By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Everyone knows that Florida’s highways are filled with terrible drivers, but thanks to a terrific series by the Sun Sentinel, we now know that some of the worst are the people who are supposed to make us safer.
In a three-month investigation, the Fort Lauderdale-based newspaper and website documented nearly 800 police officers from a dozen agencies driving at 90 mph to 130 mph on the region’s toll roads. Many times, they weren’t on duty — just commuting to and from work.
The findings ran in a three-part series last week — and had an instant effect. On Sunday, the paper reported that an array of police chiefs and elected officials had ordered crackdowns on speeding cops:
“At the very least, the most severe ones are going to lose their [take-home] car — right now,” said Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who ordered an internal invesigation.
“If you don’t address the problem and you don’t hand out significant discipline with it … then the message is it’s OK. This is not OK.”
Veteran investigative reporter Sally Kestin and data maven John Maines came up with an ingenious method for finding these speeding cops. They obtained data from data in SunPass transponders in patrol cars and — by tediously driving up and down the area’s highways — checked it against distances between toll plazas.
They found 793 transponders with evidence of speeding. On average, one out of five of the patrol cars exceeded 90 mph. Over a 13-month period, they found 5,100 high-speed incidents.
They discovered that 21 people have been killed or maimed by speeding cops since 2004 — and interviewed grieving relatives and accident survivors.
They found that speeding cops often escaped serious punishment in the criminal justice system. “Cops found at fault for fatal wrecks caused by speeding have faced consequences ranging from no criminal charges to a maximum of 60 days in jail,” the paper reported.
A culture of loyalty often protects cops who speed. “At least 320 law enforcement officers across Florida were involved in crashes from 2004 through 2010 that were blamed on the officers’ speeding. But only 37 — 12 percent — were ticketed,” the paper said. “By contrast, 55 percent of other motorists who were speeding when they crashed received a citation.”
Kestin told me that she was inspired to investigate the problem after Miami Police Officer Fausto Lopez was arrested at gunpoint and charged with reckless driving in October, after allegedly leading the Florida Highway Patrol on a seven-minute chase at speeds that reached 120 mph on Florida’s Turnpike in Broward County. He was in his squad car, but not on duty.
“He wasn’t rushing to save a life,” Kestin said in an email. “He was just late for work.”
The arrest was big news. And as Kestin and Maines discovered later, Lopez had a bad habit of speeding: “In the year before his Oct. 11 traffic stop, Lopez averaged at least 90 mph on 237 days. He hit speeds of 100 mph or higher on 114 days.”
Kestin’s email continued:
As I watched that story and video take off, I started thinking about how we might get at the bigger picture. How could we document and quantify cops speeding?
John Maines and I discussed it and considered GPS tracking systems, but not all agencies have those in police vehicles.
My next idea was SunPass. I went to the keeper of SunPass records and requested transponder data for several of our police agencies, figuring it would be faster and simpler than going through the police departments. John worked his magic on the raw data to get it into a format we could use, and then we started driving the highways to measure the distance between toll booths.
The response has been overwhelming. The series set records online for page views, comments and visits to the database of speeding cops. I’ve received more than 200 emails and phone calls, most of them thanking us for shining a light on a long-standing problem and community danger.
The police agencies are taking notice. All started internal affairs investigations before we even published and are promising disciplinary action against the worst speeders. Four cities are now looking into using GPS in police cars to monitor and catch speeders.
This is the rare work of investigative reporting that not only clearly exposed a wrong, but quickly spurred efforts to set things right. The newspaper, which has suffered blows to its staffing and resources in this tough economy, deserves credit for supporting the work.
And the record page-view response is evidence that maybe, just maybe, news organizations can best draw an audience and keep themselves relevant if they produce high-quality journalism.
Best of all, the region’s roads may become a little safer.