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.

Testimony from officers in both cases, from rank-and-file patrol officers up to the assistant chief, suggests that there's enough wiggle room in how general orders and state laws are written, nearly to the point where the written word doesn't mean a thing.

According to the city, the Texas Transportation Code, which gives officers broader discretion to disobey traffic laws while running silent, supersedes HPD's general orders. But the biggest kahuna is a general order cryptically cited by HPD Executive Assistant Chief Michael Dirden in the Medrano case. Without identifying it by number, Dirden revealed the existence of "another general order that says when neither law nor policy provides clear guidelines of what to do in any particular situation, the officers are allowed to use their discretion."

Why this omnipotent order was never played as a trump card in either case is as mysterious as the order itself. (The Texas Attorney General's Office agrees with city attorneys that HPD general orders are exempt from the state Public Information Act because bad guys might read through them and get the upper hand.)

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.

Further muddying the facts of the Etubom case is the lack of a comprehensive accident ­investigation.

In April 2012, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland issued the following statement to KHOU TV Channel 11 for a story the station's I-Team did on such accidents: "Officers involved in accidents are subject to thorough investigation by Vehicular Crimes Division investigators who specialize in accident investigation. The results of these investigations, including the determination of fault, are reviewed by the officer's chain of command and the Department's Accident Review Board."

If that's true, then either the Etubom case is an anomaly or the chief was using an alternative definition of "thorough."

Officer Richard White, who was in HPD's Accident Division at the time, testified in the Etubom case that reconstructions are done only in fatality cases. Even though Etubom sustained severe injuries, the accident was classified as "property damage," so, according to White's testimony, there was no need for him to review the Mobile Data Terminal, ask to see the last call slip or attempt to interview Etubom. Without such encumbrances, White was able to turn in his final report before Parker had even turned in his report, two days after the accident.

White didn't need to determine how fast Parker was driving, what kind of call he was or was not responding to, or whether he was running silent in order for White to conclude that Etubom's friend, and not Parker, was responsible for the accident. Part of White's reasoning was that because Parker's car left no skid marks, the officer "would not have believed that there was anything...in his way that could have possibly distracted him from going the speed he was going, or there wasn't anything in the road that would have caused him to swerve or slow down."

Any reference to the citation was barred under what's called an order in limine, wherein both sides agree not to mention facts considered irrelevant. It's difficult to tell whether it was an honest mistake or a deliberate attempt to sway the jury. Overall, White was rather prickly toward Etubom's and Rochelle's attorneys; even though he testified to having investigated hundreds of accidents and doing cool-sounding stuff like "forensic mapping," he claimed he didn't know how many feet were in a mile or how many miles a car would go in an hour if it were being driven at ten miles an hour.

As punishment for White's slip-up, Judge Hinde went the grade-school route: He ordered the officer to write a 1,500-word essay on the importance of motions in limine.

Even if White had said he knew, at the time he was writing his report, that Parker was violating General Order 600-01 by running silent in excess of the speed limit, it probably wouldn't have made a difference.

White testified that what General Order 600-01 mandates in "black and white" doesn't necessarily apply to what actually happens on the street, where "police officers operate in gray."

And despite what the order says in "black and white," police officers have their own ways of responding to calls, he testified.

When Rochelle's attorney, Brad Beers, asked White, "So if there's 5,000 police officers in HPD, if each one of them got this call, we might have 5,000 ways of responding to that same call?"

"You may have, yes," White said.

Estela Medrano was at the forefront of an area of cancer research — the biology of melanin-producing cells called melanocytes — that brought her worldwide acclaim in the field.

Born in Argentina, she studied organic chemistry at the University of Buenos Aires, but it was her work on something called melanocyte senescence at the University of Cincinnati that made other researchers take notice. The Journal of Investigative Dermatology called ­Medrano a "true ­pioneer."

She joined Baylor College of Medicine in 1995 and was appointed a professor at the institution's Huffington Center on Aging. Baylor has since established a research award in her name.

She and her husband, Jorge, had just returned from Switzerland, where Medrano was co-chairing a research conference, the night she died. Jorge, 71, was driving.

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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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