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A SEAT BELT DILEMMA
BUFFALO POLICE MAY REQUIRE OFFICERS TO USE SEAT BELTS, AFTER TWO CRASHES LAST MONTH THAT KILLED TWO OFFICERS -- ONE FROM CHEEKTOWAGA, ONE FROM BUFFALO -- AND INJURED A THIRD

The Buffalo Police Department is considering making all its police officers wear seat belts.

The possible change comes after two police crashes last month that killed two officers -- one from Cheektowaga, one from Buffalo -- and injured a third. None wore seat belts.

Police officers are exempt from the state's seat belt law, but rules vary in departments across New York State. In Buffalo, the department's policy recommends officers wear their seat belt while in police vehicles but does not force officers to wear them.

"The tragedies, one after the other, brought to light the need to review our policy," said Lawrence Ramunno, chief of patrol.

On Oct. 29, Cheektowaga Detective Wasyl Potienko, 44, died when his unmarked police car was hit on Broadway by a recycling truck and spun into an oncoming pickup truck.

The next day, Buffalo Police Officer James A. Shields, 36, a seven-year veteran, was killed when his patrol car slammed into a tree on Delaware Avenue while trying to catch up with two robbers. His partner, Officer Kimberly A. Monteforte, 36, was injured but survived.

Those tragedies have sparked discussion among area police officers about the dangers of being in a patrol car.

Central District Officer Deidre Carswell said she does not wear her seat belt while on duty, but uses it when she's not working.

"It's important for me not to get stuck," she said. "I'm getting in and out of my car all the time, and for the important calls I want to have easy access to my gun."

Police Officer David A. Rodriguez and his partner, Dan Quintana, said they use their safety belts only when chasing criminals, not during routine patrol.

"It's so easy to forget about your own safety when you're in a high-speed chase," said Rodriguez. "Anything can happen to us at any moment."

It's not just Buffalo police talking about seat belt policy.

Since the accidents, Amherst police officials said they're considering reviewing their policy.

"Our policy simply states that it's strongly recommended our officers wear seat belts. It doesn't say that you must," said Assistant Chief Ronald Hagelberger. "I think the vast majority of our officers wear it."

Cheektowaga is looking at what it can do to make the seat belts more comfortable for officers who may hesitate to wear them.

"We're certainly looking to make sure the equipment is more usable for those that might have concerns," said Chief Christine Ziemba. "It certainly is difficult, especially for a larger officer with all that equipment on."

Those opposed to wearing seat belts apparently outnumber actual seat belt wearers among officers who work Buffalo's streets. Ramunno estimated that the majority of officers don't buckle up on the job. Most Central District police officers interviewed this week said they did not use the safety devices.

"In order to perform my police duties, I want to be comfortable, and I don't want to be fumbling with my belt," said Officer Miguel Rivera.

Most said it was uncomfortable being in a crammed police car with almost 20 pounds of equipment around their waist and a bulletproof vest strapped onto their body. They recounted stories about their seat belt getting hooked on their gun holsters, tangled on their police radios or wrapped around their nightsticks.

"I think it should be our own decision," said Quintana. "The few seconds it takes to fumble with our seat belt could make the difference between our life, your partner's life or the citizen's life."

Rodriguez said police officers know they are risking their lives when they don't wear their belts.

Between 1991 and 2000, 47 percent of officers killed in the line of duty died in a traffic-related accident, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports. There were 358 automobile deaths, 46 motorcycle deaths, 99 who were struck by a vehicle and 101 killed while in pursuit or during traffic stops, the data shows.

"Wearing your belt at all times does save lives," said Rodriguez. "If it holds you, your odds of surviving are better."

Harold Litwin Jr., chief of operations and criminal investigations for the Buffalo police, said he didn't use his belt when he was patrolling as a police officer and lieutenant.

About 15 years ago, Litwin and his then-partner, Avery Nelson, were rushing to the scene of a burglary when a van barreled into them, sending Litwin's head smashing into the windshield and cracking the glass, he said.

He was treated in Erie County Medical Center for head and knee injuries.

"If I knew then what I know now, I would have worn my seat belt," said Litwin. "Looking back, I certainly would have worn it."

Requiring officers to wear seat belts will be discussed during an executive police meeting expected to be held in the next few weeks.

Few agencies require use

"When all the investigations are concluded, we will have a full review of our policy, other departments' policy, and make a determination if we make any changes," said Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina.

Ramunno, who headed the study for the Buffalo Police Department, said most police forces he researched have policies that advise officers to wear seat belts but no requirements to do so.

"On one hand, police officers are in and out of their vehicles 20 to 25 times an hour, and there's the safety feature of getting all the equipment on your gun belt entangled in the seat belt," Ramunno said. "It could get hooked onto your firearm. For the safety of the officer, I see the logic. From a practical angle, it can be uncomfortable."

In recent years, some local agencies -- including Hamburg, West Seneca, Town of Tonawanda and Orchard Park -- established policies requiring officers to wear seat belts, not only because of the miles officers drive, but to set a public example.

"We just felt it was best we do, with the open roads out here and the speed our vehicles are traveling," said Hamburg Police Chief Joseph Coggins.

But even departments that have seat belt rules say there are always exceptions, specifically when officers are transporting prisoners or need to exit a vehicle in a hurry.

"Because of the nature of police work, they may be in situations where seat belts hinder them," said West Seneca Police Chief Edward Gehen. "You want to encourage the use of safety belts, but you also have to give the officers a certain amount of leeway."

And what may be preached isn't necessarily practiced, or even enforced.

"We do have a policy that they're required to wear the seat belts, but I'm not going to sit here and tell you that it's 100 percent enforced," said Town of Tonawanda Chief Samuel Palmiere. "But it's strongly, strongly recommended that they should."

Enforcing the policy

Officials believe that if Buffalo's policy is changed to require all officers to buckle up, enforcing the policy may be difficult.

Detective James Miller, public information officer for the Albany Police Department, estimated that 70 percent of Albany officers follow the department's mandatory seat belt policy, but admitted that the procedure is not rigorously enforced.

"No one has been reprimanded for not wearing their seat belt," he said.

Miller said there was no backlash from officers when the Albany Police Department implemented the policy in 1995.

But for Buffalo's police force, enforcement would likely be a major issue if seat belt use is made mandatory.

"Officers may be reluctant to wear it," said Ramunno. "If we make it mandatory, then we have to enforce it. Otherwise it has no teeth."

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com
and jrey@buffnews.com

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