//
Chapter 12: Covering Police and Emergency Services

 

 

Introduction

           Most of the impact in stories about robberies, murders, accidents and natural disasters is emotional. Usually journalists cover them because we think it’s important for audiences to connect with the human consequences of such events. When an earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010 and killed tens of thousands of people, the news coverage was worldwide, even though the event held little rational impact for most of the earth’s seven billion inhabitants.

           It’s true that sometimes, as a matter of public policy, we become interested in a shared problem manifested by a crime, accident or natural disaster, and the impact shifts to the rational. Terrorist acts are one example. Since then-President George W. Bush declared a war on terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, news media have provided intense coverage of terrorist acts even when they occur in other countries. An example is the summer 2005 series of bombings in London. But natural disasters half a world away might also carry rational impact for local audiences. When an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, the damage to several nuclear power plants and manufacturing facilities carried substantial rational impact for audiences in the United States. And, closer to home, news coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in 2005 showed the rational impact of huge gaps in emergency preparedness and response at the local, state and national levels. For local news media, if homicide suddenly becomes particularly frequent in a certain area of town, or a car wreck is the fifth in six months at a particular railroad crossing, the impact also shifts from the emotional to the rational.

           As isolated events, though, most of the crimes and emergencies that we report on carry minimal rational impact. We don’t know the participants or their families, and the chances that something similar will happen to us remain remote.

 

Where’s the impact?

           That presents us with a dilemma: If we limit our reporting to summaries of police reports, we deal in statistics, not human beings. We write about things happening, not things happening to people. That has the long-term effect of either dehumanizing our crime stories, making them merely titillating and almost cartoon-like, or of overemphasizing crime as a problem in a given community, especially if a news organization adopts an “if-it-bleeds-it-ledes” news strategy. (Studies show that older people who read, watch and listen to a lot of news believe that their world is becoming increasingly dangerous, even though nationwide the violent crime rate has been dropping steadily for more than a decade.) The temptation of doing this kind of reporting is about more than a cheap readership or ratings boost. Let’s face it: To a journalist, racing to the scene of a murder carries an adrenaline rush of excitement tinged with fear that makes most other kinds of reporting seem pretty mundane, particularly for a beginning reporter. And as reporters we have the advantage of standing apart from it, divorced from emotional involvement.    

           But if we insist on writing about human beings instead of statistics, as we should, we must contact the people involved in or affected by crime or tragedy, or those close to them, to learn about who they are or were, and to try to show them or their relatives as people very much like the rest us. Often, that kind of reporting can be awfully intrusive, and reporters are criticized for being insensitive at such times. It is particularly difficult for television reporters, because video cameras are seen as intrusive even in the best of circumstances. If we are to write stories about crime and accidents, we must seek the balance between humanizing the victims and remaining sensitive to their needs.

 

Don’t victimize twice

           When I was called on to contact the victims of accidents or crimes, or their families, I was surprised by how often they chose to cooperate. I would explain that my story to that point was based on a summary provided by police, but that I wanted people to know the person involved as a human being. Usually, by the time reporters try to contact a family, their friends and relatives will already be on hand to screen telephone calls and visitors. Relatives will often talk about the victim, and will agree to pass along questions to a spouse or parent of the victim, or at least ask whether he or she wants to talk with you. Sometimes the first person you talk to will be a family friend who is determined to protect the relatives from unnecessary intrusions. Edna Buchanan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former police reporter for The Miami Herald, said she would call a family twice. If the first person hung up on her, she would wait a minute and call back, often getting a more cooperative person the second time. If the second person hung up, she would not call a third time. That, she said, would be harassment. Most reporters never get comfortable with making those contacts, and that’s good. If wading into the middle of a family’s grief ever becomes routine for a reporter, he or she should find another line of work.

 

Dealing with police and fire and rescue workers

 

Different responsibilities often conflict

            As you deal with police officers at a crime scene or investigating a crime, and with fire and rescue and emergency workers at the scene of an accident or natural disaster, remember that they have a job to do, as you do, and that often your jobs will conflict. You are trying to collect as much information as you can, so you can weigh what is appropriate to put into your story. Police often want to withhold most of what they know so an investigation is not compromised. Fire and rescue workers ordinarily do not have to worry about compromising an investigation of a crime by what they tell you, but they have an even bigger concern: trying to save lives and prevent risk to others. Their focus will be on that; if your timing is bad you will be distracting them from it. 

 

Getting what you need, responsibly

           Respecting the job of police and emergency workers does not mean you always have to limit your contacts to public information officers after the fact. But you need to use common sense in approaching the front-line people. You will earn their trust if you don’t force them to choose between saving lives or compromising an investigation and talking to you. Be polite, professional and persistent, and if you are on the police beat regularly, get to know the officers. Once they know which information they can trust you with, your working relationship will be easier because it will be more clearly defined. For example, sources and reporters who trust each other occasionally will swap information to save each other time. As a reporter you want to make sure that what you will be getting is at least as valuable to you as what you will be sharing, and your police sources are operating under the same guideline. You can be aggressive with police without having to resort to hostility. With emergency workers, ask who is in charge at an accident or other emergency. That person usually is not directly involved in saving lives or preventing further harm. He or she can give you the overview you will need for context, and tell you when the front-line workers – and the survivors — will be available to help you put the human face on your story. 

 

Dealing with hospital workers

           At one time, obtaining information about people who had been or were being treated at your local hospital was relatively straightforward. All but the smallest hospitals have designated people to deal with news media. Sometimes they are public relations professionals; in other cases they might be shift supervisors, the director of nursing, the chief of staff or the hospital administrator. Most hospitals are still willing to provide specifics about the meaning of the several patient conditions you hear in news stories: good, satisfactory, fair, poor, serious, critical, grave, guarded.  

           But relations between hospitals and news media changed with the passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA. While the primary purpose of the law was to help provide health insurance protection for workers who changed jobs, as with many laws there were some other provisions that had substantial impact. One of those provisions dealt with patients’ confidentiality rights. On the advice of their lawyers, numerous health care providers have interpreted the law to mean that they can no longer release any information about a patient without the patient’s consent.  

 

    

Box 12.1 He Said that She Said that He Said that . . . .

            In Chapter Six you learned the importance of keeping levels of observation clear to yourself and your audience. The more removed someone is from direct observation, the more we need to verify the information. Much of what is reported about accidents, crime, disasters and other emergencies is based on third- or fourth-hand observation. To review briefly:

1. Direct or firsthand observation: The reporter sees or hears something herself. An example would be a reporter covering a city council meeting.

2. Second-hand observation: The reporter gets information from a witness.

3. Third-hand observation: The reporter talks to someone who got information from a witness. An example is the account a police officer gives a reporter based on the officer’s conversation with a witness or witnesses.

4. Fourth-hand observation: Reporters occasionally receive information from spokesmen or spokeswomen, or from news releases, that is based on information that is already third-hand. An example is information from a police spokesman who summarized the report of an officer who had talked to witnesses.       

 

Remember levels of observation

           Reporters are almost never present when a crime, accident or natural disaster happens. Most often, they respond to an alert about it as they monitor a police scanner. Sometimes, they learn about it first from other news media. That means that reporters on such stories almost always have to rely heavily on second-, third- and fourth-hand observation. (See Chapter Six.) When you are trying to sort out what you know from what you or others may be assuming, remember to identify for yourself the level of observation of each person you talk to or source you consult. (See Box 12.1) As you move farther and farther from firsthand observation, be more and more careful about judging the value of information, and be sure to attribute your information to a particular source. Be careful as well to determine whether your source is in a position to know the information he or she is giving you, or whether he or she is speculating.

           Remember also that police officers make mistakes, just as reporters and the rest of humanity do. (In this course you should always check names and addresses against your City Directory.) If a police report contains information that you don’t think can be correct, challenge it. Call the reporting officer or run it by witnesses. For example, several years ago, on the campus where I teach, a fraternity member was thrown from a Homecoming float against a parked car when the driver of the float turned a corner too sharply. Police insisted the young man had been thrown 46 feet, even though the street itself was not that wide, and the width of the parked car and the float narrowed the distance to a few feet. If you cannot resolve an apparent anomaly in your reporting, write your story so that you acknowledge that uncertainty to your audience (See Box 12.2).

 

    

Box 12.2 “That’s What He Said”

           Practically every editor who has challenged a reporter on a dubious fact has gotten this response at least once:

           “Well, that’s what he said.”

           No wonder editors contemplate homicide occasionally. To keep yourself alive and your editor out of jail, remember:

1. An editor’s job is to try to clear up both ambiguity and incredulity. As a reporter, it’s your job, too. Don’t drive your audience crazy.

2. When a source – even somebody “official” like a police officer – tells you something that doesn’t sound right, keep asking questions.

3. If you – or your sources – can’t ultimately explain, acknowledge that to your audience.

           Not: Police said the student was thrown 46 feet from the Homecoming float onto a parked car.

           Try instead:  Police said the student was thrown from the slow-moving Homecoming float onto a car parked along the two-lane street. An investigating officer reported that the float was going about 5 miles per hour, and that the student was thrown 46 feet. It was not immediately clear how the student traveled that far on the narrow street.     

 

Ethics

 

Portraying communities

           In Exercise 12 you will need to flex your ethical judgment about your professional responsibility as a journalist to your audience and the people about whom you write. Information that is included in a police report might or might not be relevant to your story. Having information available to give to audiences does not necessarily mean we should share all of it with audiences. For example, in offering a description of a robber who is still at large, the lawbreaker’s race is often included. In most other contexts, though, the race of someone in a story is irrelevant. But when we as journalists look at crime as an issue rather than as a series of isolated and unrelated events, we may see a pattern of crime in a particular neighborhood. If most or all of the victims of a series of crimes are of the same race, or if a category of crime appears to victimize the poor disproportionately, race or socioeconomic status might become relevant. Over the long pull, though, news media must be careful to present a full picture of a community. If the only mention of a particular race or ethnicity in a news medium is in the description of an at-large criminal, or if one group is always portrayed as poor, downtrodden or victimized, we are unfair to both the group itself and the audience that sees an unbalanced picture.  

 

Reporting on juvenile offenders

           Most states have laws that dictate special treatment of juvenile offenders – usually defined as those younger than 18. There is a separate court and corrections system for them, and release of their names is usually against the law unless they are charged as adults. It is important for you as a reporter to remember that while those laws prohibit release of the juvenile’s name, they cannot prohibit publication (including broadcast) if a reporter learns the name. Most news media do not routinely publish or air the names of juveniles involved in or charged with crimes, but they sometimes make exceptions. Those exceptions most often have to do with the seriousness of the crime. You need to know your newsroom’s policy, and to initiate or be part of a newsroom discussion before anyone decides to violate the policy.

 

Words serve facts

           Be careful with the words you use to report arrests and the treatment of suspects. Be sure you are right before you tell your audience that someone has been arrested. He or she might have been taken in only for questioning. Not all suspects are charged with crimes, and naming someone before he or she has been arrested is usually a bad business. Similarly, if you say Jones was arrested for murdering Smith, the implication is that Jones did it, and so he has been arrested. Guilt is for a court to determine. Say instead that Jones was charged with murdering Smith. Don’t say “charges” unless it is more than one charge. And remember not to use “alleged,” “allegedly” or “accused.” (See Chapter Eight.) They are invisible modifiers. 

 

Sentences for crimes

           We often see news media report the maximum sentence that someone who has been arrested could face. Doing that is almost always both unfair and misleading. For one thing, an arrested person has a right to – or should have the right to – the presumption of innocence. He or she will face no sentence at all unless he or she is found guilty. For another, practically all states now have sentencing practices that mean a conviction almost never carries the maximum sentence. Talking to defense lawyers and prosecutors – particularly those not directly involved in the case – can give you a better idea of a likely sentence.                 

 

Sensitivity to victims

           Finally, a reminder to be particularly sensitive to what the victims of crime or tragedy – and their loved ones – are going through. Fair, persistent questioning in any other interview can constitute badgering with people who have just been through something awful. “How do you feel?”  is a pretty stupid question,  and downright insensitive. Remember the value of open-ended questions: “Talk about your son.” “I’m sure this must be difficult, but describe, if you can, what that was like for you.” 

 

Strategies

           In reporting on crime, accidents and other emergencies and unexpected events, remember (See Box 12.3):

           1. The impact will usually be emotional. Most of us are not directly affected by crime, accidents or natural disasters. But crime, accidents and disasters are not just exciting events. They have human consequences. Show their impact on the people involved. Show your audience human beings, not statistics. 

           2. When interviewing victims, their friends and relatives, don’t make them feel victimized again by your interview. Use open-ended questions to be more sensitive.

           3. Develop a working relationship with police, fire fighters and rescue workers. Understand the demands of their jobs, and let them know the demands of yours. You can be an appropriately thorough reporter without getting in the way or distracting them at a crime or rescue scene.

           4. The Health  Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) has had a profound effect on hospital workers’ willingness to share patient information. Learn how your local hospital staff and administrators believe they are constrained by the law.

           5. Be careful with the words you choose when reporting arrests and charges. Remember our legal system’s presumption of innocence, and leave guilty verdicts to the courts. Similarly, avoid reporting the maximum sentence that someone who has been arrested could receive. For one thing, he or she hasn’t been convicted yet. For another, practically all states have sentencing practices that mean the maximum sentence is almost never handed out.

 

    

Box 12.3 Strategies for Covering Crime, Accidents and Emergencies

1. Focus your story on the emotional impact by showing the human consequences. Few of us are directly affected by crime, accidents or natural disasters. But we connect with the people who are.

2. Use open-ended questions when interviewing victims, their friends and relatives. “How do you feel?” is a stupid and insensitive question.

3. Understand the demands of the job for police, fire fighters and rescue workers, and make sure they understand your job. Spend time away from emergencies developing a working relationship with them.

4. Many hospitals will no longer release patient information because of the  Health  Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). Ask to meet with executives of your local hospital to discuss your needs and their constraints.

5. Don’t use your story to convict someone who has not been tried. The presumption of innocence is a fundamental legal right. Leave guilty verdicts to the courts. Similarly, avoid reporting the maximum sentence someone who is under arrest could receive. Wait until he or she has been convicted, and you know the sentence.  

 

           In Exercise 12a you will have both the police report and a subsequent interview to work with. The interview will take place in class; take notes on it. Even with the benefit of the interview, carefully examine the police report for revealing or humanizing information as well, and include it in your story if you judge it to be relevant. Be careful with attribution; make sure you accurately represent what police say the victim or witness told them.

           In Exercise 12b you will not have the benefit of interviews with witnesses and participants. The information in your story will come from the police report, but you will need to provide appropriate context for it. For that, look at previous exercises, including Exercise 12a.

           For both exercises your instructor might assign stories for print, broadcast and the Web, or you might be asked to write one story for one medium, the second for another. Or you might be assigned to write one story outside of class and write the second on deadline in class.

 

Exercise 12a:   Police Report

CASE NO. XX-1374

DRUG ARREST — 137 N. Randolph St.

ARRESTEES:   Topping, Courtney Ann

                            Age: 21

                            137 N. Randolph St.

                            Possession of Narcotics (Crack Cocaine, Class II Felony)

                            Possession of Controlled Substance (Oxycontin, Class III Felony)

                            Resisting Arrest w/o violence (Class II Misdemeanor)

                            Possession of a Deadly Weapon (Class III Misdemeanor)

                           Hunter, Meriwether Chase (Chip)

                           Age: 22

                           209 Woodland Terrace

                          Chevy Chase, MD

                          Sale of Narcotics (Crack Cocaine, Class I Felony)

                          Sale of Controlled Substance (Oxycontin, Class II Felony)

                          Possession of Narcotics (Crack Cocaine, Class II Felony)

                          Possession of Controlled Substance (Oxycontin, Class III Felony)

                          Resisting Arrest w/ Violence (Class II Felony)

                          Possession of a Deadly Weapon (Class III Misdemeanor)

                          LeBlanc, Meagan Lucille

                          Age: 21

                          137 N. Randolph St.

                           Possession of Narcotics (Crack Cocaine, Class II Felony)

                           Possession of Controlled Substance (Oxycontin, Class III Felony)

                           Possession of a Deadly Weapon (Class III Misdemeanor)

                           Smythe-Wilhoit, Brittany Davis

                           Age: 20

                           137 N. Randolph St.

                            Possession of Narcotics (Crack Cocaine, Class II Felony)

                            Possession of Controlled Substance (Oxycontin, Class III Felony)

                            Possession of a Deadly Weapon (Class III Misdemeanor)

                            Brelsford, Tiffany Belle

                            Age: 21

                            137 N. Randolph St.

                             Possession of Narcotics (Crack Cocaine, Class II Felony)

                             Possession of Controlled Substance (Oxycontin, Class III Felony)

                             Possession of a Deadly Weapon (Class III Misdemeanor)

                             Obstruction of Justice (Class II Misdemeanor)

WITNESSES:  Jefferson, Naomi

                          Age: 34

                          139 N. Randolph St.

                          Jefferson, Joshua (juvenile)

                          Age: 14

                          139 N. Randolph St.

                          McNab, Shereen (juvenile)

                          Age : 13

                          237 Fulton St.

           DETAILS: While on patrol in the area of 139 N. Randolph St. at approximately 14:17 p.m. in the afternoon of 10-28 this officer was approached by BF Naomi Jefferson outside her home at 139 N. Randolph St. Mrs. Jefferson informed this officer that an individual residing next door to her at 137 N. Randolph St. had been dealing “crack cocaine and something else” to her son, BM juvenile Joshua Jefferson. Mrs. Jefferson stated that she was acquainted with the individuals living at 137 N. Randolph St., being four WF VPU students and that she had “never had  trouble” with them. However she further stated that a WM had recently occupied the premises and had approached her son Joshua offering to sell him drugs. 

           This officer then contacted the Blue Ridge Regional Drug Task Force (BRRDTF) in the person of Sgt. Wiggins to alert him of suspected drug activity. Pursuant to further conversations involving Mrs. Jefferson, Sgt. Wiffins and myself, it was decided that a BRRDTF plainclothes officer would “tail” Joshua Jefferson for a few days. On the afternoon of 10-30, as Joshua approached his residence after walking home from Howard Lynton Middle School, plainclothes officer XXXXXXX and this officer observed suspect HUNTER approach Joshua. There insued a brief conversation, after which Joshua handed suspect HUNTER what appeared to be U.S. currency in an undetermined amount. Suspect HUNTER then handed Joshua a small packet and walked away in the direction of the VPU campus. Officer XXXXX and this officer then waited for Joshua to enter his home, whereupon a few minutes later Officer XXXXX and this officer approached the front door. At this time Mrs. Jefferson arrived home from work. Officer XXXXX and this officer had a conversation with Mrs. Jefferson on her front porch, reporting to her what we had observed transpose between Joshua and suspect HUNTER. Mrs. Jefferson then became upset and gave Officer XXXXX and this officer permission to question Joshua. At which time Officer XXXX and this officer entered the Jefferson residence and began a conversation with Joshua.

           At that time Joshua denied knowing suspect HUNTER, but when confronted said that suspect HUNTER had approached him outside his home for the first time that afternoon, wanting to know directions to the university (VPU). Pursuant to further questioning, however, Joshua became upset (i.e. crying) and very remorseful and admitted to buying “downers” from suspect HUNTER on three occasions. He then stated that on the first two occasions he was accompanied by his girlfriend, BF juvenile Shereen McNab, and that she had “bought some too.” At that time Joshua produced from his trousers pocket the substance which he said he had bought from suspect HUNTER. Later tests confirmed the substance to be Oxycontin, a prescription-type controlled painkiller. Joshua stated that he had purchased the drugs for $30 dollars. Pursuant to further conversations with Mrs. Jefferson, it was decided not to arrest Joshua. Officer XXXXX and this officer then contacted Shereen McNab at her residence, 327 Fulton St. In the presence of her parents, she confirmed Joshua’s story. Shereen McNab stated that she had paid suspect HUNTER a total of $60 for her drugs. It should be noted that the juvenile’s father, Rev. McNab, at that time began stating in a loud voice that the police department had for a long time ignored “leeches” praying upon people in the Love Hill community by selling drugs. He also stated that the neighborhood was being ruined by VPU students, stating that “first they took away our housing, now they are taking away our children’s lives.” Rev. McNab challenged officers to “lock up that blood-sucking college boy.” This officer urged Rev. McNab to contact the chief or the city manager if he wished to file a compliant about law enforcement in the Love Hill area. Officer XXXXX and this officer then secured a warrant for the arrest of suspect HUNTER and allowing a search of the upstairs rear bedroom of 137 N. Randolph St., which on information and belief was the last known residence of suspect HUNTER.

           As Mrs. Jefferson had reported at least five unrelated individuals living at 137 N. Randolph, and because she said she was “almost sure” but could not confirm that they did not have weapons in the home, it was decided that the arrest of suspect HUNTER be executed by the full BRRDTF with backup provided by the VPD Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team because of the potentially highly hazardous nature of the operation.

           At approximately 0600 hours on 11-05, the BRRDTF with backup provided by the VPD SWAT team entered 137 N. Randolph St. and executed the arrest of suspect HUNTER. Suspect HUNTER was apprehended in the upstairs rear bedroom, where he was sleeping in the company of WF Courtney Ann Topping. At the time of his arrest suspect HUNTER began shouting at members of the BRRDTF to “leave her the hell alone” and attempted to forcefully push an officer away from suspect TOPPING. Suspect TOPPING had became hysterical and attempted to exit the upstairs bedroom window, whereupon she was restrained by officers, whereupon suspect HUNTER assaulted officers. Suspect HUNTER was restrained and suspect TOPPING was then allowed to put a bathrobe on (she had been in a state of complete undress when officers arrived in the bedroom to execute the arrest of suspect HUNTER). A weapon in the form of a red Swiss Army type knife was discovered on top of the dresser near the entrance to the bedroom door. Suspect HUNTER admitted that it belonged to him. Other weapons located in the kitchen of the residence were three kitchen-type knives with approximate seven-inch blades. WF suspects later admitted that the weapons belonged to them but insisted they were intended  “only for cooking with.”

           At this time other officers with the BRRDTF and VPD SWAT team reported that they had secured the residence and had located three other individuals, WF Tiffany Brelsford, WF Brittany Smith-Wilhoite, and WF Megan Leblanc, all of whom appeared to have been asleep. All suspects were then placed in the living room of the residence under armed guard by VPD SWAT team officers. At that time WF Brelsford began shouting at officers, taking the Lord’s name in vain and saying the suspects should be allowed to “put something decent on” and should not have to be observed “in our nighties.” However after a brief conversation with Sgt. Wiggins it was decided that because no drugs had yet been located in the residence it would be necessary to execute a body-cavity search of all suspects. There was fear that in the process of being allowed to dress outside the presence and observation of male officers the WF individuals would be able to dispose of contraband. At that time a female Virginia State Police Officer was summoned to execute the body-cavity searches of the WFs.

           Trooper Melody Parker of the Jeffersonville barracks arrived on scene at approximately 10:20 a.m. and proceeded to search the WF suspects. By this time BRRDTF officers had executed a body cavity search of suspect HUNTER, which was negative. Suspect HUNTER repeatedly insisted on calling a lawyer or his parents in Chevy Chase, Maryland. However it was explained to him that he would not be allowed to make a telephone call until such time as he was processed at the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Facility (BRRJF). Body cavity searches of the WF suspects was likewise negative. However a search of the laundry room subsequently revealed approximately 30 white pills and a small bag of what appeared to be crack cocaine in a pair of blue-jeans type trousers, male size 33/34. The trousers also contained approximately $88 in U.S. currency in the left front pocket. Later tests confirmed crack cocaine. The pill substance was revealed to be Oxycontin, a controlled substance prescription painkiller-type drug. Suspect HUNTER denied that the substances were his or that the trousers belonged to him.  

           All suspects were transported to the BRRJF at approximately 12 o’clock noon on 11-05, where WF suspects each posted $2,500 bond. WM suspect HUNTER remains at BRRJF under a $40,000 bond.

Alan W. Grant

Patrolman, VPD   

 

Exercise 12b:  Traffic Accident

           You might want to refer to the map of Valleydale elsewhere on this website for help with this exercise.

CASE NO. XX-1451

Fatal MVA — West Trafalgar and Inverness St.

PERSONS INVOLVED:      BOWERS, Randy (deceased)

                                               Age 21

                                               Southern Military Academy

                                               LE BLANC, Meagan Lucille

                                               Age 21

                                               137 N. Randolph St.

                                                Valleydale

                                                TOPPING, Courtney Ann

                                                Age 21              

                                                137 N. Randolph St.

                                                Valleydale

                                                HUNTER, Meriwether Chase (Chip)

                                                Age 22

                                                137 N. Randolph St.

                                                Valleydale

 WITNESSES:                       DOBBINS, Howard F.

                                                Age 62

                                                1910 John Wesley Rd.

                                                Blue Ridge County

                                                DOBBINS, Dorcas M.

                                                Age 60

                                                1910  Joan Wesley Rd.

                                                Blue Ridge County

                                                FINE, Seymour K.

                                                Age 47

                                                211 Wall Faulkner Highway

                                                 Inverness

           DETAILS: While investigating a report of a disturbance in the area of Trafalger and Roosevelt Streets (The Breeze restaurant) at approximately 02:31 a.m. in the morning of 12-15 this officer was alerted by a passing motorist to a “serious” accident near the intersection of West Trafalger and Inverness Streets. This officer responded immediately, arriving on the scene at approximately 02:32 a.m. Upon arrival this officer witnessed two damaged vehicles, still appearing to contain several occupants. Vehicle 1, a late-model Ford Explorer SUV, black in color, was resting against the northern concrete abutment of the footbridge that crosses over Trafalger St. By observing the damage to the front end of the vehicle, this officer concluded that the vehicle had struck the abutment at a high rate of speed. Vehicle 2, an older-model Chevrolet Sierra pickup truck, light brown and white in color, was resting on the southern shoulder of Trafalger St., pointing in a westerly direction. It had sustained damage to its right front fender. This officer immediately radioed Valleydale Fire Rescue and VPD dispatch for backup. This officer then proceeded to render assistance to the occupants of the vehicles.

           At approximately 02:35 a.m. this officer was joined by Officer Healey of VPD and by units of Valleydale Fire Rescue, who subsequently confirmed that BOWERS, an occupant of the rear seat of Vehicle 1, was deceased. TOPPING and LEBLANC were transported by Fire-Rescue personnel to JSH.

           HUNTER, who appeared to have been driving the vehicle, appeared to be uninjured but was sitting in the driver’s seat of Vehicle 1 in a dazed condition. He reported that Vehicle 2 “came out of nowhere.”  He made no further statement, instead he asked to be allowed to call a lawyer, although he had not been placed under arrest. This officer then asked Officer Healey to detain HUNTER pending completion of a preliminary investigation.

           Occupants of Vehicle 2, Mr. and Mrs. DOBBINS, did not appear to be injured. Mr. DOBBINS reported that they were proceeding into the intersection of Inverness and Trafalgar Streets, attempting to execute a right turn after having come to a full stop at the end of Inverness, when Vehicle 1, traveling west in the eastbound lane of Trafalger Street at a high rate of speed, struck their right front fender and spun Vehicle 2 in a counterclockwise direction until it came to rest in the position this officer first observed it. Mr. and Mrs. DOBBINS stated that the driver of Vehicle 1 then appeared to lose control of his vehicle and struck the northern abutment of the footbridge at a high rate of speed.

           At this point in time, as this officer was concluding his interview with Mr. and Mrs. DOBBINS, an older-model Honda Civic 4-door, light gray in color, appeared at the accident scene. The driver, FINE, then approached this officer and said he had witnessed the accident. This officer inquired of FINE why he had left the accident scene, and FINE informed this officer that he was the one who had first driven to Trafalgar and Roosevelt streets to inform this officer about the accident. 

           FINE stated that he had been traveling westbound in the westbound lane of Trafalger Street and had been accelerating up the hill adjacent to the Post Office after having stopped for the traffic signal at Trafalger and Lee Avenue. As he drew abreast of McLaren Street, FINE stated that a black SUV-type vehicle “roared” past him headed westbound in the eastbound lane of Trafalger Street at a high rate of speed. He observed the vehicle “clip” the right front fender of a brown pickup truck that was just turning eastbound into Trafalgar Street from Inverness Street. FINE stated that the pickup truck appeared to have been at a complete stop before entering the intersection. FINE further stated that subsequent to striking the right front fender of the pickup, the SUV-type vehicle proceeded to swerve back into the westbound lane of Trafalgar Street ahead of FINE and strike the northern abutment of the footbridge at a high rate of speed. FINE stated that as he did not possess a cell phone he believed it the best course of action to proceed for help rather than stopping to aid the victims himself. FINE further stated that he turned around and proceeded in an easterly direction on Trafalger Street because he remembered seeing “a cop outside The Breeze” (that being this officer) as he drove past a moment earlier.

           At this point in time, based on the statements of HUNTER, Mr. and Mrs. DOBBINS and FINE, Officer Healey and this officer executed the arrest of HUNTER on charges of reckless driving and negligent homicide. HUNTER was then transported to JSH for tests. Following such tests, HUNTER was then transported to BRRJF, where he made no further statement and was incarcerated.  A further charge of vehicular manslaughter is pending.

           Officer Healey and this officer then proceeded to JSH, where we were informed that LeBLANC and TOPPING had been treated for numerous injuries and were hospitalized. At approximately 07:30 a.m. this officer contacted LEBLANC who was in her hospital bed with Officer Healey. The nurse reported that LeBLANC was in a heavily sedated condition. LEBLANC stated that they had been proceeding to a party at “a student house” in the country when the accident occurred. She further stated that she and her friends, including HUNTER, TOPPING and the deceased BOWERS, had been partying at 137 N. Randolph St. for several hours before leaving for the second party. She further stated that she had not been drinking because she was the evening’s designated driver, but when they decided to leave for the second party, HUNTER grabbed the keys from her and insisted on driving and would not surrender them. At this point in time LEBLANC became too sleepy to interview further. Officer Healey and this officer then proceeded to the bedside of TOPPING but were told by a nurse that TOPPING  was “out like a light” and due to her injuries would probably remain heavily sedated for several days.

Alan W. Grant

Patrolman, VPD

Discussion

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: