Councilman wants Springfield police to respond to all crashes; chief says not enough manpower

·6 min read

Springfield's City Council will soon consider a plan to require police officers to respond to essentially all motor vehicle crashes in the city.

Springfield police stopped responding to some non-injury crashes in 2014 in an attempt to free up officers to focus on other efforts, but Councilman Craig Hosmer proposed a plan at last week’s meeting that would require a Springfield Police Department officer to respond to more motor vehicle accidents, saying it was a matter of public safety.

“I think if you look at most law enforcement agencies in the state, they respond to all motor vehicle accidents,” Hosmer said.

Hosmer said he proposed the change in an effort to keep citizens safe and provide a public service, but the police chief said the proposal would put more strain on his understaffed department.

“This year we have had 27, I believe, motor vehicle fatalities in the city of Springfield, more than we have ever had in the city of Springfield,” Hosmer said. “In my opinion, police officers have an obligation to both protect and to serve, and when citizens call the Springfield Police Department to report a motor vehicle accident it is my belief that a police officer should show up.”

Police respond to a crash on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. Springfield City Council may soon amend policy that requires to police to respond to all traffic crashes in the city. Currently, they only respond to some, including those in which injuries may have occurred.
Police respond to a crash on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. Springfield City Council may soon amend policy that requires to police to respond to all traffic crashes in the city. Currently, they only respond to some, including those in which injuries may have occurred.

As it stands, a Springfield police officer does not respond to motor vehicle accidents if no one is injured, the cars are movable, there is no damage to other private/public property, there is no suspicion that one of the drivers is drunk or high, no drivers have left the scene and if all drivers have valid ID and insurance, according to Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams. Instead, drivers are encouraged to go to the police station and fill out their own report after the fact.

“Only if those six things are in place, then the citizens are told you can report this on your own,” Williams said. “But when in doubt we always go, we don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable.”

Williams emphasized at the meeting that if a driver involved in a “fender bender” does want an officer there, they can request one.

“All they have to do is ask,” he said.

Williams said the department's crash-response policy has been working well over the last seven years, adding that roughly 1,000 citizens a year fill out a report on their own.

“We’ve been doing this for almost eight years now, and everyone is very comfortable with it,” Williams said. “Adding on a thousand calls I think would be detrimental to the workload of the officers now and adding another, in my view, unnecessary process to simply facilitate the exchange of information between two citizens who are agreeable is a move in the wrong direction.”

However, Hosmer said since the change in 2014, the number of traffic tickets written in Springfield has gone down drastically.

“We’ve gone from about 29,000 tickets to 17,000 tickets in the city of Springfield,” Hosmer said. “A lot of those tickets are written after a motor vehicle accident. Motor vehicle accidents are caused by alcohol, they’re caused by drugs, they’re caused by speed, but when officers don’t respond to those accidents those citations are not written.”

Many council members also expressed that they felt, if possible, having officers respond would be beneficial to everyone.

“I was thinking we could miss some important things, some circumstances about these accidents,” Councilman Mike Schilling said. “That the drivers, the offended driver may not be well-versed in thinking about or reporting; speeding, distracted driving, even under the influence I think that’s valuable.”

Councilwoman Angela Romine added that having an official police report would make filing a claim with an insurance company much easier.

“I have seen citizens speaking about this, traffic accidents and self-reporting, is fighting with the insurance company because they do not have a police report,” Romine said. “It is a stressful time for citizens, whether it’s a small fender bender or not.”

Williams sympathized with the council members' points and said if he could, he would love to be able to respond to all crashes, but he added that with his current staffing issues (the police department has 51 open positions for officers) there is no way officers could respond to every single fender bender and do the other work they need to.

“If we were fully staffed and had all the time in the world to do stuff, I would be more than happy to say, ‘Hey, we’ll go back to doing that,” Williams said. “But if we do something like this, we have to pull away from something else. And at this point, my officers don’t have time to do what we ask them to do now, in combating the crime problem in the city.”

More: ‘It took us two years to dig this hole’: Springfield police struggle with staffing shortage

Williams also added that even though they don’t respond to every one called in, non-injury motor vehicle accidents are still one of the top calls his officers spend their time responding to.

“We respond to a lot of crashes,” he said. “Non-injury vehicle accidents is number seven on our list of most frequent calls for service, well over 3,500 of those over the last eight or nine years.”

Williams said if the proposed plan is adopted, all of these calls would be low-priority and citizens could be waiting hours for an officer to respond to the scene.

“To be honest with you, those are low-priority calls, and in the current state of the affairs citizens would be waiting well in excess of an hour, sometimes two or three hours,” Williams said.

Councilwoman Heather Hardinger suggested taking some more time to research the issue before making any changes.

“I’m hesitant to approve a policy change for an issue that I feel is currently being handled,” Hardinger said. “I think this is something that maybe could require a little more research and study.”

Councilman Abe McGull also suggested taking the long view.

“I think there is some merit to this particular ordinance,” McGull said. “The only issue I have with this particular ordinance is the timing, I mean in terms of being effective immediately I would suggest that this be moved to November [2022] after we’ve had at least 20, 25 people graduate the academy.”

Williams later said he respected the idea but was generally a little confused by the proposal.

“I visited with some folks today who said, ‘Chief we don’t want you to come out and spend time doing something we can handle on our own,’” Williams said. “I was a little confused and taken aback by the proposal in the first place and I would hope that nothing would change moving forward.”

City Council will vote on the plan at the next meeting on Monday.

Jordan Meier covers public safety for the Springfield News-Leader. Contact her at jmeier@news-leader.com, (417) 597-7663 or on Twitter @Jordan_Meier644

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Springfield City Council to weigh plan for vehicle crash response

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