While driving to the scene of a traffic stop to assist another officer on Saturday night, Des Moines Officer Mitchell Lee ran a red light and crashed into another car in the middle of the intersection.
Officer Lee told police he had his emergency lights on at the time of the crash, but the people he hit say otherwise. Typically, in-car video can be checked to determine who is telling the truth. But Sgt. Jason Halifax said the car that Officer Lee was using didn't have a working camera that night. It was also the second officer involved crash in three weeks.
“I understand how that appearance is I get that,” said Sgt. Halifax, “Not all of our cars have them at this point. We are moving towards that direction, it’s obviously a cost issue," he said about in-vehicle cameras.
Sgt. Halifax says there are no rules or laws in place that require cameras in cars. The only guidelines pertaining to the dash cameras are included in the city policy: “The city policy is if an officer is in a vehicle that’s equipped with a camera they’re required to use it. However if they get into the vehicle at night and see that the camera is not working or that its malfunction with the camera or the body microphone, they’re supposed to notify the supervisor.” Halifax said Officer Lee did that.
Other metro police departments, like Urbandale, have similar policies. The only difference is that there is recently there was a big push within the department towards the vehicle cameras. Now every car has one in it.
“Once you see that video it really does put it in perspective,” said Officer Randy Peterson, with the Urbandale Police Department, “we’ve had cases where the judge says I was probably going to find that person not guilty but because of that video I find them guilty now.”
But Sgt. Halifax says in Officer Lee’s case, the video wouldn’t make a difference
“The officer was at fault,” explained Halifax, “he broad-sided that vehicle, so that vehicle was in the intersection before he entered it, so even if he had his lights on, he has to operate his vehicle in such a way, it’s called with due regard, so as not to collide with someone else.”
Sgt. Halifax says regardless of whether the lights and sirens are on, an officer must drive responsibility.
“We all like to think when we have our lights and sirens on, this means I get to drive fast, I get to bust through red lights and all that, it doesn't mean that,” said Sgt. Halifax. By having the lights and siren on, Sgt. Halifax explains, “all I`m saying is may I please go through this red light, but before I ask that permission to do that, I need to make sure the intersection is clear. That obviously wasn't the case in this collision.”
Officer Peterson said their officers are taught the same thing, when it comes to driving a police vehicle- with or without the emergency lights on. “You always need to make sure you slow down and prepare to stop, even if you have a red light, even if you have a green light, and just in case someone isn’t paying attention and running a red light. We want to make sure everyone is safe.”
As of Monday, Sgt. Halifax said Officer Lee was back at work, but there is still a chance he could be suspended.