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Controversial post shows pros, perils of technology

Online debate questions behavior of officer, drivers, FGPD Facebook poster


COURTESY PHOTO - Wreckage from a fresh crash sits at the intersection of 19th Avenue and Hawthorne Street, where part of the impact was caught on a camera worn by a Forest Grove police officer busy with a nearby traffic stop.The Forest Grove Police Department (FGPD) experienced both the wonders and challenges of technology last week — first, when an officer’s body camera captured a spectacular crash at Hawthorne Street and 19th Avenue; and second, when Capt. Mike Herb posted that video on Facebook.

The video came from one of two body-worn cameras being used in a FGPD pilot program which began last April and will end in October.

So far, Herb said, the cameras have backed up intoxication charges in Driving Under the Influence cases; vindicated officers’ use of force in other cases; and helped refute a citizen’s official complaint — to hospital personnel — of a police beating.

At least two FGPD officers who initially opposed using bodycams have since changed their minds, Herb said.

In this most recent incident, the video appears to show which driver was at fault in the July 14 crash.

Coincidentally, an officer happened to be standing just south of the signal-controlled intersection, writing up a seatbelt ticket for a driver he’d pulled over, when a loud bang drew his — and the camera’s — attention. The video footage swings from the ticket to the intersection, where a violent crash is still in motion and it’s clear that an eastbound driver on 19th Avenue T-boned a car driving south on Hawthorne.

To explain why traffic was slow and to encourage safe driving, Herb took to Facebook, initially posting only a photo of the crash debris with this status report:

“Info for those caught up in the traffic or hearing the sirens earlier this evening. This occurred at 19th & Hawthorne. The other vehicle was totaled. Remarkably — no injuries sustained in this crash but a reminder to pay attention and be careful out there!”

Most of the responses from Facebook “friends” focused on how lucky and wonderful it was that no one was hurt.

Then several people began wondering how the accident happened and speculated that someone ran a red light.

“Both drivers insisted that their light was green,” Herb responded on behalf of the FGPD. “Unfortunately for one of them, our motor officer (who wears a camera) was near the intersection on an unrelated traffic stop and caught part of the crash on video.”

In response, three separate posters complained about yellow lights, Herb said, suggesting one of the drivers might have gone through a yellow light because conditions made it unsafe to stop. Then one of those posters complained that the officer on the scene didn’t come help and didn’t even call for an ambulance, sparking the following exchange:

“FGPD: Remember, this was on video. The vehicles were still moving when the officer looks over. The light was approximately half way through the cycle. It was 10-15 seconds past the yellow light — all caught on tape. The officer is on video checking for injuries and calling for a medical response to the scene — so the assertion that no ambulance was called is also completely false. Perhaps we might post the video to clear up any confusion.

BF: “Post that video then.”

FGPD (three hours later): “Posted.”

Herb said he felt compelled to post the video after the “serious neglect-of-duty charge” about not calling for an ambulance. After watching the video, Herb said, the woman apologized to him privately for the ambulance comment, which she removed from the exchange.

In addition, once FGPD was challenged to post the video, Herb says he realized — during the three hours he considered whether to do so — that not posting it might give people the impression FGPD was hiding something.

But posting it, around 5:30 p.m. Friday, July 17, opened several new cans of worms.

“The attached video shows body worn camera footage of a crash at 19th & Hawthorne July 14th caught within a second of impact,” Herb wrote. “While the officer requests medical crews respond to the scene, fortunately no one was injured in what appeared to be a violent crash. You can see that the N/B light on Hawthorne is visibly red for approximately 10 seconds before the light turns green, indicating it was approximately half-way through its cycle. Another example of how body worn cameras can help the police in their investigations.”

The glowing red light appears to indicate eastward traffic on 19th had the right of way and north-south traffic on Hawthorne should have stopped.

In just 25 hours, the post drew 111 responses, including some from posters who argued back and forth — sometimes in nasty, accusatory tones — about three main issues, starting with whether the officer at the scene acted appropriately. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

RF: “... was the cop more concerned about ticketing the other driver than checking to see if the person in the accident was hurt?”

TT: “I’m not sure that video portrays FGPD in a good light. Why wouldn’t he run over there to assist the drivers.”

SS: “You guys are so concerned on the negative. He called for help. And was doing his job.”

FGPD: “The officer could see that people were exiting the vehicles — he calmly requests a medical response and then runs to the intersection after assessing. This part of the video is not shown — however he quickly confirms that no one is injured and everyone is up and walking around. What is also heard on the audio is the officer trying to get radio air time. He makes two attempts. What you don’t hear is all the other radio traffic. We share our primary channel with other law enforcement agencies. His priority was to find a break in radio traffic to get help on the way. It is not as effective to accomplish this while sprinting for the intersection.”

AAN: “Thats what I remember. All the people involved were safe and out of the vehicles almost immediately after the accident and the officer was on scene right away. I was stopped at the light and the accident was directly in front of me. Thankful for everyone’s safety!”

Other commenters weren’t content with the evidence of the glowing red light. “Pretty sure the t-bonee was traveling at a high rate of speed considering the 4Runner flipped and did a 360,” wrote one man, adding later: “Has there ever been a traffic signal malfunction in Forest Grove?”

Herb said Monday the investigation found no evidence of signal malfunction and that “if you hit a vehicle just right even at the posted speed, cars can do some crazy things.”

On Facebook, he acknowledged that the driver can fight the citation in court if he wants.

The most intense debate revolved around whether FGPD should have even posted the video.

“As for the Forest Grove Police station this is very distasteful of you to post this video also since it’s still under investigation and is still very heartbreaking for the people involved,” wrote a woman who identified herself as the mother of the child in the T-boned vehicle (and girlfriend of the driver). “The person behind this FG posting you should feel ashamed of yourself for being childish and inconciderate of others and the families involved!!!”

Inexplicably, this same woman “liked” the initial “Post that video then” comment which sparked Herb to do so.

Numerous other commenters took up that debate:

KK: “It was posted to show how things like body cams can keep things in check when it comes to investigations. It’s clearly not ment to be be shameful to you, or your boyfriend ...”

AN: “I’m curious if it would be felt the same if she was in the east bound vehicle and not the one who caused the crash? I’m sure that family is forever shaken now by someone who carelessly ran a red light and is lucky to have walked away unharmed.”

DH: “How do you know who caused the crash? Were you there or are you assuming this FGPD Facebook poster is the judge and jury? Educate yourself before you open your mouth! ...”

MJA: “Bottom line, if those involved (or relatives of), weren’t commenting publicly about the accident/video, then 99% of us wouldn’t have a clue who was involved in the accident, even with the video being posted online.”

DH: “Oh I get it, we should cower down and let people make ridiculous or false statements about the parties involved. Bottom line, if someone was calling out your family on social media I’m sure you would keep your mouth shut.”

Herb notes that he has never publicly identified — either by name or close-up photo — any of the people involved in the crash.

While the call for police bodycams sprang from serious claims across the country of officers mistreating civilians, particularly racial minorities, Herb notes that officers and citizens are now both being held accountable by all the new video footage.

“I want people to know the police get to defend themselves too,” he said.

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