Drivers worry about Victoria police not responding to minor crashes

March 30, 2013 at 5:05 p.m.
Updated March 30, 2013 at 10:31 p.m.

When 16-year-old Erica Rush crashed into the back of a Ford F-150 last week, she and the other driver called 911, expecting police to file an unbiased report.

An officer did arrive -- but not to investigate the crash.

Instead, he handed her and the other driver a blue form from the Texas Department of Transportation and told them to collect their own information for insurance purposes.

The officer stayed for a few minutes to answer questions and help with the exchange of information, but Erica and the other driver filled out their own forms, showing each other their licenses and insurance cards and taking statements.

The officers are starting the transition for Saturday, when Victoria police will stop responding to minor, noninjury accidents when the vehicles can be driven from the scene, said Police Chief J.J. Craig.

Erica, a student at East High School, said she forgot to take pictures and get witness information, even with police present to remind her.

Her father, Tracy Rush, arrived on scene after the accident and said although he understands the need for the police policy, he is concerned by how much responsibility it puts on drivers, especially younger ones.

"She seemed like a nice enough lady, but if she screwed up at home and caused more damage, she could say this happened in the accident," Tracy Rush said about the other driver, wishing his daughter would have thought to photograph the damage.

Despite the concerns, Craig said this is a necessary move for his understaffed department. Officers spent about 1,800 hours in 2012 responding to these minor accidents and filling out the reports, he said.

"These types of calls are a real manpower-intensive burden on our units," Craig said. "My intention is to free up those officers for higher priority calls and keep them in the field for extensive amounts of time."

Of the 2,072 wrecks in 2012, about 1,200 of them were minor accidents, with no injuries and the vehicles drivable, Craig said. And facing staffing shortages, Craig said the department examined its workload to make the policy change.

The department struggled with staffing for most of 2012, with officers leaving for other departments and the oil fields. Craig said he is still short 11 officers and has had to move staff from other divisions back to patrol because of the shortage. The police department also handed over its school resource officer program to the Victoria sheriff's office during the past year.

In addition, Craig said, the department is looking at other types of service calls officers may not respond to in the future but did not say what those are.

Joe Truman, Super District 5 councilman, said he supports trying the new method of dealing with crashes but said he has had residents call him with concerns.

"The only workable solution other than the policy change would be to have more police staff and increase the funding, which would pull resources from other areas to support that. So it is a tight rope we are doing right now, trying to find a balance," Truman said.

Craig said police would respond to minor wrecks if a driver does not have insurance, will not exchange information, appears drunk or is trying to leave the scene or if one or more cars needs to be towed.

Hector Gutierrez, who has been a Farmers Insurance agent for more than 10 years, said he thinks the new policy could cause auto insurance rates to increase in Victoria.

"We mainly depend on the police report and then the adjusters will make their determinations between the stories from the individuals and the police report. I personally don't like it because I believe it will create a lot of ill will among individuals in reference to accidents," Gutierrez said.

He said Victoria could see an increase in small claims court lawsuits because Texas is an at-fault state, requiring those at fault to pick up all the costs of an accident.

"Whatever the people state is going to become a major factor, but if someone is not telling us the 100 percent truth of how the situation happened, then it goes into, 'I said this, and you said that,' and that is where the arguments become bigger. I don't know how the adjusters are going to handle that situation," Gutierrez said.

Mark Hanna, spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas, said the policy is unlikely to cause a spike in rates because it is becoming increasingly common for police departments to not respond to minor, non-injury accidents with recent budget cuts and staff shortages across the state.

"We are talking about minor accidents. We aren't talking about an awful lot of money. ... It could be a couple thousand pretty easily, but compared to a major accident where you have injuries, possibly fatalities, damage to both cars or more, that is when you start seeing rates affected," Hanna said.

He said the information needed for a minor accident -- the other party's phone number, address, insurance information and pictures -- can be collected by drivers themselves.

Some Texas cities of comparable size handle minor accidents, and some do not.

Missouri City Police Department, with a population of almost 70,000, also does not file a report for minor accidents, said dispatcher Beverly Watkins. She said the department has had the policy for more than 16 years, when she started, and dispatch can help tell people what information they need to get.

Craig said Victoria dispatch will also be able to help drivers get the necessary information.

The Galveston Police Department, with a population of almost 50,000, responds to and files a report for all accidents, even if there is little damage.

"Our policy has always been that we always investigate them. When people are involved in accidents, typically their emotions can be elevated," said Bryon Frankland, Galveston operations bureau commander, adding that having an officer present keeps tempers from flaring and fights from erupting.

Emett Alvarez, Victoria City councilman from District 1, said he wants the department to try the new policy, hoping it will free officers to be more offensive against crime in the city.

"I think he is going after the bigger problem in that respect," Alvarez said of the chief. "However, I think we also need to be very careful about this, even if it is done in bigger cities. . After six months, if it is not working, and we get a lot of complaints or concerns and the public is not satisfied, then we should revisit it and discuss the policy again."

Jade Hoffman, a student at the University of Houston-Victoria, said she thinks the policy is a disservice to Victoria residents.

She was in a minor accident in front of Point Royale Apartments in late February and did not call the police. Afterward, she said, the other party lied to the insurance company, causing her to foot the bill.

"The lady, she was really nice, so I trusted her. ... And then all of a sudden, she lied to her insurance company and quit answering her phone. That is what is sad - I thought I could trust her, but no," Hoffman said.

A $500 deductible and three weeks later, Hoffman said she got her car back with her own insurance covering the costs for the damage.

"I wish I would have called the police because now I know better," she said. "But, now, with this new policy, it isn't going to matter anyway."



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