Shortly after Shelby County sheriff Mark Luttrell took office in 2002, he noticed his officers weren't just assisting after traffic accidents — they were having quite a few wrecks of their own.
According to a report released last month by the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, Shelby County Sheriff's Office (SCSO) deputies had more traffic accidents in 2006 than officers from three similarly sized departments.
"It sends a mixed message to the community when we're out policing day by day, trying to prevent traffic crashes, and we have several of our own," said SCSO spokesperson Steve Shular.
The SCSO's 2006 accident rate — 109 accidents for 498 officers — equates to 2.2 accidents for every 10 officers.
The worst officer accident in recent history was in 2004, when 40-year-old Metro Gang Unit officer Timothy Dunn was involved in a fatal collision. The accident wasn't Dunn's fault, but Luttrell saw it as an opportunity to stress vehicle safety.
"Ever since we lost Dunn, I feel that we have an obligation to ... emphasize to our officers the importance of safe handling of vehicles," said Luttrell.
Luttrell wanted to know how his department compared to others.
"The two most common accidents are backing into other vehicles and [hitting] animals in the roadway, like when a deputy hits a deer or some other animal," said Joanitha Barnes, who oversaw the study for the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.
Besides comparing numbers, the study also looked at how other departments are preventing accidents.
In Jefferson County, Kentucky, officers are required to attend a Collision Review and Safety Hearing (CRASH) after each accident. CRASH committee members make recommendations for penalties, ranging from a written reprimand to a loss of take-home vehicle privileges. Out of its 300 sworn deputies, Jefferson County only had 22 officer accidents in 2006.
"In the past, [our CRASH] hearings were based strictly on documentation," said Luttrell. "Now we're going to start bringing in the actual participants in the accidents [similar to how it's done in Jefferson County]."
The sheriff's office spent nearly $190,000 repairing and replacing wrecked police vehicles last year. Since SCSO is self-insured, the cost falls to the department.
While the study did not single out incidents of careless driving by officers, Luttrell said the department is concerned about the misuse of police vehicles. One officer was fired last year after sending his car flying into a median on Interstate 40.
"We do want to caution our officers that the public is watching," said Luttrell. "If officers are handling vehicles inappropriately, they'll be penalized for that."