Tuesday, March 1, 2016

My Crime Beat Column: On The Scene Of A Tragic Police Accident In South Philly

The below column appeared in the South Philadelphia American on August 29, 1996:

Tragedy often brings out both the best and worst in people. Following the sirens last week I came upon the scene of an accident at 22nd Street and Snyder Avenue a little after 9 p.m.

As most of you know from the intense media coverage, two police cruisers racing to an "assist officer" call collided, spiraled up on the pavement and killed Lemore Rich, 28, and his 7-month-old son, Lemore, Jr.

Rich lay in the street as a crowd gathered on both sides of the avenue. A group of men helped lift one of the police cruisers off of the critically injured man, who subsequently died. The baby stroller lay crushed on the pavement as testimony of the great force of the crash. The child was rushed to Children's Hospital where he too died.

There were those in the growing crowd who wanted to help, like the nurse who offered her services to the police and rescue personnel, but most people just stood there, gazing and commenting on the utter tragedy of a deadly accident.

The print and electronic media vultures were quickly on the scene, which includes, I must admit, yours truly. The press, notebook or microphone in hand, chatted up the crowd about the accident and their particular take on the event. The accident would be the top story for the 10 and 11 o'clock TV news broadcasts and the front page story for the two daily newspapers the next day.

While the police waited for the accident investigators to come to the scene, they tried to maintain crowd control. The police spread yellow tape from one side of the avenue to the other and a handful of onlookers attempting to get a better look at the carnage were told to get back - several times.

Some young thugs gathered around, looking and hoping for trouble. A retired detective who said he had 27 years on the job, remarked that the police ought to remove Rich's body from the street.

"They should just draw some chalk around it and move it," he said a few minutes prior to the body being taken away when the accident investigators arrived on the scene.

The mothers in the crowd appeared to be the most affected. They no doubt identified closely with the child's mother, who had survived the accident, but lost her child and the child's father.

Adding to the circus atmosphere was a drunk, bloated and slovenly poor excuse of a Dean Martin impersonator, replete with cigarette in his left hand and a cocktail in his right. He staggered about Snyder Avenue, muttering senseless obscenities. The accident brought out all of the neighborhood characters for a good viewing.

Most of the racially mixed crowd of onlookers grieved equally for the victims, but race came into it for some. I overheard one man say, "5-0 will cover it up, that's for sure."

 Another commentator added, "They just run over black people."

But I saw two of the injured police officers being taken away to the hospital and the shocked and saddened look on their faces belied the type of callus racism some in the crowd would have you believe. One of the officers was crying softly,

Inspector Bruce Forstator, the commander of the South Police Division, later remarked that it will be tough for the officers to carry this with them for the rest of their lives. Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Zappile, a South Philadelphia native who grew up on Snyder Avenue about a dozen blocks east of the accident, said that investigators would be looking at whether the officers were within the guidelines of the department.

The police driving "Bible" is Directive 45, "The Safe Operations of Police Vehicles." The policy reads: "High speed vehicle pursuits are possibly the most dangerous of all police activities. the safety of innocent citizens, involved police personnel and suspects must be paramount when an officer becomes involved in a pursuit. The most important reason for an effective pursuit policy is to protect life and property - the basic police mission."

Having been out on patrol a good number of times with police officers in their cruisers in several police districts throughout the city, I've rode along on hot pursuits and high speed responses to 911 calls. I've witnessed some good, safe driving from the officers, who are under intense pressure to quickly get to the scene of a crime. I've also witnessed the stupidity and arrogance of some drivers and pedestrians who don't quickly give way to the lights and sirens of the police cruiser.

In this case, the officers were responding to an assist officer call, the highest ranking call in the 911 system.

People often complain that the police don't respond quickly enough, and then when an accident like this happens they are quick to complain about the reckless driving of the police.

Let's wait for the accident report to see if the officers were truly at fault.

Note: The officers involved were later cleared of wrongdoing.

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