It’s one of the most basic lessons of driver’s ed: If you’re in an accident, stay put and wait for the police to come.
In Springfield, however, the police do not respond to every traffic accident, instead allowing those involved to trade insurance information and go their separate ways if possible. Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams figures about 1,000 fender-benders per year are handled this way, saving officers well over 1,000 hours of response time.
An ordinance proposed by Councilperson Craig Hosmer, due for a council vote on Dec. 13, would change that practice by requiring the department’s traffic division to respond to all reported traffic accidents on public streets or property.
Hosmer told council that, in August 2014, the Springfield Police Department went from investigating all motor vehicle accidents to investigating only those with serious physical injuries or unmovable motor vehicles.
In his comments to council, Hosmer made the claim that most law enforcement agencies in the state respond to all motor vehicle accidents. The Missouri Department of Revenue, which oversees driver licensing in the state, directs drivers not to move their vehicles unless they pose a danger to other drivers and to contact police if an accident occurs.
Hosmer said in the last 10 years, officers have gone from writing about 29,000 tickets per year to writing 17,000, and many of those previous tickets were written after motor vehicle accidents, where drugs, alcohol or excessive vehicle speed were a factor. This year, the city has had 27 motor vehicle fatalities, he noted – more than ever before in Springfield.
“When citizens call the Springfield Police Department and report a motor vehicle accident, it’s my belief that a police officer should show up,” Hosmer said. “Someone should respond on behalf of the city of Springfield.”
Williams expressed opposition to Hosmer’s proposal.
“Adding another unnecessary process to simply facilitate the exchange of information between two citizens who are agreeable and can do that is a move in the wrong direction,” he said.
Williams said specific conditions must be in place for drivers to handle an accident on their own. There must be no injuries and no evidence of impairment. Damage must be only to vehicles, all vehicles must be operational, and drivers involved must have a valid driver’s license and valid insurance.
“Only if those six things are in place, then the citizens are told you can report this on your own,” Williams said. “If someone says no, I actually want an officer to come, we still go.”
According to Williams, people would have to wait well in excess of an hour for police to arrive to a fender-bender.
Williams said 85% of patrol officers’ time is spent responding to service calls.
“That should be about 30% to leave time for proactive patrolling,” he said. “As we work towards reducing some less serious calls for service and reevaluating what we are responding to, I think something along this line, something that has been working well and has been for about eight years, moving backwards is not the right call.”
In his introduction to the council bill, Hosmer acknowledged that police officer staffing levels are low, with 51 current vacancies and six forthcoming retirements.
“I understand that there is a lack of resources right now, but in my opinion, we have an obligation to our constituents to make sure they’re responded to when they call for police officers to report to a motor vehicle accident,” Hosmer said.
Hosmer offered the bill on his own, although most council action is routed through a committee process or through city staff, as his fellow council member, Matthew Simpson, clarified.
Williams noted in general, his department establishes priorities based on national standards.
Councilperson Angela Romine said insurance companies prefer to have police reports for motor vehicle accidents, and some people have issues with their insurer when they can’t produce one.
Dan Smith, director of the city’s Public Works Department, said information contained in police reports is also helpful for his department
“Truthfully there’s nothing as good as a police report,” he said. “However, at the same time, when there’s a limited pool of funds, you balance things and you make things work, and we’ve worked together to make this system work.”
In a lively conversation, other council members weighed in to offer their views.
Mike Schilling said some people involved in motor vehicle accidents may not be cognizant of the other party’s condition the way a police officer would.
Abe McGull added a young driver might be confronted by someone who is unscrupulous or dishonest, and a police report can help to calm a situation down. He suggested the matter be moved to November 2022 to allow the department to make hires that would make the council bill more tenable. Romine agreed with McGull that it might be best to wait until police staffing levels are higher to enact the new policy.
Richard Ollis said staff shortages are a long-term problem and suggested it will be several years before the department is at full staff. He added residents are more concerned with violent crime.
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