Wheelchair shocker: Viewers find accident video disturbing
Why couldn't a driver see a man in a wheelchair crossing in front of him? That's one question raised by the release of a dash cam video shot from the front of Albemarle County Police Officer Greg C. Davis' cruiser on November 5, the day he struck wheelchair pedestrian Gerry Mitchell in a West Main Street crosswalk.
The release of the video on Monday, January 7, also raises new questions about a December 12 memo that Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo wrote to address citizen concerns about his department's decision to ticket Mitchell.
The video, shot in broad daylight on a clear, sunny morning, shows with painful clarity the impact that sent the handicapped Charlottesville artist tumbling out of his chair to the pavement. And yet the Chief's memo, written six weeks after the incident, discounts witness accounts and attempts to deflect blame for the accident from the driver, an on-duty officer, and justify why Charlottesville police ticketed the man who'd been struck.
His investigating officer, Longo wrote, "discerned that the sudden nature of the pedestrian coming into the officer's field of vision prevented him from taking any steps (other than to immediately brake) to avoid hitting the pedestrian."
That explanation puzzles some who've now seen the video.
"That doesn't make sense to me unless he has zero peripheral vision," says pedestrian activist Kevin Cox. "If his peripheral vision is that limited, he shouldn't be driving."
Indeed, the video (posted at the readthehook.com), shows only a narrow view directly in front of the car, which was turning left onto West Main Street from Fourth Street by the Main Street Market. Mitchell was crossing the east side of the intersection heading south when he was struck.
The officer was not charged, and Longo maintains the collision was "unavoidable."
"My view," Longo writes in an email a day after the video's release, "was, and is, that the situation appears to have occurred so suddenly, that there was nothing else the officer could have done at that point but apply his brakes."
The video also features an unexpected soundtrack– the Black Eyed Peas' hip-hop song "My Humps"– which becomes audible immediately following the impact.
According to Albemarle County Police Lt. John Teixeira, the audio portion of the recording triggers when the cruiser's emergency lights are activated. The lights also trigger the video to begin recording rather than simply streaming, as it does while the car is in standard driving mode. (Like a car-version of TiVo, the video recording captures up to 90 seconds prior to activation of the lights.)
Cox is concerned about the music– and its source.
"I'd like to know where the music was coming from," he says, speculating that perhaps Davis was adjusting a stereo or even an iPod as he made the turn and struck Mitchell. Teixeira says he doesn't know the source of the music, and in his memo, Longo writes "there was no known indication that Officer Davis was distracted in any way. I specifically asked whether the officer was on his cell phone or his computer." The answer to both questions, Longo wrote, was "no," and in his email he maintains there was no reason to think Davis' attention was anywhere but on the road.
This seems to contradict the report from an eye-witness to the accident who reported that immediately after the accident, the officer "said he had been 'looking down' as he turned."
Although using a cell phone and websurfing are verboten while driving, police policy does not prohibit officers from listening to music from the car stereo, says Teixeira.
"It should!" exclaims Cox. "They're supposed to be doing their jobs, not listening to music. That's a recreational activity."
Even considering the initial impact that sent Mitchell reeling, another upsetting portion of the video occurs as Davis and a witness hoist Mitchell back into his chair mere seconds after he's been struck.
"As a professional, the police officer should have known not to move him," says Cox. "It's shocking to me that he didn't stop the witness from moving him, and that he then went so far as to help move him."
Mitchell, whose bones are brittle from the medication he takes to control AIDS, was treated and released at UVA hospital the day of the accident, then rehospitalized the following day in renal failure. In mid-December, doctors diagnosed broken bones in his shoulder, something he believes happened when he was lifted from the street into his chair.
On New Year's Day, three days before a show of his paintings was scheduled to open at the Mudhouse coffee shop, Mitchell was hospitalized with swelling in his joints and in "deep pain," he says. He remained hospitalized at Hook press time Tuesday, but he was scheduled to be moved to an area nursing home where he will remain for a minimum of three weeks.
Watching himself being struck by the car was "very upsetting," says Mitchell, who adds that the video confirms for him that his recollection of the accident is correct. He says he hasn't determined what steps he'll take– or whether he'll file a civil suit against the county or the city.
"That hasn't been part of my mind," he says. "I've been focusing on trying to get well."
While it was an Albemarle County police officer who struck him, what happened after the accident added insult to his injuries. Charlottesville police, who investigated the accident, opted to ticket Mitchell, and delivered the summons while he was being treated in the UVA emergency room. Although the charge, failing to obey a pedestrian signal, was eventually dropped because the statute didn't exactly describe the pedestrian signal Mitchell supposedly violated, Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman declined to apologize for prosecuting Mitchell.
Longo, however, says he saw Mitchell in City Hall several weeks ago, apologized to him, and says he plans to "follow up" now that the case is resolved.
Teixeira says the Albemarle County Police Department has learned a lesson from the incident– "to respond empathetically as soon as you can." Police policy prohibits officers from commenting on internal or external investigations, and Teixeira– who on Monday issued an apology to Mitchell on behalf of Albemarle County Police– believes the policy contributed to community concerns that the Department was engaging in a cover-up or simply didn't care.
"That's not the case," he says.
Albemarle County's internal investigation into the incident will wrap in a couple of weeks, says Teixeira, who doesn't know whether results will be made public. The video was released to the public two business days after the case was dropped and after numerous media appeals for the public document. Texeira says the release, which might legally have been withheld until the internal investigation wrapped, was an effort to help people understand how the accident happened.
"We're hoping by putting the video out," he says, "that people can make their own minds up."