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A critique of a police statement that blames victim of serious collision

Posted by on December 2nd, 2020 at 2:25 pm

Scene of the collision on NE 78th and 13th in Vancouver.
(Photo: Clark County Sheriff’s Office)

A man is in the hospital with serious injuries following a collision Tuesday night in Clark County. It happened while he was bicycling on a major street in Vancouver about six miles north of Portland.

Only 12 hours after it happened the Clark County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that is very troubling. Laced with unnecessary details and biased language based on premature analysis not rooted in law or relevant facts, the statement lays all the blame on the bicycle rider and exonerates the car driver. It’s not clear what exactly happened because the bicycle rider is likely still unable to act as a witness on his own behalf, but that didn’t stop the Sheriff’s Office from spreading a version of events that will set the public and media narrative in stone.

Before I offer my critiques of the statement, keep in mind I don’t care who was to blame for this collision. That’s not my concern. What troubles me is when police communications staff introduce a driver-centric bias that poisons public dialogue and further marginalizes vulnerable road users.

The statement and my critiques are below:

Bicyclist injured in collision with car – 12/02/20

This man (not a “bicyclist”) was injured in a collision with another road user. It was a driver that hit him, not a “car”. When inanimate vehicles are given agency, it diminishes the responsibility of their operators.

On 12/1/2020 at approximately 10:40 pm, EMS personnel and CCSO deputies were dispacted to the 1400 block of NE 78th Street for a collision involving a bicyclist and a vehicle. 911 callers said that the bicyclist was lying in the roadway with severe injuries.

Great! Basic facts about location and vehicle types and condition of people involved. Good start.

Upon arrival, deputies contacted Natalie Berkey, the 19 year old driver of a 2013 Hyundai sedan. Berkey had been traveling west on NE 78th Street when she struck a male on a bicycle who she stated had ridden directly in front of her vehicle.

The driver is extremely biased about what happened. Her version of the story should not be repeated by an official source because it’s completely unverifiable. A statement like this only serves to place blame on one party and absolve the other. Witness statements should be withheld and used only in the full police report and/or follow-up investigations.

The CCSO Traffic Unit was called to investigate the collision and learned that Evans had ridden his bicycle from the north sidewalk of NE 78th Street to the south and into the path of Berkey’s westbound vehicle. The resulting collision had caused Evans to strike the front windshield of the Hyundai causing significant injury.

This is OK. They share basic facts about where each person was and how the collision might have happened. The source is a trained “Traffic Unit,” and not an emotional participant in the crash. I would avoid using “learned” and opt for something like, “the Traffic Unit suspects that Evans had ridden” in order to remain a bit more open to other theories of the crash that might emerge later.

Berkey stayed on scene during the investigation, and was cooperative with deputies and detectives.

There’s no reason to state that someone “stayed on the scene” and was “cooperative”. This isn’t necessary for the public to know and only serves to increase sympathy for one side. If it was a hit-and-run, that would be necessary information to share.

She exhibited no signs of impairment and was issued no citations. There is no evidence of significant speed on the part of Berkey’s vehicle. The posted speed limit on this section of 78th Street is 35 mph.

I disagree about this part on speed. Speed is a factor in every collision where people are going over 0 mph. It might not rise to the level of illegal speeding, but the speed of this person’s vehicle is the only reason this man in the hospital.

Evans was not wearing a helmet, nor was he using any type of lighting equipment.

There is no legal requirement for Evans (an adult) to wear a helmet, so why mention it here? And bicycle riders are required to have a front light, but is this necessary information for a statement about the collision? I don’t think so. Did the Sheriff’s Office include any information about what laws the driver was or wasn’t adhering to? Did her vehicle’s brakes work well? Were the headlights in good condition? This statement puts more blame on the rider.

Evans was not in an intersection when he crossed into the path of the westbound car. It should be noted that there is a signal-controlled intersection with a crosswalk at NE 13th Avenue, less than a block from where the collision took place. Evans did not utilize this intersection to cross NE 78th Street.

This is really bad. Washington law (RCW 46.61.770(1)(a)) allows for bicycle users to leave the bike lane before an intersection in order to make a left turn. And no, it does not need to be noted that a signal was nearby. This should be a police statement, not a paternal admonition.

CCSO deputies learned that Evans had just left an encampment on the north side of 78th Street in the 1400 block. The encampment is one known to law enforcement to house several transient persons.

This is the passage that made me do this post. I cannot think of any reason whatsoever for police to mention the housing status of a person involved in a traffic collision. The added detail about “transient persons” is highly inappropriate. Why would police feel the need to mention this? My gut tells me it’s yet another (subconscious perhaps) way for them to absolve the favored party and blame the other.

Per RCW 46.61.755, persons operating bicycles on the public roadway are subject to the same rules as a motor vehicle. As of this writing, investigators concluded that Evans failed to yield right of way to Berkey, which caused the collision.

This statement was issued just 13 hours after the collision. Unless the Clark County Sheriff’s Office is very speeding with their investigations and Evans is coherent enough to offer his side of the story, it feels quite premature to reach this conclusion. It’s clearly not final because they say “as of this writing,” so why mention it at all? Yes, once again they increase blame on the maligned participant and exonerate the favored one.

I hope this was helpful. It’s a good example for why I’ve been advocating for years here in Portland for law enforcement agencies to use a public statement template to report traffic collisions. This template would make their job much easier and would improve the public dialogue immensely. It would encourage police communications and PIO staff to only share a basic set of facts and remove the temptation to establish a biased narrative.

If any law enforcement officials or staff want to talk more about this offline, hit me up.

=====

UPDATE: A reader asked me to rewrite the statement. Here’s my version:

Traffic collision leads to severe injuries

On 12/1/2020 at approximately 10:40 pm, EMS personnel and CCSO deputies were dispatched to the 1400 block of NE 78th Street for a collision involving the two vehicle operators. One of the vehicles was a car, the other vehicle was a bicycle. 911 callers said the bicycle operator was lying in the roadway with severe injuries.

Responding deputies made contact with Natalie Berkey, the 19 year old driver of the 2013 Hyundai sedan that was involved in the collision. The bicycle operator was identified as James Evans, age 56.

The CCSO Traffic Unit was called out to the collision and will release more information when the investigation is completed.

Here they are, side-by-side:

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Matthew Groener
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Matthew Groener

This article is the reason BikePortland exists. I donated to your cause after reading this.

Eric Leifsdad
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Eric Leifsdad

Man on bicycle struck from behind with speeding car while preparing to turn left.

What is the tail light law for bikes in WA? Red reflector is legal for OR.

The driver was probably looking down at her phone. Do you think the police checked it?

Chris
Guest
Chris

Is there enough information provided to know that he was hit from behind? My read is that he was crossing the road so could have been hit on the side.

Alan 1.0
Subscriber

https://app.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=46.61.780

RCW 46.61.780

Lamps and other equipment on bicycles.

(1) Every bicycle when in use during the hours of darkness as defined in RCW 46.37.020 shall be equipped with a lamp on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least five hundred feet to the front and with a red reflector on the rear of a type approved by the state patrol which shall be visible from all distances up to six hundred feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of head lamps on a motor vehicle. A lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of five hundred feet to the rear may be used in addition to the red reflector. A light-emitting diode flashing taillight visible from a distance of five hundred feet to the rear may also be used in addition to the red reflector.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Every time I see “lamp” in a definition, I get an image of an old-fashioned flickering candle in a camping glass case stuck just beyond the handlebars.

Steve Campbell
Guest
Steve Campbell

Red reflector is required in WA. Additional tail light can be used but doesn’t replace requirement for a red reflector on the rear. See RCW 46.61.780 for the complete wording.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

Do we even know whether he was actually riding the bike? All the lighting requirements and paternalistic helmet admonishments go magically out the proverbial window if he was merely walking with a bike. Only the involved driver claims the man “rode directly in front of her”. If you want some bias, I would say that a 19-year-old driver, glancing up from her phone and suddenly seeing a person would not clearly discern whether the person was actually riding the bike or merely walking with it.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

How do you know that driver testimony is the only evidence the police have?

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

Well, if they want to add extra details, that would be a good example of helpful details to add: “The crash reconstruction team concluded from physical evidence and multiple eyewitness accounts that Evans had ridden, rather than walked, his bicycle from the north sidewalk of NE 78th Street to the south…”

Otherwise, I’m left to imagine that they “learned” this “fact” from the driver…

Steve
Guest

Why is not ok to refer to someone as a “Bicyclist” but ok to refer to them as a “Driver”?

Steve
Guest

It seems like you are really grasping at straws here to find something to be upset about…

..speed of this person’s vehicle is the only reason this man in the hospital

I mean… duh. The report mentions the speed limit in the statement “speed was not a factor” clearly implies no “EXCESSIVE” speed on the part of the driver, and that is a pretty reasonable thing to include in the report. I understand your perspective that the report should only include the “wrong things” instead of the “right thing” a road user did. I disagree, but I understand your point.

I don’t think so. Did the Sheriff’s Office include any information about what laws the driver was or wasn’t adhering to? Did her vehicle’s brakes work well? Were the headlights in good condition? This statement puts more blame on the rider.

Here I think you are WAY off. Given that this accident happened at 10:40PM not having the proper (and legally required) lighting equipment is a pretty important fact of the incident. If the driver was driving without headlights or without functioning brakes of course that would be important too, but that does not seem to be the case.

Matt
Guest
Matt

First off, I want to know how the police immediately ascertained the driver’s speed. Without video evidence, they’re likely reduced to guesswork.

Secondly, the speed limit is 35 mph. That is a *limit*, as in the fastest you’re allowed to drive under ideal conditions. The dark of night is not ideal (see this collision for evidence of that) and as such the fastest speed that is safe is reduced. Wet roads would be another factor to reduce the highest safe speed. A person who chooses to drive a car is choosing to wield a deadly weapon, and as such the onus is on them to drive it no faster than is safe. I say this as a car owner myself (but I ride my bike for most trips).

Even if Mr. Evans randomly swerved in front of Ms. Berkey, if she had been driving slow enough and paying full attention, she could have stopped in time to avoid a collision.

Speed is always a factor.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

The mere fact that the bicyclist was still alive after being hit is a good indicator the driver wasn’t going over 40 – such crashes are nearly always fatal for the bicyclist. The severity of the bicyclist’s injuries and damage to the bike and car are other good indicators to an experienced cop, as well as how far each object is from the site of impact.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

the speed of this person’s vehicle is the only reason this man in the hospital

The man is in the hospital because he rode off the sidewalk, across the bike lane, and into the path of a passing vehicle. It was the completely predictable outcome to a dangerous and probably illegal decision he made.

I wish him a speedy and complete recovery.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Correct. And while nobody “deserves” to be harmed (other than bike thieves), sometimes people make decisions that increase their odds of being harmed and they end up being harmed. That’s not victim blaming – it’s stating the obvious.

If I drowned because I did not wear a life vest and was drinking…those were poor choices that increased the outcome of a bad situation.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

I should have said “increased the odds of a bad outcome”.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

he report mentions the speed limit in the statement “speed was not a factor” clearly implies no “EXCESSIVE” speed on the part of the driver, and that is a pretty reasonable thing to include in the report.

That’s not true. It’s not like the police did forensic work here. The drive said they weren’t speeding when the cops showed up and they took her at her word. She may or may not have been speeding

Todd/Boulanger
Guest

Jonathan: A minor correction for your post.
The location of this traffic incident occurred in Hazel Dell which is incorporated Clark County and NOT in the City of Vancouver limits. (The fact that CCSO responded should have been a hint as to jurisdiction vs VPD.) Thus there is not a helmet requirement for adult cyclists using this county roadway. (So the CCSO inclusion of the helmet topic is not relevant from a law enforcement angle…the CCSO should have included a similar note about the driver not wearing a helmet.) https://wsdot.wa.gov/travel/commute-choices/bike/helmets

Dave
Guest
Dave

I ‘m a Vancouver resident. I drive and sometimes cycle on this part of 78th St. There is NO concern for the posted speed limit there at any time–speeds are in the 45 to 50+ range. I obey it and get honked at. There have been numerous speed related wrecks there, Vantucky at its worst.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Yep. Anyone who drives in the area knows that the police statement about speed not being a factor is a joke. They would only fault speed as a factor if they had witnesses saying the driver was “street racing”.

raktajino
Guest
raktajino

That was the first thing I noticed too. The speed limit in that area (or a lot of Vancouver arterials) is meaningless and I piss people off regularly by driving the speed limit. (commuter for 8 years, though only driving for one year of that thankfully) I can’t imagine biking on most of those roads and am always in awe of the people who do.

Jason
Guest
Jason

collision involving a bicyclist and a vehicle…

Because bicycles are not vehicles?

SERider
Guest
SERider

Technically that could be right if the rider hit the car and not the bike.

Evan Manvel
Guest
Evan Manvel

Hopefully everyone has caught on here’s the pattern:
– Car-centric police report
– Overwhelmed media grab and run the language directly from it
– People understand the reality in the frame of the police report and blame people walking or on bikes

Drs. Ralph, Goddard and others studied this phenomenon in a must-read article.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

You unintentionally forgot the part about where JM and other BP readers become totally focused and indignant about the language used in the report while ignoring the serious injuries suffered by the bicyclist.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Let’s see, this happened on Tuesday night. It’s now Wednesday evening. So aside from JM and others being peeved from the usual biased language of the police report, how is our victim? 15 comments about a report, but none on the usual worry about Mr. Evans and his injuries? How is he doing? I hope he has quick recovery and is able to bike again ASAP.

Phil M
Guest
Phil M

I got a chuckle out of some of the mask discussion going on here, but this story and it’s responses really take it to a new level don’t they?

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Thoughts and prayers?

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

Formulation: “Bicyclist injured in collision with car” strikes me as much more concise, fact-dense, and clear than your alternate formulation “man injured in a collision with another road user” which basically says nothing, and is arguably incorrect as the cyclist did not, as far as we know, collide with another person at all.

Speed: “I disagree about this part on speed. Speed is a factor in every collision where people are going over 0 mph.” This is only true in the most reductionist sense, and is not a useful statement on any practical level. Furthermore, the police statement only stated that “there is no evidence of significant speed on the part of Berkey’s vehicle”, so didn’t actually make the statement you seem to be accusing it of.

Lights: Was it relevant that the man was not using a light at night? It seems possible, to me at least, that the lack of lighting, whether legally required or not, was a factor in the crash. The lack of helmet is less likely to have played a role in causing the crash, but could have some bearing on the severity of the man’s injury. Maybe that’s not important.

You make a good point about the car’s headlights; if they were not functioning (or were off), that could very likely have played a role, especially if the man was depending on a rear reflector for visibility. If they were not operational, I would expect the officer to report it, and if he didn’t, that would be a problem. It seems less likely, given the circumstances, that the driver’s brake lights would be a factor.

Leaving the lane: Washington law may allow for bicycle users to leave the bike lane before an intersection in order to make a left turn, but it also requires they ensure the lane is clear before moving into it. In this case, it sounds like the man was entering the street from the sidewalk, and did not ensure the lane was clear before entering. Because of the sidewalk aspect, it sounds as if the officer writing the report was thinking of the cyclist as being in “pedestrian mode” (hence the reference to the nearby crossing). Whether this is “proper” or not I’m not sure, but “mode” does reflect how I think about my own riding behavior when I’m on a sidewalk (especially at night), and so seems a useful concept. It is probably not legal to turn into the center turn lane directly from the sidewalk.

Overall, I agree the police statement could be improved (in particular removing reference to the transient camp), but it doesn’t seem quite as outrageous as your commentary suggests (this is a commentary, right? It’s not marked as such, despite your recent editorial complaining of other news outlets running unmarked opinion pieces).

Finally, you state that the report “blames the victim”, suggesting we should think of the man riding the bike as the primary victim. While he was clearly more seriously physically injured, I would suggest that if he proves to be primarily at fault, then the driver, who is very like suffering from emotional/psychological trauma of her own, was a victim as well, perhaps even the principal victim.

I hope everyone involved recovers swiftly. Nobody deserves this.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Finally, you state that the report “blames the victim”, suggesting we should think of the man riding the bike as the primary victim. While he was clearly more seriously physically injured, I would suggest that if he proves to be primarily at fault, then the driver, who is very like suffering from emotional/psychological trauma of her own, was a victim as well, perhaps even the principal victim.

This is a spicy take.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

It is, and I gave this point a lot of thought. But based on the presented narrative, we have one person who, by operating their vehicle in a dangerous manner, caused a crash that will likely lead to psychological trauma (a real and lasting harm) to another person. Since this article is about bias and challenging assumptions, why should we rely on our default presumptions about who the “victim” was in this scenario?

If the man had been in a car but otherwise the scenario was the same, we would not hesitate to call the woman the victim. If we should focus our analysis on the facts and principal actors, then the details of the kind of vehicle the man was using should not change the fundamental narrative.

Maybe a better answer is to avoid using the word “victim” when discussing crashes at all, but that might be too much to ask.

Fred
Guest
Fred

I agree with your formulation, Kitty, but not much else. JM’s main point is unimpeachable: Law enforcement authorities need a template for communicating about *all* road mishaps, but especially for ones involving motor vehicles and VRUs. They continue to muck it up, and we should expect better from them.

Asher Atkinson
Guest
Asher Atkinson

I agree with the critique, but all the focus on parsing the language of incident reports misses a more fundamental problem, which is that it is always difficult to find follow-up detailing the results of investigations. What I care about is understanding the actual factors that led to this collision, and all others, so lessons can be drawn and mitigations can be focused and more effective. I get that “…I don’t care who was to blame for this collision. That’s not my concern.” is meant for the purposes of this critique, but ultimately understanding the factors that can be blamed is the primary concern, no?

We are almost to the end of another year where Portland area streets have experienced deaths and injuries trending in the wrong direction. I’ve read the headline incident reports that immediately follow and I’ve waded through endless speculation of what may have happened, but sadly another year has past and I’m no better informed as to what actually has happened and no better equipped to identify and support the changes needed to reverse the trend. Perhaps this is just the nature of click driven journalism, where news is more important than analysis, but for me it is the bigger problem.

qqq
Guest
qqq

I appreciate this analysis. Breaking it down sentence by sentence really highlights the problems.

If anything, you could have been more critical. The report stated “Evans was not wearing a helmet, nor was he using any type of lighting equipment.” You point out that the report doesn’t treat the driver similarly, using “Did her vehicle’s brakes work well? Were the headlights in good condition?” as examples of questions that weren’t asked.

But that treats the report too lightly, since functioning brakes and headlights are required for vehicles. To be similarly critical of the car and driver, the report would say something like “The car lacked Dynamic Traction Control, anti-lock brakes, and collision detection technology”.

I agree the encampment comment was totally out of line, and it went way over the top with “The encampment is one known to law enforcement to house several transient persons”. If that was relevant to the report, why not, “The driver had just left a convenience store, which is one known to law enforcement to have a high volume of alcohol sales”?

Steve Scarich
Guest
Steve Scarich

I would like Mr. Maus to post what he would have reported to the media if he was the police spokesperson. It would be interesting to see if we were able to get any picture of what happened using his language.

PNWPhotoWalks
Subscriber

RE: “ It’s a good example for why I’ve been advocating for years here in Portland for law enforcement agencies to use a public statement template to report traffic collisions.”

This makes sense to me! An electronic template could be designed as a questionnaire to prompt responses to establish proper context, elicit neutral language, account for needed facts, and so forth.

I think the concept could (should) also be extended to the field work when the facts are recorded. Perhaps these tools already exist; I haven’t done any research.

The analog that comes to my mind are the workflow processes and templates that healthcare professionals use when capturing data in electronic medical records systems.

Matthew in PDX
Guest
Matthew in PDX

Another significant problem with the police report is the use of the sentence “The CCSO Traffic Unit was called to investigate the collision and learned that Evans had ridden his bicycle from the north sidewalk of NE 78th Street to the south and into the path of Berkey’s westbound vehicle.”

Unless there was video footage of the collision immediately available to the investigating CCSO deputies, or an independent eye witness, the only way the deputies could “learn” this information was from the driver, who is a biased witness. While the driver may have been completely candid in her discussions with the deputies, they could not know this twelve hours after the collision, it would take further corroborating infromation.

Fred
Guest
Fred

You nailed it, Matthew. The deputies didn’t “learn” anything: they accepted prima facie evidence with no corroboration, apparently.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

Where did they get the information that the bicycler had recently departed from the transient camp? I’ll bet they had a witness who was not the driver.

Fred
Guest
Fred

Nah – they looked at the cyclist and assumed he was homeless and therefore came from the camp.

qqq
Guest
qqq

The one big piece of info that’s missing from these reports (have never seen it mentioned) is whether the driver was distracted with texting, videoing, calling, etc. It does show up in full articles about traffic deaths, because it’s becoming a common factor. It’s not something a driver will admit to, and it’s not something that can be determined without some investigation (unlike say, someone who’s very drunk).

If a driver was looking down at their phone (a common behavior) when they hit someone, whether the person they hit had a light or helmet is irrelevant (and actually the helmet is irrelevant to a crash anyway, other than possibly affecting what injuries they got). I know the helmet and lights and dark clothing get reported because they can be determined immediately, and the distracted driving usually can’t be, but reporting on the former without the latter can make irrelevant things appear too important.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

Here are two possible truthful interpretations:
Police version: “Cyclist did not cooperate with investigators and did not remain at the scene”
Other version “cyclist was unconscious and was taken by ambulance to the hospital”
Both could be true

Michael Berger
Guest
Michael Berger

I was on a bicycle and involved in a collision with a car in Clark County a couple years ago. It was a horrible experience, mainly due to the manner that Clark County deputies treated me during the incident. They sided with the driver, never asked me a for a detailed explanation of the collision, and treated me as if I should not have been on the road in the first place. To make it worse, the driver of the car did not have insurance and the Clark County deputies were not willing to ticket the driver. They started to become aggressive when I questioned why the driver would not be ticketed for driving without insurance, after being involved in a collision. Fortunately, my physical injuries were minor. To be honest, the experience with the Clark County Sheriff was worse than colliding with a car. This story brought back some not so fond memories.

Frank Selker
Guest
Frank Selker

Great article! This seems important and right on point – bias is pernicious and takes real energy and skill to limit.

I can totally envision the police favoring a sympathetic young lady who can give her side vs. the homeless man unable to refute or offer his side, and police spend lots of time in cars, not so much cycling.

I wonder if police could get more training in this – perhaps from you, Jonathan 🙂

Suburban
Guest
Suburban

Did you contact the office who issued this statement for a statement on this topic?