Wednesday, May 03, 2000

Siren rules not uniform

Crash puts spotlight on police policy

By Sara J. Bennett
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When police respond to urgent calls or emergency situations, they may or may not use lights and sirens depending on the policy of their individual department and the officer's discretion.

        Forest Park Police Officer Joel Mast was without lights and sirens en route to assist another officer when his cruiser hit a car Sunday morning. Anthony “Tony” Richard, 37, of Springdale, died, and his 17-year-old nephew was injured.

        Ohio law requires using flashing lights and sirens if emergency vehicles need to speed or claim right of way over other motorists. And several departments have policies further spelling out when the warnings must be used.

        Others — Forest Park among them — let officers decide.

Accident reviewed
        Forest Park police and investigators for the attorney representing Mr. Richard's family are reconstructing Sunday's collision. Among their questions: whether Officer Mast was speeding; and whether the car, driven by a 16-year-old nephew of Mr. Richard, stopped at a sign before crossing in front of the cruiser.

        Peter Koenig, the Cincinnati attorney representing Mr. Richard's relatives, said his client did stop.

        Investigators also are exploring whether Officer Mast's decision not to use lights and sirens contributed to the collision.

        “It's premature to conclude that it was material or was not material, but I think anyone who's following this has to believe it's going to be an important issue,” Mr. Koenig said.

Officer's decision
        Forest Park officers use lights and sirens based on several factors, including traffic congestion and the nature of the response. The road at 1:20 a.m. where the wreck occurred typically has light traffic, Police Chief Ken Hughes said.

        Officer Mast, a 21-year veteran with an exemplary record, was driving to assist officers in Springfield Township. Chief Hughes described the call as “urgent.”

        Deer Park also leaves the lights-and-sirens decision to officers.

        Sometimes, officers don't want criminals to know they're approaching, said Chief Michael Berens, who also is president of the Hamilton County Chiefs of Police Association.

        “It requires a lot of discretion for a police officer to do his job in a lot of areas, not only regarding lights and sirens, but with issuing citations and even when to use deadly force,” Chief Berens said. Police in Cincinnati and Hamilton, and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department, have policies detailing when lights and sirens must be used.

        Even then, there is room for discretion.

        Sheriff's department spokesman Steve Barnett said it's up to deputies whether they'll respond to a call in emergency mode. In Hamilton, officers must use lights and sirens if the dispatcher terms a call an emergency. On other calls, officers decide, said Sgt. Thomas Kilgour.


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