Repeat crashes prompt calls for IMPD policy change
Sandra Chapman/13 Investigates
Indianapolis - Officer David Bisard had six minor accidents in eight years before the fatal alleged drunk driving crash in August. It's raised numerous questions about the department's policies for collisions.
13 Investigates uncovers the disturbing number of repeat accidents involving police, and what the city's top cop calls a failure. It's now prompting a driving force for change.
The family of 20-year-old Amber Raines cherishes a smiling photo taken of her just two hours before Officer Erin Ringham crashed her police cruiser into the young mother as she crossed the middle of Keystone Avenue. It was New Year's Eve 2008.
"All they was worried about was the police car," said Amber's grieving mother, Gigit Mullarkey, as she recounted the night her daughter was killed.
"It's not right. It's just not right," added Amber's outspoken Aunt Dianna Raines. "I mean, she's got two kids that will never ever know her, to have their mother reach out and touch them or to say 'I love you'," Raines said, with tears streaming down her face.
Until now, Amber's mother and aunt didn't know there was a secret tucked in Officer Ringham's work file.
The rookie officer had wrecked her squad car three other times that same year in June, July and August.
13 Investigates asked the women, "Were you guys aware that she had had these other accidents?"
"No!" they replied.
The night Amber was killed, the officer was running dark to back up a suspected robbery in progress. No lights, no sirens. And, as it turned out, no robbery.
"Somebody throwing a flower pot through a window. It was not a homicide. It was not a robbery in progress, it was none of that. So why the high rate of speed? There was no way of knowing she was coming," the aunt explained.
The accident was ruled non-preventable. There was no discipline for Officer Ringham.
"Is there not a red light on somewhere? How many more accidents does she have to have?" Raines questioned.
Running off the road and hitting mailboxes is nothing new for Officer David Dinsmore, arrested days ago for driving while impaired.
"I hope nobody wearing a badge is out there doing that kind of thing," said Lt. Nick Schiavarelli, the lead Emergency Vehicle Operations Instructor at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in Plainfield.
13 Investigates found Officer Dinsmore has racked up damages to his squad cars over the same time he admits to taking the powerful painkiller OxyContin.
There were six incidents in all. He blames one on a hit and run, another a side-swipe.
Despite a letter of caution in his file for a preventable accident in 2005, he only got a one-day suspension last year for violating a general order involving crashes. No one took his keys until his arrest.
"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. Schiavarelli, who trains IMPD's driving instructors and entire departments across the state on proper emergency driving techniques.
13 Investigates and its cameras went inside a local test course, where there's little room for failure. Each cone outlining the course represents a curb, a pole, a car or worse yet, a pedestrian.
"You make one mistake out there it could be your final mistake. And if it's not yours it's going to be a citizens," explained Schiavarelli, driving home the importance of the training.
The odds are, most road officers will get tangled up a time or two. But 13 Investigates has found some disturbing numbers at IMPD.
Over a two and a half year period, IMPD reported more than 13-hundred accidents at an estimated cost of almost $2.5 million dollars. That's just for repairs. The city estimates another $700-thousand dollars in cost for totaled vehicles.
Under IMPD policy, each accident must be reported immediately and investigated by an accident review board. Up to ten points are issued if the accident is ruled "preventable," but only points from the prior two years count if an officer is facing discipline for a new crash.
4 to 6 points require a refresher course.
7 to 9 points require a refresher course and a written reprimand
10 to 14 points get a one-day suspension plus remedial training
15 or more prompt a two-day suspension
At IMPD vehicles can't be taken away as discipline.
Each Indiana police department sets its own rules.
Lt. Schiavarelli says action needs to be taken. "Either retrain them or maybe you have to dismiss them. I have seen recently a department last year release an officer because of too many accidents," he said.
But 13 Investigates found repeat "wreckers" at IMPD who just keep on driving.
Among the top 10:
A three-year officer with seven accidents, five of them just this year. But no discipline.
There are four officers with six accidents like David Dinsmore. One was seriously injured when he crashed his cruiser into a pole for an unknown reason in June. Again, there was no discipline.
Another officer has nine traffic tickets and was disciplined, but on records obtained by 13 Investigates, the city blacked out the reasons why.
Three officers have been tagged with five accidents, including Courtney Harris who was arrested for sexual misconduct this year, and resigned under fire. He was also disciplined for damaging department equipment. Another officer with five accidents and two traffic tickets, was disciplined twice, but again the city is withholding the reasons why.
Officer Erin Ringham has four accidents including the fatal crash that killed Amber Raines.
18 other officers also have four accidents.
"I just don't think the system's right at all," said Dianna Raines reacting to the numbers.
We took our findings to Public Safety Director Frank Straub and IMPD Chief Paul Ciesielski.
"These officers have had anywhere from five to seven accidents in just two years. Is that excessive?" asked 13 Investigates.
"I would think that it is. Yes. And that's something that hasn't really been reviewed before," responded Chief Ciesielski.
"I think it's unacceptable," added Director Straub.
The chief believes part of the problem is commanders who hand out discipline don't always know an officer's history of abuses behind the wheel.
"I think that's our failure right now we need to improve. Someone knows at the accident review board. So how easy is it to access those records?" questioned Ciesielski.
Now the department's accident policies and point systems are part of a driving force for change.
The bottom line, according to Schiavarelli, "You just can't go out there like the wild wild west and turn on lights and sirens and go full throttle where you're going."
Last year, Indiana lawmakers for the first time mandated annual emergency vehicle operations training for all police officers. IMPD started its road tests back in the spring.
Right now, police cars cannot be taken away from accident prone officers. But the city is looking to change that and other ways to tighten its crash policy.