Last year 72 officers died as a result of vehicle accidents, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page website. That's double the number of cops killed by firearms.
Clearly, good driving skills are critical for officers who sometimes drive at very high speeds in pursuit of criminals. In the St. Louis area we've seen many fatal crashes in recent years that have killed police and civilians, some are blamed on civilians, others are the fault of the officer.
Traditionally, many police officers failed to get reinstructed behind the wheel once they graduated from the academy.
Our investigation found that the St. Louis Police Department blamed its officers for causing more than 1,100 accidents since 1990, but not a single one of the officers involved were ordered to get reinstructed behind the wheel.
The numbers are stunning, especially when you dig deeper.
In the mid 80s, St. Louis ordered officers to get reinstructed behind the wheel more than 100 times, some of them were reinstructed twice. You can see most of the officers and accidents involved in this database. sustained DARB 2 BIG LIST.xls
Former officer Charles Abernathy was reinstructed in 1984 and 1985. Since then he was blamed for causing another dozen accidents. He received brief suspensions for some of those mostly minor accidents. On his 14th at fault accident, which happened about two years ago, he received a three day suspension. Abernathy resigned from the police department last year. You can see the "sustained" accidents involving Abernathy and other officers in this smaller database. Sustained DARB 04-22-2008.xls
Police Chief Dan Isom (shown at left), who has been on the job for just three months, told me that the department track record on driver training is "not acceptable for our training practices." The Chief said "we have to do better."
Former Police Chief Joe Mokwa ordered a driving simulator for the department, which should arrive this month.
The simulator should help officers sharpen their skills, but many other departments still aren't taking the issue of driver training very seriously.
The Illinois State Police changed its pursuit policy after an officer raced 126 miles an hour and crashed into an oncoming car killing two teenage sisters, but it refused to change anything involving driver training. In fact, in 2008, the year after the deadly crash, Illinois State Police ordered only 1 trooper to get reinstructed in a vehicle. An ISP spokesman told me that the department is considering leasing simulators for a possible driver training program.
Police officers from several departments told me they haven't been instructed behind the wheel in decades.
Many officers are excellent drivers, and it seems unreasonable to expect them to never be involved in an accident, even if its their fault, but it also seems unreasonable to act like they don't need ongoing training in a controlled environment, especially when their lives, and our lives may depend on it.