Police Protection: Speeding While Silent

HPD policies governing lights, high speeds and sirens are supposedly there to safeguard the public. Tell that to Mattie Etubom.

To help illustrate the dangers posed by driving at high speeds, a Houston Police Academy lesson plan on driving safety states the following: A 4,200-lb. vehicle — the approximate weight of a Ford Crown Victoria patrol car — traveling 55 miles per hour has 423,500 foot-pounds of kinetic energy to burn before it can be brought to a stop. This much energy can throw a four-ton elephant 53 feet into the air.

Tack five miles per hour onto that speed and keep this in mind as you picture Officer Kevin Parker flying down Cavalcade, in northeast Houston, on the night of May 1, 2009. In court, he'll claim he was responding to a report of a drunk driver a few miles away, a call for which there is no record. He's running silent — no lights, no siren.

In the eastbound lane of Cavalcade, where it crosses ­Lockwood, 27-year-old LaShonda Rochelle is about to turn left on a green. She is yielding to an SUV that is approaching from the opposite direction on Cavalcade. Riding shotgun is her friend Mattie Etubom, 54; the two are heading home after stopping at a barbecue joint. When the SUV turns, Rochelle's Chevy Malibu follows suit, and Etubom leans forward slightly to take a bite of her rib sandwich. That's when it happens.

Mattie Etubom and her boyfriend, James Williams, say their lives were turned upside down after the 2009 accident.
Daniel Kramer
Mattie Etubom and her boyfriend, James Williams, say their lives were turned upside down after the 2009 accident.
A Houston police officer had not activated his car's lights or siren when he hit Lashonda Rochelle's car in 2009. The police car, which may have contained crucial evidence in the case, was later blown up in bomb-squad practice.
Courtesy of Mike Phifer
A Houston police officer had not activated his car's lights or siren when he hit Lashonda Rochelle's car in 2009. The police car, which may have contained crucial evidence in the case, was later blown up in bomb-squad practice.

Parker's Crown Vic T-bones the Chevy; the passenger door crumples in on Etubom like a trash compactor and the car is knocked into a utility pole. The right side of Etubom's head whips against something hard. Her lawyer, Mike Phifer, will later describe the injury as kind of like bashing in one side of a pumpkin. The force splits her palate, knocks out two teeth, fractures her right eye socket, causes a hemorrhage in her brain and bruises her lungs so badly that she'll carry a lunchbox-size oxygen tank for the rest of her life. Although Parker and Rochelle suffer only minor injuries — Parker is well enough to return to the scene that night — Etubom is the last to be transported to the hospital, because it takes the Jaws of Life to extract her from the car.

No one can find her wallet or purse; she's checked into the hospital as "Female-Juliet 1401" and remains unconscious, hooked to a ventilator. It takes her boyfriend of nine years nearly three days to find her. No one representing the City of Houston visits Etubom during her 52 days in the hospital. But she does receive a bill for the ambulance ride.

She's wrecked but alive. Estela Medrano is not so fortunate.

Just more than one year after Etubom's accident, Medrano is riding shotgun in a car at night that is T-boned by a police cruiser running silent at 84 miles an hour. Medrano, a respected professor and scientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, will die at the hospital two hours later. The officer in that case will testify that he made eye contact with Medrano just before the collision.

Last December, the Etubom case went to trial. The jury, faced with a list of perplexing instructions, rendered one decision declaring the officer 60 percent liable for her injuries — and awarding Etubom $2.26 million — and another finding that the officer had not violated regulations. The decisions canceled each other out. Harris County District Court Judge Dan Hinde would have to pick a "controlling decision."

A month later, the city settled the Medrano case, awarding the family $262,500.

City Attorney David Feldman told the Houston Chronicle that this was one of those rare lawsuits that "cry out" for a settlement.

"The settlement was the right thing to do," Feldman said.

Phifer read Feldman's comments and hit the wall. As far as he's concerned, the incidents were practically identical. It's just that one victim was a distinguished scientist and the other was a woman who slung hot dogs at Astros games.

After getting angry enough to dive into the details of the Medrano case, Phifer decided that the city hadn't treated these cases differently solely because of race or socioeconomic factors, but because of the way the Houston Police Department rewrote its policy on running silent. The new policy, he believes, was put in place to protect officers, not to prevent another Etubom or Medrano.

Phifer didn't know that the rewritten policy existed at the time of the trial. The city never turned it over during discovery. Before Hinde had made his final decision, Phifer filed a motion for a new trial.

In February, Hinde declared that the city had withheld and destroyed evidence, ruling that "a new trial is necessary in the interest of justice."

With one woman dead and another left with permanent injuries, Phifer wants the chance to tell a jury that when it comes to certain policies, the Houston Police Department and the city's legal department care more about protecting their own than protecting the public.

It might have been easier to confirm what happened on the night of Etubom's accident if the city hadn't blown up some of the evidence. But these things happen.

Sometime after Etubom's original lawyer sent the city's legal department a letter requesting the preservation of evidence in the case, the police department's bomb squad used the totaled cruiser in a training exercise: A bomb was detonated inside the car.

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paval topcommenter

This reminds me of an old joke about insurance sales people. A friend told one insurance agent: 

"I have fire, water, earthquake, car, home, hurricane, bad weather, good weather, etc. insurance. The only insurance I do not have is one against insurance agents"

In this case, police is supposed to be our protector against the bad people, but who protects us citizens of an over-eager, under-trained, overly fraternal, contradictorially regulated, police force, our servers and protectors.?


What an absolute outrage. I'm so tired of the corruption in HPD and our City.  

Dodd Melcher
Dodd Melcher

Almost universally as far as I know, police are a fraternal organization that will protect their own no matter what.

Robin Varner
Robin Varner

I shared this earlier because like so many of the articles the Press writes about, peoples lives are forever changed in drastic ways

gossamersixteen topcommenter

HPD we're supposed to enforce the laws but they do not apply to us.. Can't tell you how many times I've seen an HPD cruiser headed down West Dallas at 90-100 MPH with no lights on, only using them to run red lights, and the posted speed limit is 30. This happens near daily..

gossamersixteen topcommenter

Now that I mention that there are now 2-3 speed traps in the afternoon on W Dallas.  Consider yourself warned, looking for folks hauling tail out of downtown towards Montrose. HPD will exceed the speed limit by 2-3x, while you will get a ticket for 35, aww isn't hypocrisy grand.

MadMac topcommenter

When I rode a bicycle in Houston, I was regularly harrassed by cops--one even ticketed me for failure to make a complete stop at a stop sign. Not all cops were like that though. There were several cops who nearly hit me while talking on cell phones or flying down the street without lights/sirens. 

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