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LAPD looking to reduce its high rate of traffic collisions

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Collision liabilities are hurting LAPD, and the department's looking for changes.

The City of Los Angeles paid out almost $24 million in traffic-related incidents involving LAPD officers over the past 9 years and the department is looking to drastically reduce that amount in the future. The department averages about 1,000 traffic accidents a year. 

In 2010, LAPD traffic collisions cost the city $5.8 million in liability claims. In 2011, that number was about $960,000 and so far in 2012, the city has paid out $58,0000.

Beth Corriea, LAPD's risk manager, said at the Police Commission meeting Tuesday that the police force is taking steps to inspire safety-minded driving and to insulate the department from costly lawsuits. 

One of the main things the department is working on is using so-called "black boxes, " the car's Power Control Modules to understand how an accident occurred. PCM's — chips that are installed in most major cars to regulate engine functions, that also have the capacity to store engine data — are in all police cars, but the department doesn't necessarily know how to read those chips.

For instance, in the case of Devin Petelski, who died after a police car crashed into her car on Venice Boulevard, department investigators couldn't read the PCM embedded in the police cruiser. Department investigators, using physics— skid patterns, impact angles, car locations, etc. — concluded that officers were driving at 49 mph. Petelski's relatives hired an expert, who read the PCM and found it indicated police were travelling at 78 mph when they hit Petelski's car. The city ended up paying out $5 million to Petelski's family. 

LAPD Commander Andy Smith said PCM's are not necessarily 100 percent reliable, but it hurts the department's abilty to investigate (and litigate) a collision when they can't read the chips. LAPD is working with PCM manufacturers to learn how to use them properly.

According to Corriea, LAPD is also looking to other industries, like trucking and the military, to garner tips on how to properly train officers for hours and hours behind the wheel. LAPD crashes, she said, tend to be high-speed and involve some sort of stress — and training should mirror that environment.

Corriea indicated that reducing collisions will be a long-term project and not necessarily an instant turnaround. Investigations into such incidents, however, are already changing. Recently, LAPD created a system for investigating officer-involved collisions that resembles the system for investigating use of force — imbuing investigators with more authority, and officers involved with the obligation to cooperate.

Traffic collisions are part of what makes police work one of the more dangerous jobs in the United States. As of July 10, 24 law enforcement personnel in the US have died in on-the-job traffic incidents so far this year. Meanwhile, 19 have died in firearms related incidents, and 13 from unspecified other causes. 

This story has been updated.

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