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Editorial: APD’s crash stats will be an important safety tool

If civilians had a driving record like that of Albuquerque Police Department officer Johnathan McDonnell, they likely would have had points assessed on their driver’s license and maybe even lost it, had a hard time affording/getting auto insurance, and, if their jobs required a clean driving record, been fired. Then again, most civilians are not required to drive thousands of hours and tens of thousands of miles per year in traffic while rushing to crime scenes or chasing suspected bad guys. And they sure don’t have other taxpayers covering their insurance bills.

Nationwide, driving-related accidents are the leading cause of on-duty deaths for police officers, followed by firearms-related incidents, according to national studies and police advocacy groups. So when a police officer has been reprimanded at least six times in nine years for driving-related incidents and continues driving a police car, it raises some serious questions. Now the same officer has been involved in a tragic collision that injured a mother and daughter and killed their son/brother.

The city’s nine-member, city council-appointed Police Oversight Board, which receives monthly reports about police-involved crashes, said in a recent meeting they recognized there was a problem last year. Board members have been asking APD for more information for months.

The city’s Civilian Police Oversight Agency – which investigates civilian complaints against officers and other matters and reports to the Police Oversight Board – reported that from Feb. 26, 2016, to Jan. 1, 2017, Albuquerque police were involved in 300 car wrecks – nearly one a day. And 121 of those crashes were found to be “preventable,” meaning the officer did not take “every reasonable precaution to prevent the crash.”

This preliminary data raises questions about the frequency and kind of wrecks APD is involved in, the adequacy of academy and ongoing driver training for officers, whether there is any oversight of city operator permits (which all city employees who drive while on city business have to get), if officer-involved crashes are attached to individual’s licenses and reported to the Motor Vehicle Division, and how much the public is shelling out in claims because the department is self-insured.

And whether McDonnell’s driving record is an anomaly or APD has more vehicle crashes than other similar-sized police agencies.

Answers to some of those questions may soon be at hand. At the urging of the Police Oversight Board, APD began compiling – at least for public consumption – traffic records. It is expected to present its report at the board’s June meeting.

APD officers have a big job policing the state’s most populous city, especially because they are short around 150 sworn officers. And APD brass has a big job reforming the department under a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice after a federal investigation found it had a pattern and practice of violating civil rights with its use of force.

But getting from Point A to Point B safely also must be a priority for Albuquerque police. Officers who get in wrecks don’t get to scenes quickly; in the case of McDonnell’s last wreck, he didn’t get to the grocery store to apprehend a machete-wielding teen. He and the three people in the SUV his cruiser hit went to the hospital instead, and the little boy never recovered.

The goal should be to ensure sworn officers and civilians alike get home safe. That’s why it is so important to see what statistics APD comes up with, and where they take the department.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.