Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pulitzer Prizes, police officers speeding, and how automobility shapes police attitudes towards sustainable modes

The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism, for their series of articles on how off-duty police officers drive incredibly fast, which is unsafe, dangerous, etc.

Caption: Florida’s Turnpike is popular with police officers driving in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, often to and from work. As emergency vehicles, they don¿t pay tolls. The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel used transponder data from area toll roads to analyze driving behavior of area police officers.

"The newspaper launched its three-month investigation after an off-duty Miami police officer was pulled over by a Florida state trooper for driving 120 mph in the fall of 2011"

... which reminds me of how a Montgomery County police officer driving 60+ mph killed a pedestrian and nothing happened to the officer (see this 2008 article from the Gazette, "Officer was speeding when he hit Clarksburg boy, report says").

In Florida, the second article in the series focused on victims of off-duty police officers speeding--21 people killed or maimed by accidents since 2004.  And the third piece focused on "police culture" and how in accident investigations, police officers were given special considerations.

From the S-S article "South Florida Sun Sentinel wins Pulitzer":

The resulting series, Above the Law: Speeding Cops, broke new ground in database journalism and had an immediate and lasting impact on the community.

Sun Sentinel investigative reporter Sally Kestin and database specialist John Maines, working with investigative team editor John Dahlburg, used data collected from SunPass toll booths to calculate the officers' speed.

The three-part series was published in February, revealing the shocking behavior of law enforcement officers behind the wheel. The reporters found nearly 800 officers who reached speeds of 90-130 mph, many of them while off duty. The accidents caused by officers driving at high speeds had caused at least 320 crashes since 2004, killing or maiming 21 people.

As a direct result of the Sun Sentinel's investigation, scores of officers were disciplined, suspended and, in the case of the Miami officer whose speeding sparked the project, fired. Cities throughout South Florida instituted new ways of tracking their police activity as a result of the series. The database was so innovative that two law enforcement agencies sent investigators to the newsroom to learn how to replicate it.

I think the issue raised by the series is two-fold.

First, is the sense of entitlement on the part of some police officers to break traffic laws more generally--not just speeding.  (I once admonished a guy with a Maryland FOP license plate for dropping litter on a DC street, so I presume the sense of being above the law pertains to more than just traffic laws.  And a retired police officer whose turn across the bike lane led to my flipping my bike because I braked so abruptly didn't care at all when I challenged him.  He said "I break the law all the time, I'm a retired police officer.)

Second, I believe that driving entitlement and the fact that police officers mostly drive shapes their attitudes towards pedestrians and bicyclists in favor of other automobile drivers, especially in accident investigation.

Generally, the motor vehicle operator--unless they are impaired (drunk or on drugs)--is given the benefit of the doubt in accident investigation over bicyclists and pedestrians.  In NYC, this has been recognized more recently as a problem, and the Police Department is upgrading its procedures (see "City Council Looks at Police Investigations Into Deaths of Bicyclists" and "After Criticism, Police Change Policy and Begin Investigating More" from the New York Times).

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