Posted on: Sunday, May 18, 2008
Red flags over investigators' efforts
Victims' families suspicious about police inquiries of accidents involving officers
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The families of two elderly pedestrians who were killed in O'ahu crosswalks in 2005 still have questions about the way police investigated the cases.
Their main one: Did officers do a thorough and impartial job investigating two of their own?
The drivers in both cases were off-duty Honolulu police officers. In both cases, police initially indicated that speed may have been a factor.
Ok Nam Lee, 73, and Tatsuye "Barbara" Yoshizumi, 77, were fatally injured two months apart in 2005 as they walked across marked crosswalks in the dark. Lee was struck about 5:30 a.m. on Ala Moana across from Ala Moana Beach Park in October of that year, while Yoshizumi was hit about 8:30 p.m. on Moanalua Road in 'Aiea in August.
Based on the completed police investigations, prosecutors by the end of 2005 declined to pursue criminal charges against either driver. Prosecutors determined there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that crimes occurred.
Those cases were among the 31 on O'ahu from 2003 through 2006 in which prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges against drivers because of insufficient evidence. The 31 represented roughly 40 percent of the pedestrian-fatality cases on O'ahu during that period, according to an Advertiser review of the cases.
'REEKS OF A COVER-UP'
Nearly three years after the Lee and Yoshizumi accidents, the two families, who don't know each other, still believe the investigations were sloppy and independently have questioned whether the officers received special treatment.
The Lee family, in pursuing a civil lawsuit against the driver, recently uncovered new information that prompted prosecutors to decide to re-examine the case. The family now is even more suspicious about how the police investigation was handled.
"This really reeks of a cover-up," said Arthur Park, the family's attorney.
The Yoshizumi case has not been reopened. But family members, including a former Los Angeles police officer whose job included teaching new officers how to investigate traffic accidents, told The Advertiser that Honolulu officers who handled the case failed to take some basic precautions to ensure the integrity of the probe.
"I believe the police department did a much less than credible job," said California resident Rick Bressler, 64, Yoshizumi's son-in-law and a member of the L.A. police force from 1968 to 1978. "They should know better than to do sloppy work."
The Honolulu Police Department declined to answer questions about the two cases. But the agency defended its overall practices, saying it uses the latest technologies and procedures to fulfill its responsibility of conducting unbiased, quality investigations.
The department "does its utmost to investigate all fatalities in a fair, effective and efficient manner," Chief Boisse Correa said in a written statement. "HPD is aware that incidents involving our officers will be scrutinized, and our investigators go to great lengths to make sure each investigation is thorough and complete."
Officers Bert Dement, the driver in the Lee case, and Trent Umeno, the driver in the Yoshizumi case, did not respond to requests for comment relayed through a police department spokeswoman. But Dement, responding in court documents to a civil lawsuit by the Lee family, denied any negligence.
Investigating any fatality is a complicated, time-consuming and not always precise process.
The degree to which investigators can reconstruct an accident depends on many factors, including the availability and reliability of evidence and witnesses. In each case, the evidence and witness statements may be weighted differently, depending on the circumstances, and something that seems likely at the start of a probe can prove to be less likely once all the accumulated information is analyzed. What's more, authorities say, speed is not the only factor considered when deciding whether to pursue a criminal case.
But the Lee family said there were enough red flags in that case to raise questions about how the investigation was done.
A driver who said he was going about 40 mph on Ala Moana when the officer passed him in the next lane just before the collision told investigators that Dement accelerated as he passed and estimated the officer's speed between 50 and 60 mph, according to police records. The speed limit at that stretch of Ala Moana was 35 mph.
Another witness who saw the two vehicles from Ala Moana Beach Park estimated that both were traveling between 45 and 50 mph, the records show.
The police analysis of the skid marks left by Dement's car determined the vehicle at the start of the skid was traveling a minimum of 43 mph if he applied full braking power. At 35 percent braking power, the vehicle would've been going a minimum of 25 mph, according to the records.
To get a better idea of what the car's estimated speed would have been at the start of the skid, police should have done another analysis using a different method to double-check the accuracy of the first one, two Mainland experts told The Advertiser.
Police did a second analysis, but it wasn't to double check the skid-mark number. Instead, an analysis of the distance the body traveled after being hit was used to get an estimated speed of Dement's car upon impact. That method determined the officer's sedan was traveling 26 to 31 mph, police records show.
Police used those calculations to conclude that Dement was not speeding, according to the records. Based on witness statements, police also determined that the 52-year-old officer had the green light and that Lee disregarded a flashing red hand signal when she entered the crosswalk, resulting in the collision, the records show.
But when Park, gathering evidence for the family's civil lawsuit, recently questioned the officer who did the speed calculations, the officer in a sworn deposition indicated that the speed estimates based on the skid mark were unreliable, according to deposition transcripts.
When Park asked the officer to use the throw-distance range of 26 to 31 mph to get an estimate for the skid-mark speed a practice that experts not connected with the case told The Advertiser is valid the officer arrived at an estimate of about 48 to 51 mph, the transcripts show.
Upon further questioning, the officer also acknowledged that had the driver been going the speed limit, he should have been able to stop short of the crosswalk "under ideal conditions" avoiding a collision, according to the transcripts.
But the officer tended to dismiss the validity of both assertions as unrealistic or for other reasons.
Still, based on the new information obtained by the family, the prosecutor's office last month decided to re-examine the case, said Lynne Goto Uyema, the deputy prosecutor in charge of screening cases.
It is not uncommon for a closed case to be re-examined if new information surfaces and if the statute of limitations hasn't lapsed, she said.
Although Dement wasn't prosecuted, an internal HPD investigation concluded that the evidence indicated he had violated the agency's standards of conduct in connection with the Lee case, according to an HPD memo. One of the standards cited in the memo: officers shall comply with traffic regulations and exercise caution to safeguard lives and property.
Unlike the Lee family, the Yoshizumi family has not attempted to dissect in detail how the 2005 investigation was done. But family members said they were disturbed by what they know wasn't done.
Investigators didn't do a field sobriety test on Umeno, didn't tow his car away to examine it for evidence and didn't summon someone from the prosecutor's office an independent enforcement agency to monitor the investigation.
It also appears as if the police did not do a speed analysis, as they did in the Lee case. While the final accident report noted that no skid marks were found at the 'Aiea scene, presumably precluding a skid-mark calculation, the report made no reference to a speed estimate based on the distance the body was thrown.
That meant the police failed to get a critical piece of evidence in a case for which they initially believed speed may have been a factor or they did the analysis and failed to mention it in the report, the family said. Either scenario is disturbing, family members said.
"That's just so glaring an omission," said Bressler, the former policeman. "Somebody totally didn't do their job or intentionally didn't do their job."
"I believe my mother's case raises many questions," added Galen Yoshizumi, 58, a firefighter from Massachusetts.
The California Highway Patrol, one of the largest traffic enforcement agencies in the country, always does field sobriety tests on drivers involved in pedestrian fatalities and automatically tows vehicles that are impounded sometimes even covering them with butcher paper during the tow to preserve evidence, according to Sgt. Bob Snook, who heads that agency's accident reconstruction team.
If an impounded vehicle is driven instead of towed, evidence on the tires or elsewhere can be altered or destroyed, Snook said.
In the Yoshizumi case, Umeno's car was driven to the Pearl City police substation by another officer, records show.
If a CHP officer is involved in a fatality, a system often is in place so that a district attorney representative automatically comes to the accident scene to monitor the investigation, Snook said. In jurisdictions where such a system isn't in place, CHP contacts the DA's office, Snook said.
That practice is done so a legal expert independent of the CHP can be on scene to ensure the investigation is handled properly, Snook added.
While HPD wouldn't answer questions about the Yoshizumi case, Maj. Susan Dowsett, head of HPD's traffic division, provided information about its general investigative practices.
In a written response, she said HPD conducts field sobriety or preliminary screening tests "when impairment is indicated."
In the accident report for the Yoshizumi case, an investigating officer said he didn't smell alcohol on Umeno's breath.
Dowsett also noted that HPD takes vehicles into custody when they are needed for further inspection or have evidentiary value, and those vehicles are towed. Sometimes, she added, a vehicle won't be taken into custody if a complete inspection can be done at the scene.
It was not clear why Umeno's car was driven to the police substation instead of towed. In the Lee case, Dement's car was towed, according to that accident report.
On the issue of having someone from the prosecutor's office at the scene, Dowsett said such "intervention is not necessary nor does it assist us to achieve our goal of completing a fair and impartial investigation."
Correa, in his statement, noted that HPD officers are held to a higher standard than the average citizen. "Because of this, all officers involved in any traffic accident are subject to an internal administrative investigation. If procedures, policies or standards of conduct are violated, officers are subject to disciplinary action, which may result in termination," he wrote.
Asked why a speed analysis would not or could not be done in a fatality case, the police declined comment.
In the final report on the Yoshizumi investigation, police said a witness saw the elderly woman, wearing dark clothing, walk halfway across Moanalua Road, then dart into the path of Umeno's car.
Umeno, then 29, told police he didn't see the victim. He said he was going about 30 mph. The speed limit there was 25 mph.
Based on the investigation, police concluded that actions by Umeno and Yoshizumi were contributing factors and "thus made this accident unavoidable."
Once prosecutors got the case, that office declined to pursue criminal charges because of insufficient evidence to prove a "lack of due care" by Umeno, the records show.
Reach Rob Perez at email@example.com or 525-8054.