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.

The explosion did away with the car's Mobile Data Terminal (MDT), which records calls for service. (Police cars are also equipped with a black-box system that records the cars' speed. However, the car Parker was driving that night had previously been in an accident and the system was never replaced, according to one of the attorneys.)

Ordinarily, there would also be a dispatch-center record of the call (a "call slip") Parker says he was responding to that night, but no such record was ever found. (City officials declined to comment for this story.)

It's important to note that, while the same city attorneys worked on both the Etubom and Medrano cases, they gave conflicting stories on whether calls for service were even stored in the MDT's hard drive.

An expert hired by the City of Houston was prepared to testify that the crash that killed world-renowned scientist Estela Medrano was more the fault of her "jet-lagged" husband than the police officer's driving 84 mph without lights or siren.
Courtesy of Richard Lagarde
An expert hired by the City of Houston was prepared to testify that the crash that killed world-renowned scientist Estela Medrano was more the fault of her "jet-lagged" husband than the police officer's driving 84 mph without lights or siren.

In the Etubom case, Annie Teehan, an assistant city attorney, told Judge Hinde that "police sources" told her that MDTs don't retain call slips, so it didn't even matter that the MDT in that case was destroyed. Yet after the trial, Phifer discovered that the city was able to provide MDT data in the Medrano case.

In the February hearing for a new trial, Hinde asked Teehan if she had verified Phifer's contention.

"I wasn't able to get that far into it, Your Honor," she said of the Medrano case file. "It's like 15 boxes."

Hinde was incredulous.

"They have made some very serious allegations in a case with [a] history of the city squirreling away and destroying evidence," the judge admonished. "I understand...if this would look like a Hail Mary after a case where there hadn't been any problems. But we've had a history here where a car was blown up. The Mobile Data Terminal disappeared. The call slip disappeared...And you didn't go back and double-check and see if you can clarify some of this?"

But even if the MDT data magically appeared, it probably wouldn't change the city's bottom line, which is that Rochelle failed to obey one of the most fundamental rules of the road: She didn't yield to oncoming traffic while making a left-hand turn. It didn't matter if the oncoming traffic in question was approaching at nearly double the speed limit: Speed was not a factor. She was ultimately ticketed, but the citation was dismissed after the issuing officer didn't show up to traffic court. (Rochelle filed her own suit against the city shortly before Etubom filed; the cases were consolidated in 2011. Etubom had also sued Rochelle but later dropped that suit.)

Parker, a peace officer sworn to uphold the law, a man who once worked as a youth minister, swore he never saw Rochelle's car. Sure, he was speeding, but he was vigilant. He believed he was traveling at a safe enough rate in response to a very important call for service: a call regarding a drunk driver at US 59 and Cavalcade. Coincidentally, that phantom call is identical in nature to the first call he responded to that day, seven hours earlier.

Parker originally stated in a deposition that the concerned citizen who called police about seeing the drunk driver didn't dial 911 but instead called the department's nonemergency line, 713-884-3131. ( A 911 call would have been answered first by Harris County dispatchers — not HPD — so there would be a record of the call kept by an outside agency.) Parker later amended his answer to say that he didn't know how the call came in.

But that's not the only inconsistency: In his original accident report, Parker checked off a box indicating that he was not responding to an emergency call at the time of the accident. He later said he was on an emergency call, and he chalked up the answer on his accident report as a rookie mistake. The city also flip-flopped on whether Parker was responding to an emergency, claiming in December 2011 that he was not but in July 2012 that yes, he was.

Parker also stated in his deposition that he didn't slow down when he reached the fateful intersection because he had a green light. But in an affidavit six months later, Parker claimed, "[I] removed my right foot from the gas pedal."

But the clincher — what changed in the time between Parker's deposition and his testimony on the witness stand — was whether he thought he had the discretion to disobey traffic laws while running silent.

The policy governing that question, contained in HPD General Order 600-01, was the crux of both the Etubom and Medrano cases.

The order lays out the hierarchy of police calls — called "priorities" — that dictate the urgency of a call and how an officer should respond. Both the phantom DWI call in Etubom and the call in Medrano were priority twos. The standard response for such calls is to run silent, but officers can opt to use lights and sirens as long as they notify the dispatcher. What both cases hinged on, though, was whether General Order 600-01 allowed officers to run silent while speeding. Both officers said that running silent was the more prudent response in those two cases because emergency equipment can sometimes cause traffic jams or tip off suspects. (See "Using Discretion.")

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8 comments
paval
paval

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.?


JoeAngel
JoeAngel

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
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
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
MadMac

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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