FOX 29 Investigates: Crashes involving Philadelphia police officers

- Crashes involving Philadelphia police officers while responding to emergencies or calls for help happens more often than you think.

Our FOX 29 Investigates report crunches the numbers on those crashes and how it's costing city taxpayers millions of dollars.

As Dave Schratwieser reports in some cases those crashes can cause injuries to police and the public. They can even cost a life.  

"He was just great. He was just a great man to be around for the life, really fun," Ivory Worrell told FOX 29.

Those are the memories Ivory Worrell has of her brother Curtis, a hard working father of three, who lost his life in a violent crash with a police vehicle one month ago. 

"My family is torn, we're broken hearted. At this point, the man who did a lot of things in our lives, he's no longer here," she said. "No one has reached out to me or my family about the situation. I feel like someone should and take responsibility for what happened."

Worrell headed to the store on his motorcycle September 3rd, approaching Wister and Chelten. As he went through the intersection, he and a police SUV collided. He was thrown from his bike and killed. Police claim the officers were responding to an officer assist call and had the green light. The Worrell family disagrees.

"The video tape shows that the officer went against the red light. We also have multiple witnesses who have testified and come forward and said there was no siren on at the time," says attorney Donte Mills.

The death of Curtis Worrell is just the latest police crash causing concern in the police department. Information obtained by FOX 29 Investigates shows that in the last 26 months more than 1,000 police vehicles have been damaged or involved in accidents, costing taxpayers millions.

"In all of these accidents, keep in mind, they're not necessarily the fault of police officers. We certainly have our share," said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross. 

"You got a shortage of personnel so you're trying to get to help another officer quicker. You're traveling further," FOP President John McNesby added.

Two weeks ago, a police SUV on its way to a call collided with this car at Frankford and Cheltenham in the Northeast. Two officers were hurt along with the driver and passenger in the car. 

"We're concerned about everybody involved, police and community," Commissioner Ross explained..

FOX 29 cameras found almost two dozen cars at the city's auto body repair shop last week in South Philly. Others were being repaired at private shops.

"We have an obligation both to the public and ourselves to make sure we respond to assignments safely," Ross added.

Our investigation showed in fiscal year 2015, there were 315 police cars damaged or involved in accidents, costing over $750,000 for repairs. That number jumped to 552  in fiscal year 2016, almost a third of the department's fleet of 1,600 cars. The cost  was $1.4 million for repairs. And in this fiscal year, which started July first, there are 143 cars needing repair.

"We're out there, we're crashing them up. It's a dangerous time, especially at night. During the summertime, we're flying all around the city. We have to be more precautious," McNesby said..

Documents obtained by FOX 29 Investigates show that since 2011, the city has also paid out close to $20 million for damages to cars and property belonging to civilians involved in those police accidents. 

"I'd like to have that $20 million to put in officers pockets for wage increases, for health benefits, for better pensions," McNesby said.

"We have a responsibility to the city and the people who pay taxes here to make sure we drive this down as much as we can," the commissioner said. 

Police accidents have become such a financial concern within the police department that the topic is now discussed at the department's weekly CompStat meeting. 

"You don't want anybody to be killed from these or injured and so we're very concerned about it," Ross added.

Many of the police accidents occur at intersections. Police policy requires officers to use lights and sirens when approaching intersections, but the policy does not require officers to come to a full stop before crossing an intersection against a light or stop sign. 

According to the commissioner, "Our policy does strongly suggest that you do that though when you have the option. We don't mandate it." 

"I don't think the policy has to be changed. I's just the officers have to abide by it," Mills countered. 

McNesby says, "It's called the policy of common sense. If you come to an intersection you want to stop, look both ways and then proceed. You can't help if you can't get there."  

The city fire department also requires lights and sirens when crossing an intersection against traffic, but ambulance and fire truck drivers are required to stop before proceeding through an intersection. Sources say that policy cut accidents and damages at the fire department. 

"Sometimes we don't have that luxury. We're flying in on gunshots, we're flying in on priority calls.  People screaming, screaming for backup," McNesby said.

"If the cops aren't getting there then what's the point of them speeding, right?" Ivory Worrell questioned.

Police officers involved in accidents are investigated by police accident investigators. Officers can be disciplined and barred from driving depending on investigators' findings. 

"Our officers are retrained after their time is up on the accident, they get a non driving status, then they go back up for training," according to McNesby. 

"There are many that are avoidable and those are the ones we have to work on," Ross said.

Training becomes the key issue when you look at the numbers and you look at the impact," said Worrell family attorney Lennon Edwards. 

All this still leaves the Worrell family with unanswered questions about the accident that took Curtis Worrell's life and why officers are involved in so many police crashes.

"Just basic things, the basic precautions would stop things like fatalities from happening. Just basic things like having a siren on so we can hear you coming," Ivory Worrell said. 

Lennon added, "Something's gone wrong, this is a perfect storm and something has to be done about it before it impacts more people."

"We're out there to help the community, but we can't help if you can't get there," McNesby said. 

Finally, the commissioner added, "We can do better. We need to do better for the safety of all concerned."

The commissioner says more police officers lose their lives in crashes than by gunfire nationwide. He wants to do everything possible to end that. He and McNesby have successfully lobbied for more money to update the department's fleet. The average age of police vehicles is now about three and half years. The crash involving police and Curtis Worrell is still under investigation.

 

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