ITHACA, N.Y —A Tompkins County sheriff’s deputy at fault in a Lansing crash a few weeks ago will not be ticketed — a move police officials said would have likely been offered to a civilian driver involved in a similar accident.

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“If there had been injuries, he probably would have been ticketed just like anybody else,” Sheriff Ken Lansing said.

The crash, he said, is being treated as a personnel matter because no criminal activity took place during the accident and there were no injuries.

Two experts — Vincent Del Castillo, a former police chief and associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Michael Levine, a police procedure expert based out of New York— reviewed the facts of the case for The Ithaca Voice and provided their expert opinions about the incident.

Both agreed that Lansing has the authority to treat the matter as a personnel issue, so long as an investigation showed that there was no criminal fault to the accident.     

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What happened?

Around 4:10 p.m. on July 12, a deputy was turning left at the intersection of State Route 13 and Brown Road when he crashed into the back of a 2000 GMC truck.

Lt. Dan Donahue, of the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, said the deputy saw the vehicle turning left, glanced down at a computer terminal all police vehicles are equipped with, and then accidentally hit the back of the truck.

“He was really forthcoming,” Donahue said of the deputy. “It was an accident.”

Tompkins County Administrator Joe Mareane also said the situation had been handled appropriately.

“Based on the facts presented to me, the situation was handled in the same way as any other vehicular accident and the deputy was treated the same as any other individual involved in a routine property damage accident,” he said in an email.

The officer would not have been subject to distracted driving laws because New York State traffic law 1225-d states that an officer is exempt from laws prohibiting the use of electronic devices while driving.

Lansing said the exemption is not meant to put officers above the law, but to enable them to efficiently do their jobs.

“We have computers in our cars, we have radios in our cars, that we’re looking at and paying attention to,” he said. “There’s a ton of things officers are doing other than attempting to drive safely.”

Despite the distractions, he said that to his recollection, it’s been at least a year since an officer has been involved in an accident with another vehicle.

Levine and Del Castillo, the independent experts, said law enforcement officials are rightly exempt from the law.

“This traffic law cannot apply to law enforcement obviously because the nature of their job is to drive distracted,”  Levine said.     

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A personnel issue

Lansing said police will not release the name of the deputy involved in the incident just as they don’t release the names of civilians involved in accidents that don’t result in a ticket.

“I’m not going to report it (the name) just because people think it should be reported,” Lansing said, adding that the incident was seriously investigated. “I’m not going to treat my officers any different.”

He said he cannot speak specifically about this incident, but added that disciplinary action for deputies involved in crashes can include mandatory driving courses, temporary suspension or reassignment.

Del Castillo, who was in law enforcement for 27 years and is the former Chief of the New York City Transit Police Department, said the incident doesn’t seem like something an officer should have gotten a ticket for, but that doesn’t mean the deputy wasn’t punished.

Speaking from his own experience, Del Castillo said officer-involved accidents are seriously investigated.

Even if the officer wasn’t negligent — as he said appears to be the case in this situation — he confirmed that punishments could have included suspension or reassignment to desk duty.

“An accident is an accident,” he said.

As for not releasing the name of the officer, both experts said police are not obligated to do so but were split about whether they should.

Del Castillo said the agency should have released the name at the completion of the investigation for the sake of public trust.

Levine said the police agency could be justified in not releasing the name because it’s so closely tied to a personnel issue — something officials cannot discuss with the public.

“You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,” Levine said. “Life is a little too litigious.”

He said for that reason, the department was right to err on the side of caution.

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.