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Why the Modesto Police Department is focusing on vehicle collisions – namely, its own

Officers with the Modesto Police department stand by as they wait for a tow truck to arrive to remove a cop car from the cemetery brick wall Wednesday (03-11-15) on Scenic drive near Bodem street in Modesto, Calif.
Officers with the Modesto Police department stand by as they wait for a tow truck to arrive to remove a cop car from the cemetery brick wall Wednesday (03-11-15) on Scenic drive near Bodem street in Modesto, Calif. jlee@modbee.com

Modesto police officers have been involved in 234 traffic collisions in the past 4 1/2 years, from rear-ending a car stopped at a light or backing into another car to losing control on a turn and crashing into a business.

That’s a lot of twisted and torn metal for a department that is budgeted 240 police officers, from the chief all the way down to the newest rookie. The majority of the collisions involved patrol officers.

“Two-hundred-and-thirty-four sounds high and it is,” Police Chief Galen Carroll said. “But these (patrol) cars are being driven 24-7, and we have young employees. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when you have young guys and gals. And that’s why we are trying to get ahead of it.”

The Police Department has started a program it expects will reduce the number of collisions, make officers and the department’s civilian employees better drivers, and provide consistent consequences to drivers involved in traffic wrecks.

The Traffic Collision Review Committee started in June and meets monthly or as needed. Lt. Aaron Tait — who is the committee’s chairman — said the goal is to look for the common factors and provide training based on those factors. “We want to identify trends where we can be proactive and prevent traffic collisions,” he said.

The committee is charged with reviewing all of the Police Department’s traffic wrecks. So in addition to wrecks involving police officers, the committee reviews wrecks involving the department’s civilian employees, such as community service officers.

The committee also reviews what police call traffic incidents, which are less serious than traffic collisions. An example would be an officer backing his vehicle into a pole or wall and causing minor damage to the bumper.

The department was not able to say how many traffic incidents it has had since 2014 or the number of traffic collisions its civilian employees have been involved in since 2014.

While high-speed crashes make the news, Tait said the vast majority of traffic crashes happen at low speeds and include turning in front of another vehicle or backing into a car.

Fewer accidents means Modesto will spend less money repairing and replacing its own vehicles as well as what it pays out when officers and civilian employees are at fault in traffic wrecks.

Tait said officers were at fault 43 times in the 88 traffic collisions since 2017. Information for prior years was not available.

Modesto has spent $885,062 since 2014 to repair or replace department vehicles involved in collisions and incidents. (Thirteen vehicles have been totaled since 2015.) Tait said that does not reflect insurance payments the city has received when the other driver was at fault. How much the city has received from insurance was not available.

Modesto paid out $48,773 in its last budget year, which ended June 30, to settle 13 claims filed against it by drivers and property owners who alleged department employees hit their vehicles or property while driving.

But these payouts can be substantial. For instance, the city paid $45,654 in 2016 to settle one claim involving a police officer in a traffic wreck, and it paid $100,000 in 2014 after an undercover detective smashed into a car.

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