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

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.

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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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