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Accident Raises Tension Between Police, Union

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
On Feb. 13, a Capitol Police officer on a motorcycle sped off to stop a car that had run a red light just as a barrier like the one pictured was coming up and he was severely injured.

On the morning of Feb. 13, a routine Capitol Police security drill ended in a traffic accident so serious that an officer had to be rushed to the hospital.

Nearly two weeks later, as the officer continues to recover from a litany of injuries and the surgery those injuries necessitated, Capitol Police union leaders are calling on management to respond to the circumstances that they believe led to the incident.

Certain changes to protocol at security checkpoints should have been addressed seven months ago, said Capitol Police Labor Committee President Jim Konczos, when he and his colleagues reached out to Tom Reynolds, then the acting Capitol Police chief, to express their concerns.

“This accident could have been averted. We sent Reynolds a memo in July, and he chose to either ignore it or not respond to it,” Konczos said. Reynolds is now the assistant to newly appointed Chief Kim Dine.

Though the injured officer is now out of the hospital and is recovering at home, the department is proceeding with a full investigation into the incident, according to Lt. Jessica Baboulis, a Capitol Police spokeswoman.

“USCP is ... committed to maintaining a safe working environment for officers not only at checkpoints, but throughout the Capitol Complex,” Baboulis said in a statement. “We have a dedicated internal team that reviews protocols at the checkpoints and make as-needed changes, with the perpetual goal of keeping our officers safe in their working environment.”

Meanwhile, Dine, who was sworn in less than three months ago, will meet with union representatives on Tuesday to discuss the incident, possible causes and a path forward.

The residual effects of the union’s frequent clashes and communication breakdowns with the department during Reynolds’ tenure, however, threaten to sour Dine’s prospects for putting union-management relations on a smoother course.

“It was never brought up again to me since July,” Reynolds told CQ Roll Call on Monday. He also said he did a verbal walkthrough of proposed changes with the union, which he considered a response. “It’s now February, so I guess this accident prompted some new concern, but the accident and the procedures had nothing to do with each other.”

The union alleges that revised policies regarding Capitol Police presence at security checkpoints led to the Feb. 13 accident, which left one officer with multiple strained ligaments and a ruptured spleen after his participation in a drill at the intersection of Second Street and Independence Avenue Southeast.

According to reports from the union and the department’s Public Information Office, the incident occurred at a checkpoint where automated barriers rise and fall to stop traffic as necessary.

Each of these checkpoints used to also be outfitted with two Capitol Police cars known as “safety vehicles,” which would, as barriers went up, drive into the street as added protection to halt traffic. These vehicles would often eliminate the need for an officer to drive off in pursuit of a motorist who had run a red light.

The “safety vehicles” were removed from the field last summer, however, and the union subsequently wrote to Reynolds, noting that the barriers by themselves could be hazardous to members of the force.

Reynolds, in addition to denying a correlation between the incident and the change in protocol at the checkpoints, said Monday that the safety vehicles were replaced with new technologies that “have helped us save on the number of officers and vehicles being placed in these positions and provided the department with better security and costs savings.”

But what came to pass Feb. 13 was exactly what the union feared: An officer on a motorcycle sped off to stop a car that had run a red light just as one of the barriers was coming up and he was severely injured.

Had the safety vehicles been in place, there would have been no need for the chase, the union contends, adding that despite Reynold’s version of events, it never heard back from management after sending the July 2012 memo.

When the union meets with Dine on Tuesday, it plans to bring up another issue that might have contributed to the incident: the current configuration of traffic lights. There are two sets of lights at each checkpoint within 25 feet of each other, and the sequences are often out of sync. With the first light flashing “red” and the next “green,” it’s the cause of frequent traffic violations, say union leaders, with motorists running red lights and causing more officers to pursue them — a recipe, they say, for more accidents.

Baboulis suggested management was looking forward to Tuesday’s meeting with hopes that it would include a productive discussion of Capitol Police policy, rather than a rehashing of past tensions.

“The Chief and the [union] have an excellent relationship, have been communicating regularly, and will continue to work together cooperatively moving forward,” she said. “In regards to the recent accident, we look forward to having an open and candid discussion with union representatives to talk to their concerns.”

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