Answers sought amid indications blue lights, siren weren't in use
By Steve Harrison and Fred Clasen-Kelly, Charlotte.com, March 31, 2009
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer involved in a wreck that killed a 20-year-old woman was driving his patrol car more than 90mph with the siren off, police Chief Rodney Monroe said Monday.
Multiple witnesses told investigators that the vehicle driven by Officer Martray Proctor also did not have its emergency blue lights on when it collided with a 1991 Ford Escort at a north Charlotte intersection Sunday night, Monroe said.
N.C. law and department rules dictate that officers obey posted speed limits unless their vehicle's blue lights and siren are activated. The speed limit along Old Statesville Road, where the crash occurred, is 45 mph.
Shatona Evette Robinson of Davidson died in the wreck, and her three passengers suffered serious injuries. Police said all the passengers had been released from the hospital by Monday afternoon.
Proctor, 24, remained hospitalized with a broken leg among other injuries, police said.
Robinson's cousin said grieving family members were angry and wanted answers.
Monroe called the death “an unfortunate and tragic incident.” He promised a thorough investigation. “It's not something we take lightly or will investigate lightly.”
Proctor was driving to assist another officer on a routine traffic stop at about 10:15 p.m. when his patrol car collided with the car Robinson was driving. The wreck occurred less than a quarter-mile from the traffic stop, Monroe said.
Asked whether he believed Proctor should have been driving more than 90 mph, Monroe said: “I can find no reason for that.”
“There were no signs of imminent trouble in that (traffic) stop,” he said.
Department policy states that officers responding to emergencies should drive at speeds that are “reasonable and prudent.” Rules require officers to take into account the “seriousness of the call” and their proximity to the emergency.
Monroe said police would continue to investigate the crash and turn over the results to the prosecutor's office, which will decide whether to pursue criminal charges. Officers, he said, will also conduct an internal probe to determine whether any department policies were violated.
Investigators have received conflicting statements about whether the patrol car driven by Proctor had its emergency blue lights on.
But an in-car camera that automatically records when blue lights come on never activated, police said. That means the emergency lights were off or the camera malfunctioned, police said.
The episode is reminiscent of two officer-involved wrecks in 2000.
City officials paid a $785,000 settlement to the family of 23-year-old Sara Gaffney, who died when a patrol car collided with the vehicle she was riding in. Former Charlotte Mecklenburg police Officer Scott Darby, who was speeding without using his emergency lights, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor death by vehicle and resigned.
Craig Gaffney said he heard about the most recent incident Monday and thought about how similar the circumstances were to the crash that killed his daughter.
“It seems CMPD has ignored, or most likely never learned, the lesson,” Gaffney said.
In December 2000, 33-year-old Geoffrey Darwin died after a police cruiser crashed with his van. Former Officer David Nifong, who was driving 30 miles over the speed limit and was not using his vehicle's flashing lights, resigned.
Since then, police say they have improved road safety. Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers were involved in 6.7 wrecks per million miles driven last year, compared with 11 crashes per million miles in 2001, said Sgt. David Thaw, supervisor of driver training.
Proctor, who makes $42,257 a year, joined the force in March 2007. Monroe said the department has not taken disciplinary action against him.
On Monday, Robinson's family members gathered to mourn at her home.
Her two cousins, who were riding in the car with her, recounted the crash. They were leaving the home of Shatona Robinson's mother, who lives on Henderson Circle in northern Charlotte, and heading back to Davidson.
They made a left turn onto Old Statesville – a divided four-lane thoroughfare – when the collision occurred.
The passengers said they did not hear a siren or see flashing lights.
“The car just had its headlights on,” said Wyatt Morrison, 18, who had a swollen lip, a bandage on his head and a cast on his arm. “I didn't know it was a police car.”
A trail of debris along the road suggests the crash pushed Shatona Robinson's Ford Escort about 50 yards to the south. Police said the Escort was taken to a CMPD evidence lot.
Morrison was sitting in the back seat, behind Shatona Robinson. His other cousin, Akeem Robinson, 19, was sitting in the back seat on the passenger side.
Akeem Robinson said the first thing he remembers is that Topaz White, a friend of Shatona Robinson, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, was under him.
“I was sitting on top of Topaz,” Akeem Robinson said. “She was under my leg.”
Robinson said he was holding Wyatt's bleeding head, and that he tried to see whether Shatona Robinson was OK.
“I was calling out her name,” Akeem Robinson said. “She wasn't saying nothing.”
Shatona Robinson worked at The Pines, a nearby nursing home, and was planning to take classes at an online technical college, her cousin Crystal Robinson said. She graduated from North Mecklenburg High.
“We were praying for each other,” Crystal Robinson said. “She was just getting started. Everyone (in this family) is so close. We can't believe she's gone and is not coming back.”
Editorial: Don't let such a tragedy happen again
Police must be held accountable when they violate the law.
Charlotte.com, March 31, 2009
The investigation into the death of Shatona Robinson is not complete, but Police Chief Rodney Monroe on Monday made this much clear:
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Martray Proctor was driving his cruiser in excess of 90 mph on Old Statesville Road Sunday night when he struck Robinson's car.
Proctor apparently did not have his blue lights or siren on.
He was not responding to an emergency. He was going to assist another officer in a routine traffic stop. Monroe said he has found no reason for Proctor to be driving 45 mph or more over the speed limit.
CMPD needs to conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation. It vows to do so. And District Attorney Peter Gilchrist needs to assess that investigation and charge Proctor with the appropriate crime if the investigation merits.
An even better approach would be for an outside, independent agency to conduct the investigation. As with police shootings, that would give the public more confidence that all facts are being considered and that there's no special treatment.
State law says an officer must have his blue lights and siren on if he is exceeding the speed limit. And CMPD policy says an officer can speed only in an emergency, such as when there is threat of serious injury to an officer or a citizen. Even then, he must drive “with due regard to the safety of others” and his speed must be “reasonable and prudent.”
Those are clear and adequate guidelines. CMPD provides its recruits 56 hours of driving training in academy. A few years ago, it added “scenario-based driving” to its training, better simulating real-life situations. It appears to have paid off: the force had 6.7 crashes per million miles driven in 2008, a drop of about 40 percent compared with 2001. CMPD says that number is lower than many comparable departments.
CMPD should use this tragedy to assess its training further and, perhaps most importantly, vocally and repeatedly remind officers of the need to drive cautiously. Officers are given a gun, the power to arrest and the right to break traffic laws when the circumstances warrant. They must be held to a higher standard when they use those privileges. And there must be clear consequences when they misuse them.
We applaud Monroe and CMPD for being forthright about the facts of this case and for recognizing the responsibility police have to society in using their authority properly. We also applaud his commitment to get the facts and act accordingly.
It shouldn't take a tragedy for CMPD leaders to make sure officers obey law and policy at all times. Monroe needs to send that message to his officers, loud and clear.