City officials are waiting expectantly as the University of South Carolina reviews its emergency vehicle response policy in light of the Nov. 7 crash that killed one police officer and injured another in the Vista.
“I’m certain they will make the necessary adjustments to avoid anything such as this in the future,” Columbia city councilman Sam Davis said.
The Columbia Police Department revised one of its policies last month after a S.C. Highway Patrol investigation showed that officer Stacy Case, who was killed in the crash behind the Koger Center for the Arts, was driving too fast, ran a red light without slowing down and was not wearing a seat belt.
Case was traveling at 64 mph west on College Street when she was hit by a USC officer responding to the same call, according to the state Highway Patrol. USC Police Sgt. Allan Bolin was traveling 76 mph north on Park Street and also was not wearing a seat belt.
University spokesman Wes Hickman said immediately after the crash that Bolin did not violate any department policy or state law but told The State newspaper this week that USC police would review their emergency vehicle operation policy.
“That specific review is underway, although it’s also worth noting that our policies and procedures are continuously undergoing review and revision,” Hickman said.
City councilwoman Tameika Devine said she trusts university officials to consider the safety of all citizens in the city.
“There needs to be discretion of officers, but there also needs to be some thought process as to the other factors that may go into them getting to a situation quickly – especially when you have a lot of walkers, people crossing the street, pedestrians, student housing in the area,” Devine said. “All those things are a concern.”
Although the city doesn’t have jurisdiction over the university’s police response rules, Devine said university and city officials communicate frequently.
“Though it’s their call and purview, based on past experience I would think there would be communication between them and our police and the (Richland County) Sheriff’s Department,” she said.
Columbia police are required to wear seat belts and are allowed to travel no more than 20 mph above the speed limit, according to Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook.
At the time of the collision, officers responding with lights and sirens were allowed to run red lights as long as they slowed down and checked that the way was clear. In the wake of Case’s death, Columbia Police changed that rule to require all officers to stop at red lights before entering an intersection.
“Coming to that stop, the few seconds that causes, I don’t think it’s going to have any effect on our ability to provide service,” Holbrook said.
University police also are required to wear seat belts, Hickman said.
“It is common for law enforcement officers to disengage their seat belt when approaching a scene – particularly one with shots fired and a high threat to life safety – so that they can exit the vehicle more quickly, without risk of equipment getting caught,” he said. “In this case, both officers were within a block of the reported area where shots had been fired with one person down.”
The report of gunfire turned out to be a suicide at the 1100 block of Lincoln Street, according to Richland County Coroner Gary Watts. That area is about three to four blocks away from the intersection where the officers crashed.
Hickman clarified that while the exact location is known after the fact, that might not have been the case when the officers were en route.
“The officers were responding to ‘shots fired, one down’ near an intersection,” he said. “In the moment of response it’s possible that the scene or the shooter could have been moving – responding officers have to account for that.”
In South Carolina, all officers are taught to unfasten their seat belts as they near a scene, according to Maj. Florence McCants with the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy. This is called “tactical deployment.”
That way, McCants said, “when you have to exit your vehicle, you can do so in an expeditious matter.”
USC professor of criminology Geoffrey Alpert, who has studied police driving and collisions extensively, said a few things always come up when officers crash.
“The three things that stick out on every one of these is speed, seat belts and distractions,” Alpert said. “There are videos, there’s training, there’s no excuse in this day and age for police officers not wearing seat belts. There are a lot of concerns for their own safety and the safety of the public, speeding – certainly through a red light.”
As for the university, Hickman declined to say what specific changes officials are considering.
“This is a full and comprehensive review of the emergency vehicle operation policy, so at this time, I’m not able to say specifically what policy changes or additions might be suggested,” he said. “Similarly, there is not a specific timeline for completion.”
Hickman added that the university officer injured in the Nov. 7 crash has been released from the hospital.
“Sgt. Bolin has been discharged from the the hospital and continues to recover at home,” he said. “We expect he will make a full recovery and ultimately return to service.”
SINCE THE CRASH
The Columbia Police Department quickly changed its rules to require officers to stop at red lights before entering an intersection when responding to emergencies.
Police Chief Skip Holbrook said this change will not slow response time or affect officers’ ability to serve the public.