Police cars, without lights or sirens on, speeding by drivers at 90, 100, even 115 mph. It seems like they come out of nowhere. But you may assume they are stealthily trying to get to a crime scene.
Well, think again. A Local 6 investigation found a majority of the speediest police vehicles were instead heading to or from work, or off-duty jobs.
After measuring the exact time it took law enforcers to travel the distances between toll plazas in July, Local 6 mapped those distances and created a computer database to isolate the most frequent and fastest speeders in police vehicles.
The results: 14 Orlando police department vehicles not responding to a call were clocked at between 90 and 115 mph 37 times; and 16 Orange County sheriff’s deputies -- also not being dispatched to a call -- were traveling between 90 and 109 mph 40 times that month.
Presented with our findings on Wednesday, Orlando Police Chief Paul Rooney said he has suspended one officer's take-home driving privileges, placed 11 others under investigation and is trying to identify the drivers of the two other OPD vehicles.
“No excuses,” said Rooney. “I’m not going to sit here and make any excuses. And it is very concerning because we are not above the law.”
That’s not the consensus we found among drivers in traffic court who were paying hundreds of dollars in fines for doing what the officers did.
“To me, I just feel like they do whatever they want to do,” said Joely Burgos, as he arranged to pay a $307 fine for speeding. “They're doing 100 (mph) in a 70 (mph zone)? That's way worse than what we’re doing.”
Another difference is the officers speed with no serious risk of infractions appearing on their driving record.
Instead, Rooney said, he would suspend for 30 days the take-home vehicle privileges of officers proven to be speeding unnecessarily. He said that was the most stringent penalty he could impose for first-time offenders under the police union agreement.
Rooney said further investigation will be done to determine if two motorcycle officers were racing just before 10 p.m. on July 25 on State Road 408. The toll records show one motorcycle was four seconds ahead of the other at one toll plaza, but was overtaken by the second motorcycle, which finished that stretch two seconds ahead when they whizzed past the next toll plaza. Speeds during that two-minute stretch reached at least 102 mph.
Informed of our findings, the driver of the first motorcycle has already admitted he sped inappropriately in July and received a 30-day suspension of his privilege to take home his police vehicle, Rooney said. OPD officers pay between $108 and $130 a month for the costs of taking vehicles home when they are off-duty.
At the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, verbal counseling may be the most severe discipline imposed after it completes an investigation of 16 deputies we clocked between 90 and 109 mph.
“It makes us think that we need to take a look at this,” said sheriff’s spokesman Angelo Nieves, adding the suspected speeders’ names have been turned over to supervisors for further investigation.
Shown toll records of two deputies going 109 mph just before the shifts began, Nieves was asked if it appeared they were simply rushing to get to work.
“Right. On its face, that's what it looks like. We're going to try to find a determination and determine what the factors were for that,” Nieves said. “But again, there's no reason for anybody to be driving those speeds without responding to an emergency.”
Among the super-speeders -- those traveling at least 100 mph -- Local 6 found 21 of the 26 trips at those speeds in police vehicles were not justified. That means only 19 percent of the 100-plus mph trips were for vehicles responding to calls. Almost half of the trips between 90 and 99 mph were done when the vehicles were responding to calls.
The conclusion reached from that snippet of data: The faster a vehicle is traveling, the less likely it is to be responding to a call.
To identify speeding police officers, Local 6 obtained the exact times of 196,709 public agency toll transactions in July on Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority roads. After measuring distances between the busiest toll plazas, we isolated 198 instances in which 116 vehicles, from 10 police agencies, traveled at least 90 mph on those stretches of roadway. One-hundred eight-four of those trips (93 percent) were in Orlando police or Orange County sheriff’s vehicles.
After identifying drivers from those two agencies who sped most frequently or the fastest, Local 6 obtained dispatch records to determine whether those drivers were responding to calls or otherwise had reason to drive at those speeds. After excluding those who may have been justified, we focused our investigation on the 16 deputies, 12 OPD officers and two OPD vehicles whose drivers remain unidentified.
The agency that may spend the most time on limited-access highways -- the Florida Highway Patrol -- had only one vehicle traveling at least 90 mph in July, and did so only once. Asked why troopers appear to resist the need for speed, an FHP spokeswoman told Local 6 one reason may be that the agency has GPS devices on all its vehicles that allow supervisors to monitor the speed each trooper is driving.
Watch Local 6 News for more on this story.