Published Friday, April 4, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Updated Friday, April 4, 2014 | 11:41 a.m.
Metro Police’s unpopular new policy change on fender-benders has been a unifier of sorts, bringing together insurance agents, personal-injury attorneys and motorists to deliver an appeal to bring back the previous system.
Under the new guidelines, which went into effect March 3, officers no longer respond to most noninjury wrecks so they can concentrate on chasing down scofflaws and ticketing them. The department also no longer accepts submitted crash reports. Instead, motorists must turn in a traffic accident form to the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles for record-keeping purposes.
Now a month since the policy went into effect, Metro traffic officials say they are responding to at least 20 percent fewer wrecks. Some personal-injury attorneys, meanwhile, have begun to take cases from motorists who claim they're having difficulty getting insurance coverage because of the new policy, and insurance company representatives say they're spending 20 percent more time sorting through each incident in question to determine fault, a loss in resources they warn ultimately could drive up costs for customers.
“I’ve never even gotten a ticket, and now I’m getting screwed,” said Janice Van Gorder, 28, who was unable to submit a police report after her parked car was struck March 2 by a hit-and-run driver inside a private lot. Metro did not respond to wrecks on private property before the policy change, though the department took submitted reports for such incidents.
Though she jotted down the license plate of the driver who struck her and exchanged information with witnesses at the scene, her insurance provider, American National, has told her she'll have to pay a $500 deductible if the driver doesn't fess up to hitting her car. Without a police report, the company said, there's no other way to determine fault.
“I thought I was doing the right thing by reporting negligence,” said Van Gorder, a social media specialist at Greenspun Media Group, which publishes the Sun. “I guess the moral of the story is that if you hit someone, drive away.”
‘The consumer loses’
Larry Mittin, an accident attorney at Craig P. Attorney & Associates who is representing litigants in similar cases, says insurance agents and attorneys rely on officer neutrality. Determining crash fault can quickly devolve into a flurry of finger-pointing without the aid of an authoritative third party.
Mittin criticized Metro’s policy for being vague because injuries aren't always immediately obvious at a crash site, and pain from a wreck sometimes manifests days or hours after impact.
“The police department is looking for more funds. They can't hold society hostage,” said Ted Venter, vice president of Las Vegas-based Nevada General Insurance Company. “Aren't there public-safety concerns? Who is going to get these people off the side of the street? Aren't these adjusters going to have to make police determinations? Are they really trained to do that?”
Insurance industry representatives say the policy ultimately will benefit attorneys who can draw litigation out for years on minor wrecks. Lawyers disagree — it's insurance agencies who will win because now they can deny claims more easily.
“Whether the attorneys win or the insurance representative, the consumer loses,” Venter said. “It's going to be ugly.”
It'll likely be more than a year before Las Vegans might see sweeping insurance rate hikes, if at all, said Jake Sunderland, a spokesman for the Nevada Division of Insurance, the regulatory agency that approves such pricing changes.
“Is it possible it'll affect rates? Maybe. But a month of experience isn't enough to tell,” Sunderland said. “(Insurance providers) need to have data to back up increases. They can't just be arbitrary increases because of someone's feelings about a policy.”
More time for prevention
At the bull's-eye of the criticism is Sheriff Doug Gillespie, whose department announced the policy change weeks after the Clark County Commission rejected his appeal for the More Cops sales tax to fund more officers.
“The insurance industry, they're very worried about the accidents and us not responding. Where were they for More Cops?” Gillespie said. “You know that more cops reduce burglaries to residents, you know more cops reduce cars being stolen, more cops reduce people being hurt and injured on our streets in auto accidents. But boy, they're pretty darn vocal when we're not showing up for fender-benders.”
Officers are grateful for the change, Gillespie said, and they're hopeful it ultimately will lead to a reduction in deadly wrecks.
Between Jan. 1 and March 31, Metro traffic officers responded to 20 percent fewer vehicle wrecks compared with the same time period last year. Year-to-date fatalities so far are down by 31 percent at 18 deaths as of March 11.
“We want to be in the prevention of wrecks. We want to reduce the number of wrecks to begin with,” said Metro traffic Lt. Leonard Marshall. “We can't always be chasing our tails.”
At least two leading candidates vying to fill Gillespie's seat this year have vowed to reverse the sheriff's decision if elected.
“People feel like they've been abandoned by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department,” said former Assistant Sheriff Ted Moody, who is running for sheriff. “They're indignant.”
There are better ways to alleviate an officer shortage, said Capt. Larry Burns, another candidate. Patrol officers, for example, could start responding to more fender-benders. Or Metro could hire more patrol service representatives — civilians who respond to nonhazardous calls.
“There are a number of ways we can get folks to respond,” Burns said. “We need to look at every alternative to avoid saying, ‘Sorry, we're not responding.’”
A larger issue
Proponents of the policy say the system isn't new or unique to Las Vegas — Reno and Los Angeles, for example, are among several large cities with similar procedures in place for minor wrecks.
The transition toward reduced dependence on police highlights a larger issue — an overused 911 emergency dispatch system that is often a burden as much as a boon to law enforcement, said Bill Sousa, a UNLV criminal justice professor.
The 911 system, popularized in the mid-1900s, has become so heavily relied upon for relatively minor incidents that police now realize they have “created a monster,” Sousa said.
Though unpopular, Metro’s updated guidelines seem to allocate the department’s resources more efficiently, Sousa said.
“As someone who studies police and demand management, it's a much larger issue than people think,” Sousa said. “As a citizen, I'm torn.”