friends in the parking lot.
“Next think I know, I’m on the ground and I look back and I got a car parked on me,” Raska said.
Deputy William Dowdy had pulled into the parking lot to investigate a disturbance at the club, but records show he failed to put his patrol car in park. Deputy Dowdy ran over Raska, and not just once.
Raska: “The second time when he backed up, that’s when he got my left leg.”
I-Team: “He ran over you twice?”
Raska: “He got me twice.”
Deputy Dowdy got off with a one-day suspension..
“I was off for a year, and he got one day,” Raska said.
Disciplinary records show Deputy Dowdy went on to cause three more accidents, including one that totaled his patrol car. He is still behind the wheel today.
“There’s no accountability,” said attorney Joe Walker, who represented Raska in a lawsuit against Harris County. He said without real consequences, the reckless driving by deputies will go on.
”What’s the end result? It’s you can continue to do the same thing over and over again,” Walker said.
The accidents all carry a hefty price tag to taxpayers. Over the past three years, records show Harris County paid more than $1.8 million to repair damaged vehicles and to settle victims’ claims.
Captain Coleman said since January 2014, the Harris County Sheriff’s Department has implemented a stronger disciplinary matrix with stiffer penalties, up to a 14-day suspension for repeat offenders and egregious behavior behind the wheel.
All of the deputies named in this story declined to comment, according to a Sheriff’s Department spokesperson.
I understand when police are in a hurry to get to a scene of a crime or to pursue a suspect. But a lot of these cases have nothing to do with emergencies. They’re just driving recklessly, because they know they won’t be held personally liable for damages, and they won’t be ticketed, and their insurance won’t be affected. All the things that would happen to everyone else.