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Seat Belt Law Doesn't Click With Officers

Buckling up is required of L.A.'s police too, but some resist because of utility belt hassles and a possible need for quick escape from a vehicle.

April 02, 2006|Lynn Doan | Times Staff Writer

"Click it or ticket" -- unless you're a Los Angeles police officer.

Those who regularly ticket drivers for not wearing their seat belts often commit the same offense, and that bothers supervisors in the Los Angeles Police Department.

George Gascon, an LAPD assistant chief, said he was riding in a patrol car recently with an officer who remained unbuckled, despite the presence of a superior.

Gascon said he subtly tried to get the officer to buckle up by playing around with his own seat belt.

"But it just didn't click," he said.

Punning aside, Gascon and other supervisors are sufficiently concerned that they are taking steps to get officers to buckle up. He wouldn't comment on the specifics, calling the matter an "internal issue."

But Sgt. Paul Weber, an officeholder with the Police Protective League union, said the department recently began showing officers a video that highlights the dangers of driving without a seat belt.

Additionally, supervisors, during the traditional start-of-shift meetings known as roll calls, regularly remind officers to buckle up.

The department's internal campaign comes as it prepares to receive a grant of $86,500 to help with "Click It or Ticket," a national advertising campaign to get more motorists to use seat belts.

In California, it's against the law not to buckle up. Last year, LAPD officers issued 5,480 seat belt tickets; they've written 941 so far this year.

"How is it that we are stopping people and citing them for not wearing their seat belts, when we're guilty of the same offense?" asked Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger.

LAPD officers who violate the state's seat belt law are given warnings on the first two infractions and face suspension for further violations, according to the police union.

To be sure, police officers, who wear equipment belts and sometimes need to enter and leave their cars quickly in emergencies, aren't ordinary motorists.

Weber said officers worry that they won't be able to escape their patrol cars fast enough if they're fastened in while under attack. Officers have also said seat belts damage and get tangled in their "Sam Browns" -- the utility belts they use to holster their guns, batons and handcuffs.

"See this?" Senior Lead Officer Roy Ceja asked, pointing to some marks on his utility belt. "Guess what that's from."

Some within the department said they believed that officers were excluded from the seat belt law, but Paysinger said that was not true. Officers are required to obey all traffic laws except when responding to an emergency, Paysinger said.

Department officials say their reasons for wanting officers to buckle up extend well beyond setting an example for other motorists, however. During a meeting with South Bureau department heads in January, Gascon expressed concern over the number of work-related injuries and suggested that some officers have lied about whether they were wearing their seat belts during accidents.

"All [police-related] car accident reports say that the officers were wearing seat belts, but the injuries aren't consistent with people wearing seat belts," he said.

According to the department's website, LAPD officers have been involved in nearly 200 auto collisions in the last five years while responding to emergency calls. No statistics were available for the number of police-involved accidents overall.

The seat-belt issue hits particularly close to home for Weber. More than two decades ago, he helped train three young officers who later died in an on-duty traffic accident. None of the officers -- Derrick Connor, David Hofmeyer and Manuel Gutierrez -- was wearing a seat belt in the December 1988 collision. They had been speeding to the aid of a detective who had called for help on skid row when they collided with another patrol car.

Weber said he too had been guilty of ignoring his seat belt, but not anymore.

"Looking back with 22 years of experience, I have a totally different perspective," he said.

Weber wrote a column in the league's February newsletter, urging officers to strap themselves in.

"You can find a reason for anything if you don't want to do it, whether it be scuffing up your belt or causing a rash," he said. "But you can always buy a new utility belt. You can't buy a new face."

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