By Mari Wadsworth
DOUG AND JENNIFER Horner closed their Fourth Avenue shop at 5 p.m. on New Year's Eve and piled into their blue hatchback with their two dogs. As Doug turned right onto Stone Avenue from University Boulevard, a car speeding south in the northbound lane nearly caused a head-on collision as Doug tried to swerve out of the way.
The car, which the couple estimate was traveling 60 mph, hit the driver's side of their car, smashing the headlight and crumpling the front end. The driver of the white Cadillac fled without so much as a backward glance. Stunned, the couple decided their only chance was to follow their assailant and try to get a license number. After identifying a car that appeared to be the one that hit them in a Salvation Army parking lot, the couple headed to the downtown police station on Stone Avenue for help.
Too bad they were wasting their time.
After ringing the after-hours buzzer plaintively for five to 10 minutes, knocking on the door, and otherwise trying to attract the attention of an officer, the Horners finally resorted to calling 911 from the public phone on the wall. The operator asked them if they'd tried ringing the buzzer, and when they answered yes, they were told somebody would be sent down shortly. About five minutes later, an officer let the couple into the station.
But gaining access to the building was only the beginning of the lack of concern exhibited by the Tucson Police Department. In telling their regrettable experience to the authorities, Jennifer Horner says they were made to feel like the criminals, stealing time away from apparently more important situations.
"I had a good suspicion of where the car was at that particular time," says Doug Horner. According to the Horners, Officer David Keenan, the desk officer who took their report, would not check the license plate number they had written down. The extent of his involvement was to take a preliminary report and wave them to a bench, telling them if they wanted to wait around, maybe there would be an officer available to investigate the scene.
Public Information Officer Sgt. Don Tatman explains this seeming inactivity: "They would have put out an attempt to locate...on the officers' computers, or out on the air verbally. Even though it seems things aren't being done, in reality they are."
Unfortunately, the only information conveyed to the Horners was that their only hope lay in waiting for a uniformed officer to accompany them to the scene.
But Sgt. Francisco Vasquez, officer in charge at the downtown station, says, "Normally we don't go back to the scene if they come in (to the station), because it's not necessary." He says on New Year's Eve there were probably a lot of calls, and he's not surprised there weren't any available officers.
Under the impression they were following the proper procedure, the Horners waited. After repeatedly asking for news over the course of an hour, they were told two officers were free and at least one of them should arrive soon. They were even told their case was the only one on call.
After another 30 minutes went by, they asked where the supposedly investigating officers might be, and Keenan told them with a shrug that, as time went by, it was less likely someone would show, because they were "low priority."
Vasquez and Tatman concede the low priority status of a non-injury accident is a factor in response time. However, Tatman emphatically maintains, "If two blocks down the road there was someone who was being assaulted in the same time frame that these people were here, there would have been police officers there, and that's always going to take priority over this (low priority)."
Sure, but tell that to the poor guy who came up and rang the buzzer while the Horners were waiting around the front desk. "That was the funniest part of the whole deal," says Doug. The guy had been there ringing the buzzer for about 10 minutes when Doug said to a uniformed officer standing right in front of the window, "Hey, did you know there's a guy ringing the buzzer?" The officer responded that he didn't work at that station, was only there for a briefing, and he continued shuffling through papers for a few minutes before leaving the room. The couple watched two or three other officers milling around the back office, uncertain what they should do.
"The guy could have been bleeding or something," says Doug incredulously. "The officer didn't even bother to tell someone who did work there." When one of the officers emerged from the back office a few minutes later, he seemed surprised to see someone outside and immediately let him in.
When this scenario was mentioned to Tatman, his response was, "It's real explicit on the window that if they need the police to call 911. There's even a phone right there for them to use."
It's awkward for the public and police officers alike, but since the building's recent redesign, and for reasons Tatman did not know, the "desk" functions have been moved to the back part of the entry area, leaving no one in the former front desk area, where the security window and buzzer are still located.
At any rate, at the time of their arrival at the station, Doug says, "The (suspected) car was still warm, right in the neighborhood, had front-end damage on both sides, and I was pretty sure there was a good chance that could be it." But as time went by, the Horners resigned themselves to the fact their chances of catching the culprit were getting slimmer. Bruised and tired, as much from their visit to the station as from the accident, the couple asked if they could just go home and come back the next day, perhaps at a less hectic time.
The officer told them that as soon as they left the building, their file was "closed," that the chances of finding the guilty driver were nil, and that even if they saw a vehicle that matched the description, with obvious damage and blue paint on the fender, the police wouldn't investigate.
Says Jennifer, "When it seemed like nobody was ever going to come, we asked if we could just go look at the car--the license of the car we thought might have hit us--and if there's blue paint on it could we come right back. If not we'd just go home, since we really didn't have a good shot at it. Keenan said that wasn't their procedure. They were almost like robots. They just kept repeating, 'That's the procedure.' "
"They said the file would be closed and no more evidence could be added," Doug agrees.
Tatman says the couple were given erroneous information. Vasquez agrees, stating, "If they would have said they'd seen a car that matched the damage afterwards, they could have followed up on it the next day." But nobody The Weekly interviewed, least of all the Horners, understand why this procedure wasn't in effect on New Year's Eve.
"What really upset me about the whole deal was the general lack of concern in combination with the accident being called low priority," says Doug. "We could have been killed--it was as if the people in this car were playing chicken, or trying to hit us. It seemed like a high-priority deal that this guy was still cruising through the streets at 60 mph in a big old Cadillac. I can't believe for two hours that all the officers in the whole city of Tucson had a higher priority than that."
Without knowing any specifics on the case, Tatman agrees, saying, "Playing chicken is a very dangerous situation," and that there should have been an investigator involved.
But at 7 p.m., after two hours of waiting, and with no indication an officer would respond any time soon, the Horners left the building and any chance of finding the guy who'd hit them.
Officers said the couple should have called from the scene of the accident. But Tucsonan Yvonne Acuña found that even calling immediately from the scene is no guarantee an officer will show. Acuña phoned TPD after a passing motorist broadsided her car, tearing off the passenger-side mirror and smashing the front fender. She waited for about an hour for some kind of uniformed assistance to arrive, and without seeing so much as a mailman, she got back into her damaged, but driveable, vehicle and went on with her life, swallowing the estimated $300 worth of damage.
Tatman agrees people shouldn't have to wait for an hour for an officer to respond. However, he maintains, "If somebody calls for an officer, they should wait until the officer gets there. Period."
Apparently TPD has a set time frame in which they try to respond to calls of each priority level, but none of the officers we asked knew what that time frame was. In the Horners' case, they were told, "It could be five minutes or tomorrow."
Tatman defends TPD's performance, denying any allegation that officers are habitually unresponsive in hit-and-run situations. He blames the response time on insufficient numbers of officers and citizens themselves.
Says Tatman, "We need to attack the call generators. What are these calls we're responding to, and how can we cut down on the calls. If we could somehow figure out how to do that, we'd be in good shape."
Maybe TPD should start with those calls made from the phone right outside the main station. Maybe they should move that phone to a donut shop.
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