IMPD approves funding to better track crashes involving officers

Deputy Chief Valerie Cunningham, IMPD
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Sandra Chapman/13 Investigates 

Indianapolis - Mayor Greg Ballard and his top public safety officials are taking action in response to a 13 Investigates report. They're trying to detect officers with troubling crash histories before it's too late.

13 Investigates breaks down the cost to taxpayers as IMPD weighs in on tracking and ticketing police officers.

In-dash police video released by Public Safety officials in Kalamazoo, Michigan, captured the final seconds before a high speed crash between two police vehicles. The officers were racing to the scene of a break-in when the lead officer suddenly hit the brakes and made an abrupt "U-turn" smack in the path of another officer.

We showed the video to Deputy Chief Valerie Cunningham, who oversees professional standards and discipline at IMPD.

"A crash like that would be evaluated and if an officer has a problem, mediation and retraining is the answer," said Cunningham, after grimacing at the impact of the collision.

Kalamazoo Police took a rare step. They gave a ticket to their own officer for unsafe driving on the job. But here in Indianapolis, tickets are for motorists, not police officers who crash their cruisers - even if it is the officer's fault.

"Internal sanctions and internal discipline would probably be more harsh and more effective to remediate an officer's action than to just having them pay a fine," explained Cunningham, who balked at the idea of ticketing working police officers.

"I understand the public's concern that officers perhaps aren't receiving a ticket like they would receive. However, I assure you they're held to a higher standard in their driving behavior," she added.

Last November, 13 Investigates found officers with a history of crashes still getting behind the wheel.

Over a two-and-a-half-year period, IMPD officers were involved in more than 1,300 accidents.

Taxpayers ended up covering the cost for $838,000 in repairs. The remaining costs were paid by the insurance companies of at-fault drivers.

Nine officers had five or more crashes each. One in four of those crashes was ruled preventable.

"I think it's unacceptable," Public Safety Director Frank Straub told 13 Investigates after we shared our findings.

State training experts say repeat crashes should warn supervisors about officers on the brink of trouble.

"If you've got someone out there who's constantly wrecking cars, or injuring people in accidents, there's a liability issue there," said Lt. Nick Schiavarelli, a driving instructor at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in Plainfield.

IMPD Officer David Dinsmore was found passed out in his police cruiser after hitting a mailbox. Moments prior, a driver captured this video of a police car swerving on I-465.

Dinsmore admitted taking the powerful narcotic OxyContin prior to an accident that same night. As a matter of fact, he admitted to using the drug for five years on the job.

During that same time, 13 Investigates discovered Dinsmore had repeat accidents - information IMPD was oblivious to until 13 Investigates started asking questions.

Dinsmore was charged with driving while impaired, and is now suspended pending termination.

"We realize we have issues here...recognizing driving record and matching that to conduct to make sure sanctions were imposed," admitted Deputy Chief Cunningham.

She said Dinsmore went undetected because IMPD does not include crash history in its discipline tracking system, leaving supervisors blind to possible ongoing problems behind the wheel.

"There were no specific disciplinary flags," Cunningham explained. "The accident records were in a separate repository, so until we were asked to go back and dig for it, it wasn't available," she said.

So how are police departments of similar size to Indianapolis keeping a handle on officer driving records?

Ticketing their own officers

13 Investigates requested data from 180 miles away in Columbus, Ohio from a department that's slightly larger, with 1,800 sworn officers.

"Anytime you have an accident involving 1 officer or 900, yeah, we're going to take a look at it," said Sgt. Rich Weiner, a spokesman for the Columbus Police Department.

In Columbus, 13 Investigates found just over 900 police accidents over three years.

That's 68 percent fewer accidents than at IMPD.

Columbus also had half the number of officers involved in five or more accidents.

"That's concerning, I don't know if you want to say that it's excessive, but anytime you see a pattern with officers. We want to take corrective actions," said Weiner reacting to the numbers.

Overall, more than 50 percent of the accidents at the Columbus Police Department were not the officer's fault. But more than 100 officers were ticketed by their own department with fines up to $120.

The city's fleet committee tracks it all with a computer grid that shows everything from the date of the accident, to what if any discipline, to when the accident record was sent to the officer's personnel file.

"We're able to track what our officers are doing and how they're driving," said Weiner, "I don't know if we're aggressive in this compared to other agencies, but it's a system that works for us," he added.

As a result of our investigation, IMPD is now looking at state of the art software to keep a close eye on officers who repeatedly crash their cruisers.

"This made the A-list. The director, the mayor, the controller and of course the chief have approved the purchase of this software," Cunningham confirmed.

The $50,000 upgrade could help IMPD put the brakes on crashed cars and rebuild its reputation on the road.

"Basically if you can predict something might occur, then you have the opportunity to stop it," Cunningham told 13 Investigates. She says the department is hoping to "Look for these flags and try to grab them, to grab these officers before an incident."

IMPD plans to select a system by June 1st. Then the tedious work of entering thousands of crash histories will get underway.

The department is also expecting an audit and recommendations from PERF, the Police Executive Research Forum, to help devise new crash policies.

Officer Dinsmore's next court date is March 8. Meanwhile, Officer Matthew Elam, who was indicted for official misconduct by a grand jury that said he failed to disclose an accident in his cruiser and had a private garage make repairs, is now seeking to get his charges dismissed. Elam's attorney called the misconduct charges vague and a violation of his constitutional rights. Elam goes to court March 24.