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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.

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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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112 thoughts on “A critique of a police statement that blames victim of serious collision”

  1. Avatar Eric Leifsdad says:

    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?

    1. Avatar Chris says:

      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.

    2. Avatar Alan 1.0 says:

      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.

      1. Avatar David Hampsten says:

        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.

    3. Avatar Steve Campbell says:

      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.

    4. One thing about police commenting on lights/no lights is that the impact of these crashes is often so severe that it’s very possible a light could have been on the bicycle but it was flinged so far away from the crash site that responders just didn’t find it. Again, that’s another why it’s a bad idea to mention lights.

      1. Avatar Fred says:

        If I can remember my 8th-grade grammar:

        Today I fling the light.
        Yesterday I flinged (flung?) the light.
        I have flinged (flunged??) the light.

        But seriously, it’s a good point, though again a thorough police investigation would note the existence of a mount for a light on the bike. But the statement says nothing at all about the condition of the bike itself.

        1. Avatar raktajino says:

          I have several lights that strap on without a mount. If they snapped off in a collision, they wouldn’t leave a trace (and would probably soar pretty far because the straps are stretchy silicone!) So even a lack of a mount doesn’t mean much.

          A grammar correction is a bit of a pointless derail btw.

        2. Avatar David Hampsten says:

          I had 8th grade English in the early 80s From Mrs. Sinclair at Valley Junior High.

          Today I will fling the light.
          Yesterday I flung the light.
          I have already flung the light.
          Tomorrow I will be flinging the light again.

      2. Avatar Bicycling Al says:

        This is a very good point, Jonathan. In my last vehicle collision while riding, I completely lost my red blinking light mounted on my backpack. I only realized when I got home and inspected the backpack for damage that I never looked for my light on the road way after the crash. With literally an entire, what 8 lane or something, intersection to look through while worrying about traffic moving through it after I got up off the pavement, it was going to be a futile effort anyway for a $40 tail light.

    5. Avatar El Biciclero says:

      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.

      1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

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

        1. Avatar El Biciclero says:

          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…

  2. Avatar Steve says:

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

    1. good question. I use “driver” sometimes in the same way that I use “rider”.

      A few things: Context matters. This is about a cultural dynamic where people in cars hold the power and people outside of them don’t. And in American culture bicycle riders are oft-maligned, laughed at, and discriminated against in a variety of ways. Therefore, the “bicyclist” label in and of itself carries a weight that “driver” doesn’t.

      Also, “bicyclist” is noun and feels more like stereotyping label to me. “Driver” on the other hand, feels more like a verb. I prefer to use verb forms whenever possible (rider, driving, riding, cycling) because they feel less harmful and they conjure an action rather than a person (and actions are harder to stereotype). FWIW I never use “motorist” or “pedestrian” for the same reasons.

      Sometimes in the interest of style and readability I will mix things up and use “Car user” “bicycle user” or “driver” and “rider”. Cultural context matters and so does stylistic context IMO.

      It’s also worth asking ourselves why this statement (and many others) uses “bicyclist” to refer to the bicycle rider but then uses “car” to refer to the car user? One centers the actions on a person, the other places the action on an object.

      1. Avatar Gary B says:

        I’m with you one everythign else, but driver is of course a noun. Perhaps you meant it’s derived from a verb, and thus conjures the action.

        1. yes of course! I appreciate you flagging that. I will edit accordingly. Glad you got the gist anyhow.

        2. Avatar El Biciclero says:

          Sentence diagrams aside, it’s the difference between “I’m trimming the trees in my yard”, vs. “I’m an ‘arborist'”. Generally people hear “driver” as something you’re doing right now, but “bicyclist” as something you are, usually “avidly”, which too many people hear as “rabidly”…the automatic associations go as far as you want.

        1. Yes. This is a widely studied issue (in recent years) that should give more credence to my concerns and should lead to police agencies taking this stuff more seriously.

  3. Avatar Steve says:

    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.

    1. Steve,

      We disagree on a few things.

      My point about speed was a general opposition to anyone using the “speed was not a factor” phrase because in my opinion, even if someone was going 10 mph in a 20 mph zone they could hurt/kill another person and the reason for that would be the speed of their vehicle. Also, I am skeptical that they can accurately assess this specific person’s speed. I don’t care what they “imply”, I care what they say.

      I also am not trying to say lighting equipment isn’t important. I think it’s crucial! But when someone chooses a random fact and inserts it into this context, they are making an editorial decision that impacts the narrative. There are a ton of “pretty important facts” of this incident that were not included in the statement. Police staff should not be given the discretion to choose which ones they insert and which ones they leave out.

      1. Avatar Gary B says:

        Perhaps the confusion is they didn’t actually use the old “speed not a factor” crap. That said “signficant speed” is a bizarre way of saying not exceeding the speed limit. They seem to be implying that she may have been going faster, but not *that* fast. But of course their subjectivity immediately absolves the driver of wrong-doing.

        1. Avatar Fred says:

          Good point, Gary B. Cyclists are often admonished for going too fast: someone in this space said recently, “You should never ride your bike so fast that you can’t stop safely under the current conditions.” So why doesn’t that same standard apply to drivers of cars? The speed limit is exactly that – an upper limit. It’s not the required speed. I learned in driver’s ed class that the speed limit is not what’s on the sign but the maximum speed you can operate the vehicle under the current conditions. Yet drivers are often given a pass – as in this case – if they drive AT or near the speed limit. Why is that?

          I see sooooo many drivers who are going too fast for the conditions, driving heedlessly with pedestrians, bikes, kids, animals etc nearby. But law enforcement seems to have a mindset that it’s all okay as long as the driver is not exceeding the posted speed limit. In my experience, young drivers are the most likely to drive heedlessly.

          1. That’s just the basic speed law, the most under-enforced traffic law in the US. It’s violated in almost every traffic collision no matter which party is at fault.

            1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

              That law is largely unenforceable outside of pretty extreme circumstances.

              1. Avatar squareman says:

                It could easily be enforceable at a great number of traffic collisions – even without skid marks. There was a rider critically injured years ago at a four-way intersection with stop signs around NE Prescott and NE 72nd if I recall correctly. The driver used her “the sun was blinding me, I didn’t see him” get-out-of-jail-free phrase and she was not cited – but should have because of her admission of guilt for breaking the basic speed law. If one cannot see what is already on the roadway directly in front of them – whether because of fog, the angle of the sun, the dark, or whatever – then they were driving too fast for conditions.

                Anything you say can (but rarely will) be used against you, in a traffic report.

    2. Avatar Matt says:

      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.

      1. Avatar David Hampsten says:

        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.

    3. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

      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.

      1. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

        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.

        1. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

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

    4. Avatar cmh89 says:

      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

  4. 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

    1. got it! Thanks Todd. Edited that part.

  5. Avatar Dave says:

    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.

    1. Avatar Chris I says:

      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”.

    2. Avatar raktajino says:

      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.

  6. Matthew Groener says:

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

  7. Avatar Jason says:

    collision involving a bicyclist and a vehicle…

    Because bicycles are not vehicles?

    1. Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) says:

      exactly. that was a nit I opted not to pick on this particular post.

      1. Avatar Jason says:

        In for a penny, in for a pound. 😉

    2. Avatar SERider says:

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

  8. Avatar Evan Manvel says:

    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.

    1. Thanks for sharing that article Evan. I’m so happy smart people are studying this stuff. And yes, I didn’t mention it in the post, but the regurgitation of this stuff by media outlets is one of the main reasons I have been so focused on it all these years.

    2. Avatar David Hampsten says:

      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.

      1. Come on David. Yes we care about the injuries, that’s just not the focus of this post. And because it’s outside my usual geographic range, I’m not extending the same energy toward it. That’s not callousness, that’s just the reality of me having to draw some borders around my work/effort because of limited mental bandwidth.

        1. Avatar David Hampsten says:

          So if it’s far outside your geographical range, why are you going so far outside your “limited mental bandwidth” to report on it at all?

          1. David. You OK? Did you know the victim personally? Your outrage at me doesn’t seem to match my actions.

            And I will decide what my bandwidth allows. For your information, it takes a different kind of mental strength for me to do an analytical post like this, then to fully embrace a crash like I would if it happened in Portland. I shouldn’t have to explain this to you because it’s a very personal choice I make. Put another way… When bad crashes happen, I feel them in my bones. It really impacts me. Because of that, I try to limit my exposure to them and that’s why I’ve drawn a border around Portland city limits to track them. I extended my boundary here because language use by police is a pet issue I’ve worked on for many years. I hope this helps clarify where I’m coming from. I do appreciate your focus on the man’s injuries. Thanks.

            1. Avatar David Hampsten says:

              My concern is that you are using this as a “case in point” about how police departments write erroneous reports based on bias and scant evidence, but ignoring the trauma that both driver and the cyclist are likely suffering. I find your apparent reaction inhuman. Basically you are “using them” to make a point about police in general and how you as a reporter have to make sense of what happened based on those reports. I find your reaction callous in the worst way – you really don’t seem to care about any of these particular victims as much as you seem to harp about how biased the police reports are, even though these police aren’t the police you typically deal with, in an area of town that is outside of your coverage zone. I do have a concern for the victims, all victims. But I’m also a bit concerned that you yourself may have crossed a line into some sort of journalistic twilight zone where you care more about the text than the people. And that really worries me.

              1. Avatar qqq says:

                Criticizing someone for writing about traffic collision reporting because they didn’t discuss the trauma of the people involve seems like criticizing people who donate to animal shelters for not caring about children.

                Plus, I see your view as almost trivializing the suffering. How many sentences about the suffering would be sufficient to check off that an author cares enough? Two? Eight?

              2. Avatar David Hampsten says:

                qqq, if JM was an academic who typically writes passively about bias in police reports, I would agree with your points and say my criticism is misplaced. But JM is not typically that type of writer – he’s usually vary passionate about the trauma, the street design, everyone involved (victims, perpetrators, police, highway designers, etc). So this is why I find his whole piece here so odd and out-of-character. To continue your theme, it’s as if he’s criticizing the animal shelter staff on how they write up their animal euthanasia reports and the terms they use, rather than criticizing society for not caring enough about either taking care of children or neutering pets.

              3. Avatar Caleb says:

                Even so, JM doesn’t have to put all his thoughts and feelings on a situation into a post he writes about that situation. Your own expectations, whether for certain qualities and/or consistency, have you more troubled than do those thoughts and feelings of his, the latter being things you can’t even know. Seems akin to asking him to live without any personal flexibility.

                That he doesn’t express critique for society and infrastructure conducive to the Vancouver crash means neither that he does not hold such critique, nor that he wouldn’t develop it in a way consistent with other parallel critiques he’s expressed regarding other crashes.

                I’m glad you care, though.

              4. Ahh now I see your concern more clearly. Thank you. I understand. You make very good points and I appreciate the input. I will let it sink in and mull it over a bit more.

              5. Avatar Fred says:

                Good recovery.

  9. Avatar David Hampsten says:

    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.

    1. Avatar Phil M says:

      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?

    2. Avatar Chris I says:

      Thoughts and prayers?

  10. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

    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.

    1. Avatar Chris I says:

      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.

      1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

        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.

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

          That’s not a bad idea and definitely worth considering. There is a lot of baggage around that term and I bet it’s possible to talk about these crashes without using it. I will try to not use the word in the future.

          1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

            The challenge will arise when the next Fallon Smart incident occurs, where the roles of everyone involved is unambiguous, and one party really is the victim in every sense of the word.

            1. that won’t be a challenge at all Hello, Kitty. Fallon Smart and her family and friends were the only and clear victims. The person hit her was not.

              That’s the thing about my word choice/language stuff… There are not absolute rules and I always reserve the right to adapt to context when necessary.

    2. Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Hello, Kitty: These are good points.

      And this post is marked both Editorial and Opinion by the way. It also has the word “critique” in the headline which I feel makes it clear this is my take.

      I understand the concerns around use of the word “victim” and well aware that there can be more than one in a crash. Keep in mind just because I refer to one party as “victim” doesn’t mean I assume the other party has zero negative emotional experience or victimization in the crash.

      And I also don’t think blame/fault always relates to who is the victim. IMO when we drive a car, the inherent danger of that vehicle allows us to victimizes others even if we drive 100% right, safe, and legal.

      1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

        In the Pamplin Media case, they also suggested the context made it clear that the ODOT pieces were opinion, and you were right to reject that notion.

        I think you should use a different color, or a clear and consistent keyword (e.g. “Opinon:”) to demark the different kinds of content, rather than relying on readers to parse the headline to figure out what type it is.

        1. I’ll take these suggestions in to consideration… But this example is VERY VERY different than the Tribune stuff.

          And yes I am guilty of a default position that assumes readers are smart and able to think critically about what they are reading.

          1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

            Of course they’re different situations. I’m arguing that your critique, which I totally agreed with, that there should be an easy and obvious way for people to distinguish opinion content from news content, applies to both.

            I know I’ve made these suggestions before, and I don’t expect you’re going to change things now, but I really don’t see any downside to clearly distinguishing between types of content. It’s easy and it’s standard journalistic practice.

    3. Avatar Fred says:

      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.

  11. Avatar Asher Atkinson says:

    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.

    1. Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) says:

      Thanks Asher,

      I should have clarified I’m not concerned about blame at this time. That is, I’m willing to wait until we have more information. I’ve learned over the years that — although it’s extremely tempting — it’s often fraught with peril to jump to conclusions about who’s to blame in crashes. I just did this recently even though I’m aware of the risk.

      And I agree there’s a terrible lack of follow-up because most media just don’t care about the detail. They want the tragedy and they love the sensational headlines about traffic crashes — but they really don’t care about the details.

      I think if police withheld details until a full investigation was completed (if one was even done, which isn’t always the case), I think we might see more of a public demand for crash details. By copy/pasting police statements the media is giving into that demand on the front-end and it’s hard/impossible in the media to make people care about something once you’ve satiated their initial interest. Sort of like making a kid wait until after dinner to have their desert.

      1. Avatar Asher Atkinson says:

        When there is a full investigation, can the details be discovered with a public record request? Perhaps bikeportland could host a serious incident registry and use a crowd sourced approach to add follow-up detail if it ever can be found.

  12. Avatar qqq says:

    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”?

  13. Avatar Steve Scarich says:

    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.

    1. Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) says:

      Thanks for asking Mr. Scarich. Happy to do that! Here goes:

      =========
      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.
      =========

      That’s it. I firmly believe that less information is better in these circumstances. When I met with PPB officers many years ago and had these conversations about reforming their statements, they said (and I paraphrase), “Well the media and the public want to know what happened!”. I responded that it is not the job of the police to do the media’s job. Their job is to produce responsible, unbiased information. If the media wants to know more about a crash, they can interview people and publish whatever they want. The problem here (just like we see with the racism/police brutality protests) is words have different power and impact when typed by the police. And as we know, the media often just copy/pastes their words into “news” stories which is very dangerous and irresponsible.

      One more thing: I guarantee if researchers scanned police crash statements involving their own officers, those statements would look very similar to the one I’ve made above. They are typically very limited in information. Ask yourself why that is the case. It’s my belief that it’s a clear sign of disrespect of certain people/road user groups when police inject all this irrelevant and subjective information into statements.

      1. Avatar Steve Scarich says:

        Thanks for the effort and I get your point. I know a lot less with your posting than LE’s, but you admit that is your aim. I generally prefer more information rather than less, and I try to sort out what might really have happened. Waiting for the media to provide more detail later is a real long shot. My experience is that, more often than not, the only info we get is the first press release. At least in Bend, we get just about zero info from media. It is mostly national and world news, feel-good local stories; none of our media has the budget or inclination to delve into local stuff.

        1. Avatar Asher Atkinson says:

          I find Jonathan’s rework succinct, factual, and containing all there really is to know at this time. As you say, even with more information available you still must try to sort out what might really have happened. To me, reading these statements feels like online rubber-necking, and just serves as fodder for confirmation bias. We completely agree that getting more detail later is a long shot, so let’s find ways to solve that problem.

      2. Avatar Steve Scarich says:

        On an almost unrelated front, I was knocked down and assaulted by a landscaper with a rake, when I was standing over my bike, telling him his pickup was illegally parked, completely blocking the bike lane. The investigating Bend PD officer’s first question was ‘why didn’t you just go home and call traffic enforcement?’. I told him that was showing his bias against cyclists and he responded by saying that I was being uncooperative and that he was not going to tape our conversation to make that clear. I asked him to cite the landscaper for his clear violation of the right of way laws, and he refused. I suffered a badly sprained thumb, minor damage to my bike, and have not a heard a word from the DA in four weeks.

        1. Avatar Chris I says:

          Did you ask for him to be charged with assault?

          1. Avatar Steve Scarich says:

            He told me that I could press charges (which I did), but that the actual charges would be determined by the DA, based on his report and interviews of me and the attacker. Of course, the attacker claimed that I attacked him, but, it was clear from my injuries, the damage to my bike, and the fact that he had to run over 40′ from his truck to where I was standing (with one foot still clicked in to a pedal) that his story did not stand up to the facts. The cop implied that he would probably be charged with harassment (or something like that), because I did not appear to be injured (necessary for 4th degree assault). But, I woke up the next day with my thumb swollen to the point that it did not bend at all, and I called the cop and asked him to add that to his report.

        2. Avatar Fred says:

          Darned cyclists – expecting your lanes to remain clear. So uppity! You deserve whatever is coming to you.
          Yours truly,
          Bend PD (and most PDs everywhere)

        3. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

          I suspect the cop was right; it is not your duty or even your right to enforce the law yourself (you know… “to take the law into your own hands”). The proper course would have been to call the police and let them sort it out.

          1. Avatar Chris I says:

            The 1st amendment protects our right to call someone a POS for parking in the bike lane. So the Cop was right to ignore the claims of assault and instead lecture the victim?

            1. Avatar Steve Scarich says:

              The cop did something interesting. He asked me ‘why’ I did what I did. My response was ‘it does not matter why I did it, but only what my actions were’. He said that No, I was legally required to tell him ‘why’ I did it. He was pissed off at me, and that is when he took out his smartphone and started video-recording our conversation. I actually to not know the law in this case, but I bet he was wrong.

          2. Avatar Steve Scarich says:

            My only attempt at enforcing the law, was to yell at the guy ‘you’re blocking the bike lane; that is illegal’. That is all I said. I know the procedure for complaining about illegal parking in the bike lanes in Bend. I have called 2 or 3 times in the past, and Bend Parking Enforcement has been very good about coming out; in two or three days. I knew that this was not an ongoing issue, but a one-off. I did learn one lesson, either keep my mouth shut, or be better armed. As I lay on my back, entangled in my back, with a crazy guy waving a rake at me screaming ‘I’m sick of all you rich MFers’. I realized that I could have been very badly injured. This happened a week after a BMW ran me off the road, into a curb, because I had to dodge a construction barrier that completely blocked the bike lane, for which there was no warning or signage. He yelled at me ‘You’re not a car’ and sped away. Bend is getting scary.

            1. Avatar Fred says:

              My most recent call to City of Portland parking enforcement evoked the following response from the CoP employee: “Oh, they’re not going to come out for that” (when “that” meant blocking the bike lane).

              Bikes are absolutely subject to disparate enforcement by municipalities everywhere, but if anyone has any counter examples I’d love to hear about them.

          3. Avatar qqq says:

            I disagree. It’s perfectly normal to ask someone to stop breaking a law before calling the police or other authorities. In many cases, authorities would appreciate or even encourage you to do that before calling them (of course that doesn’t mean confronting someone who’s being violent or likely to become violent).

            As an example, if you file a noise complaint in Portland, the form asks if you’ve talked to the violator yourself before filing the complaint.

            Imagine if the landscaper’s truck was blocking someone’s driveway so they couldn’t drive out, and you told them to move it. Would the police or parking enforcement think you were wrong to ask them to move? I doubt it. In fact, if you called them to come out and cite the driver, my guess is they’d respond, “Have you asked him to move?”

            1. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

              I’ve discovered over my life that most folks, when asked to do something reasonable in a polite and reasonable way, are not going to knock you to the ground with their gardening implements.

              That’s probably what the cop was thinking too, especially if the gardener kept his cool while the cop was there, and the cop felt he had to create video documentation of the level of uncooperativeness of the ostensible victim.

              Even if the facts are 100% on your side, at some point it should be clear you’ve lost.

              1. Avatar Fred says:

                You have strange logic, Kitty. “Some people are just a**holes” is how I would summarize it.

                I observed this very thing happen this week: A delivery van blocked a neighbor’s driveway and the neighbor needed to get out. So he asked the delivery van driver to move his van forward six feet. The driver replied Nokandu! So when the driver went to the house, the neighbor jumped in the idling van and moved forward six feet. The driver ran back and an actual punch-up almost ensued! Eventually the neighbor was able to get into his car and drive away, while another neighbor’s wife talked the driver down.

                Yep – some people are just a**holes.

              2. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

                If you show up in the middle of a situation, and one party is acting calmly and you need to videotape the other to capture his uncooperative behavior, who are you going to presume the asshole is?

                PS I like your neighbor’s style!

              3. Avatar Steve Scarich says:

                I did not ask in a polite way, I admit that. It would not have made a bit of difference in this case. The whole incident took about 45 minutes from the time I called, until I left. As I left, the gardener was back to raking leaves, his truck was still blocking the bike lane, and the cops were preparing to leave, without citing him for an obvious violation. Yes, I have probably ‘lost’ in this case. I would ‘let it go’ if the guy had just yelled at me, but knocking me down with a rake indicated that he was a dangerous person and needed to be sanctioned. I should call the DA and find out the outcome of my case.

              4. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

                You’re probably right that the truck wasn’t going anywhere (which is probably why the cop suggested calling parking patrol rather than trying to handle it yourself), but asking nicely might have avoided the rake incident. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.

              5. Avatar Matt says:

                This is victim blaming.

              6. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

                As with the larger story we’re discussing, we only have one side of the events. The gardener likely has a different perspective, and the cop a different one yet. Sometimes it’s better not to try to fit everything into a neat narrative structure, trying to figure out who to put in the victim box, and who goes in the blame box, and making sure that each box has the right number and the right kind of people.

                In the tragedy of life, the victim sometimes shares responsibility for how their fate unfolds. Have you ever read Shakespeare?

        4. Avatar qqq says:

          If he led with a question like that, he may have been quite biased. But telling him that probably wasn’t a great strategy.

          I do think how police (or anyone else) respond often has as much or more to do with their own biases than the facts in front of them. And it’s no secret (see the article) that they often see things from a driver’s perspective, so you may have been doomed no matter what you said.

      3. Avatar SERider says:

        How much of the original police statement is being driven by them trying to give the most amount of answers to potential questions they expect to be asked? Questions like lights, helmets, speeding, etc. are almost guaranteed to be asked after a crash. How much of it is just the department trying to save themselves some work in answering those questions?

        I agree some of the facts seem a bit misleading (like the “encampment”, which is irrelevant), but Jonathon’s statement doesn’t include any of those things, which will require every reporter to follow up with the department with these basic questions.

        I’m all for prudence and they likely should have waiting to release some of the facts at a later point, but these questions were going to come up eventually.

        1. Thanks for asking. That’s exactly how a police PIO responded when I met with them years ago to propose these solutions. (That was back when PPB had PIOs that actually stuck around for a while and cared about the job, now they seem to cycle through them every few months, making any type of rapport with a well-intentioned local reporter/advocate very difficult.)

          The answer is, the police and just tell people: “We can’t comment on ongoing investigations. If you’d like a copy of the report, please contact our records division.” That is a good response, unless and until police are trained to the point where they can answer individual questions responsibly without bias. Also, if media want answers they can do their jobs and hit the street to look for leads, talk to witnesses, look up crash records, talk to transportation and safety experts, and so on.

          This is about respecting people involved in collisions and getting us on a path to the type of “safe system” culture we need for Vision Zero to actually work. Just because people might ask questions about a crash doesn’t mean we have to throw away our principles and focus on the larger goal.

          1. Avatar Steve Scarich says:

            Cops are caught in a no-win situation. Comment too little and they are called uncaring, obstructionist, and inept. Comment too much and they end up roasted on the Internet. I like Jonathan’s original recommendation: they have a template, which is minimalist, they use that rigidly, the media and public scream, they just say ‘we are required to use this template, sorry’. The public is not well-served by this scenario, but the cops are off the hook. Government becomes just a bit less transparent.

  14. Avatar PNWPhotoWalks says:

    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.

  15. Avatar Matthew in PDX says:

    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.

    1. Avatar Fred says:

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

    2. Hello, Kitty Hello, Kitty says:

      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.

      1. Avatar Fred says:

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

  16. Avatar qqq says:

    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.

  17. Avatar Granpa says:

    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

  18. Avatar Michael Berger says:

    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.

  19. Avatar Frank Selker says:

    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 🙂

    1. Thanks Frank.

      There are so many things I hear and know that never end up as posts on this site but that inform how I think. One of them is a story told to me by a person who ran over and killed another person on a bike in Portland years ago. That man told me that as he sat on the curb at the scene a PPB officer approached him and said, “You never saw her”. And the driver was like, “huh?” and then the officer repeated, “You never saw her.” Shit like that speaks to the extreme bias of many of these officers and it really sticks with me.

      As for helping train them. I am always open to sitting down and talking to city staff that want my advice and help. That is something I have done since Day One with bikeportland.

  20. Avatar Suburban says:

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

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