When he was sheriff of Henderson County, George Erwin Jr. considered law enforcement cruisers his deputies’ greatest liability. That’s because while a deputy may rarely need to use his or her firearm, some log 200 miles a day in their vehicle, increasing the risk of a wreck.
For that reason, Erwin, who is now the executive director of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, said local police departments and sheriff’s offices should devise driving policies that account for safety and suit the communities in which they operate.
“It’s something you have to look at closely,’ he said of police driving. “It’s not a cut-and-dried answer.”
Technically, Erwin said, officers and deputies should use lights and sirens when responding to an emergency. But there are exceptions, like responding to a bank robbery, when a blaring siren could tip off a suspect and make a dangerous situation worse.
For that reason, Erwin said, police driving procedures must consider a variety of factors, including the roads, population and traffic of the community.
In New Hanover County, sheriff’s deputies are supposed to follow all traffic laws unless they are responding to an emergency or trying to apprehend a suspect, according to the office’s policy.
“Vehicles engaged in emergency operation are required to use both blue light and siren,” the policy states. “Any time either the blue light or siren has been discontinued, emergency operation will be terminated and all speed and traffic laws will be observed.”
The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office’s policy does make exceptions for “silent runs” using just blue lights and no siren when it’s in the best interest of public safety.
Also, the rules don’t apply when deputies are pacing other drivers to determine speed, or conducting surveillance on a suspect vehicle. If using lights or siren would endanger the deputy or tip off a dangerous suspect and help that person flee, then the restrictions also don’t apply.
The Wilmington police department’s policy manual says that although state law and city ordinance allow police to break traffic laws, they need to consider the safety of others on the road.
The policy says officers should use lights and sirens when not following traffic rules, and even then, they should consider weather, traffic, time-of-day and road conditions.
“The fact that a police vehicle is exempt from the operation of traffic regulations or enjoys certain prior rights over other vehicles does not permit the operators of such vehicle to drive in reckless disregard of the safety of others,” the policy states.
WPD Spokeswoman Lucy Crockett said anyone who sees an officer driving in an unsafe manner may report it to the department. They should try to include the vehicle number, time of day and place where they saw the police vehicle, she said.
Date posted: November 4, 2009
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