The reaction was familiar when Police Oversight Board members were told at their April meeting how many times Albuquerque police officers had crashed their cars the previous month.
“Sixty-six vehicle crashes,” board member David Ring said while raising his hands in a sign of exasperation. “Preventable or not preventable, can’t we train our officers to be better drivers?”
Even before last month’s tragic officer-involved collision, members of Albuquerque’s police oversight group had been raising concerns during public meetings about what some on the board perceive to be a high number of wrecks involving police.
Board member Leonard Waites said the concerns have been raised for about eight months.
He said those concerns were amplified last month after officer Johnathan McDonnell, who had been disciplined at least six times in the last nine years for driving-related incidents, was in a collision involving an SUV occupied by the Suina family at a northeast Albuquerque intersection while responding to a 911 call.
Joel Anthony Suina, 6, died as a result of the crash, and his 9-year-old sister, Ariana, had broken bones and needed surgery. The officer also received severe injuries to his legs and required hospitalization.
“When that happened, it really tore me apart. I knew eventually that something bad was going to happen. I had that gut feeling,” Waites said. “It troubled me, and it bothered me quite a bit. Because I knew there was an issue there and had been probing them for a long time about the data that they were publishing.”
Seeking more info
As part of the Police Oversight Board’s monthly meetings, board members are told how many times Albuquerque Police Department officers were involved in vehicle crashes during the previous month.
And for several months, board members have asked for more information from police about the wrecks.
They want to know whether some officers are involved in a high number of crashes compared to others, and how APD crash statistics compare to similarly sized agencies, said Joanne Fine, the chairwoman of the POB.
“We’re looking for trends,” she said. “We don’t know if there are 5 or 10 or 100 police officers that have consistently (shown) the same problem.”
In response to the board’s concerns, Celina Espinoza, an Albuquerque police spokeswoman, said the department is close to completing an analysis of its vehicle crashes. Police officials are expected to make a presentation on the topic to the board during its June meeting.
As part of a separate review of police drug testing compliance, the Civilian Police Oversight Agency reported that, from Feb. 26, 2016, to Jan. 1, 2017, Albuquerque police were involved in 300 car wrecks, and 121 were preventable. The agency investigates civilian complaints against officers and other matters and reports to the POB.
“I noticed about eight months ago there was an issue. (The police) really thought I was just asking about it in jest, but the data told us there was an issue,” Waites said. “When you’re having more than 30 crashes in a month, you have a problem.”
It’s unclear whether Albuquerque’s crash record is higher than other local emergency and public safety agencies. A spokeswoman for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office said data on deputy-involved crashes would be made available only after a formal records request, and officials from the Albuquerque Fire Department couldn’t be reached on Friday to discuss how often firefighters are involved in on-duty wrecks.
Cause of officer deaths
Nationwide, driving-related accidents are the leading cause of on-duty deaths for police officers throughout the country this year, according to national studies and police advocacy groups.
The Officer Down Memorial Fund’s website states that 21 officers have died in traffic crashes so far this year, while 15 officers have died from firearms-related incidents.
A report by the National Safety Council found that between 2004 and 2006, law enforcement officers nationwide were involved in more than 27,000 wrecks per year on average.
The report also found that police are more than three times as likely to be in car crashes than firefighters and paramedics, which the report attributed to officers spending significantly more time behind the wheel than other first responders.
APD safety board
Espinoza said all crashes involving police officers, no matter how minor, are reviewed by the department’s Safety Review Board. The board works to determine if a wreck was preventable or non-preventable, which means the driver used “every reasonable precaution to prevent the crash.”
The board sends recommendations up the chain of command, and the chief considers an officer’s history and other factors when handing down discipline, Espinoza said.
In McDonnell’s case, records obtained by the Journal indicate that discipline did escalate as the officer became involved in additional traffic-related incidents. His history includes five preventable crashes and an unauthorized pursuit.
McDonnell was hired by APD in 2008.
Disciplinary records show that the next year, in November 2009, he was involved in a collision in the parking lot of the Foothills Substation. In October 2012, McDonnell was pulling over to help with a possible felony stop on Central and 55th NW when he struck a vehicle in the next lane. And in August 2014, he was traveling south through an intersection on Coors NW when he struck a stop sign.
In all three cases he received letters of reprimand.
In June 2015, McDonnell received an eight-hour suspension for violating standard operating procedures related to a preventable crash, although it was unclear when that crash occurred.
In February 2016, McDonnell rear-ended a police cruiser as it slowed to make a U-turn on Mountain NW. This was determined to be his “second preventable crash within a 12-month period,” and he was disciplined with another eight-hour suspension.
Then, in June 2016, McDonnell was “involved in an unauthorized pursuit.” No other details were available about the pursuit, but he was disciplined with 28 hours of suspension.
Ten months later, he was involved in the fatal accident at Eubank and Indian School NE. He was responding to a call of an armed man at a nearby grocery store when his cruiser collided with the Suina car, which was turning left onto Indian School from Eubank. The vehicles collided in the intersection.
The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office is leading the investigation, and sheriff’s deputies have declined to comment on the case until their work is completed.