There once was a time when Angelenos with the misfortune of ending up in a car crash could at the very least count on an officer to arrive on scene and sort things out. That is no longer the case. LAPD officers are now not responding to traffic collisions deemed "minor."
Police leadership announced the policy shift in January. Now, rather than rely on an officer's non-involved, third-party account of the crash, "minor" accident victims are referred to an online system run by LexisNexis where they each must submit their own version of what transpired.
A friend of mine within the LAPD told me the new standard for dispatching to crash scenes is that if an ambulance isn't required, then an officer isn't, either. Interestingly enough, I recently was retained by a person who was involved in a car crash that was transported to the hospital from the scene of the crash, and even then, the police did not show up.
Personal injury attorneys should prepare for a wave of clients who are unaware of that fact -- and expect that common vehicle accident injuries such as whiplash, traumatic brain injuries such as concussions, cuts, cracked ribs or knee trauma may not be documented on self-reported collision forms. This will make pursuing a client's claim more difficult.
Last fall LAPD Chief Michel Moore slashed the department's $1.8 billion budget by $150 million in response to calls to defund the police. That reportedly dropped the number of sworn LAPD officers to about 9,760, from 10,000.
While the idea of contracting accident reports out to LexisNexis' Coplogic online system was in the works for a few years, it is likely the budget cuts just provided the LAPD with impetus to force a change it already was moving toward. The LAPD has apparently not done a great job informing drivers about the change, either. I have spoken with a number of clients who were blindsided by the news at the scene of the crash.
Los Angeles, before the pandemic, had about 55,000 reported crashes annually. Numbers for this year are far lower, which has the city's Department of Transportation officials worried that a "severe underreporting of crashes" hamstrings their ability to identify potentially dangerous areas where safety improvements should be made.
Some personal injury cases only center around whether there was a dangerous condition on the road. Part of the research in determining if a dangerous condition was present includes reviewing prior traffic collision reports in that same location. Thus, the importance of traffic collision reports in dangerous condition cases simply cannot be overstated.
"As of January 2021, the Los Angeles Police Department no longer takes crash reports for crashes historically characterized as Property Damage Only (PDO), Complaint of Pain (C), and Other Visible Injury (B) in most circumstances," the report states.
"LAPD will continue to make crash reports for Severe Injury (A) and Fatal (K) crashes. People involved in PDO, C, and B level crashes are now asked to self-report using an online form. So far this year (through March 6, 2021), LAPD has recorded 60% fewer crashes compared to the same time period in 2020."
The problems with self-reporting
Each involved driver is responsible for filing their own accident report. That is fine if both parties are honest and of good will. Still, they likely are not gathering the data required by the form in order to provide a clear and concise account that can be used in a legal dispute. They are busy checking for visible injuries on themselves or their passengers. They will be inspecting the property damage, exchanging information, dealing with any traffic their misfortune is causing, or calling spouses, bosses, tow trucks, etc.
Self-reporting places the onus on accident victims to become their own traffic accident investigators, which is incorrect and inappropriate. To start gathering data, outside of perhaps taking cellphone photos or video of the damage, accident victims who have just endured a traumatic event cannot be expected to become reliable, accurate and thorough accident investigation experts. A police officer responding to a crash, however, is in a much better position, due to training and experience, to collect debris, contact information from witnesses, determine road conditions, document skid marks, correctly record the number of lanes in the road, the exact location each party was traveling, etc.
Often, an officer at the scene right after a "minor" collision will determine whether someone committed a traffic infraction. Did a driver run the red light? Make an illegal turn? Exceed the posted speed limit? Was the car on auto-pilot? Was there a mechanical malfunction? Was there a distraction? Was someone TicTok-ing, cooing at their lapdog, or spilling their too-hot Starbucks?
Is a driver expected to ask all these questions?
Worst of all, and most troubling, is that drivers will have to determine the severity of their own injuries. What is a "minor" injury? A traumatic brain injury such as a concussion maybe dismissed by a lay person (i.e., the crash victim) as a headache. Countless other injuries such as fractured disks, and those causing internal bleeding may go undetected or played down by victims at the scene of the crash simply because they do not understand the severity of them. If left untreated, these injuries can become exponentially worse. A police officer on the scene would be able to discern whether to summon an ambulance rather than leaving it up the victim to triage themself.
Assuming both parties assess that neither is injured, there is nothing to stop someone from amicably parting the scene only to later claim a severe injury? Whiplash, herniated discs, knee injuries, cracked ribs -- someone may not recognize their own injuries at the scene. It is a common belief that someone must lose consciousness during a concussion -- a police officer is trained to know that most people remain conscious. Are drivers now expected to know the symptoms?
Traffic accidents can also involve especially vulnerable victims or passengers: senior citizens, children, people with disabilities or people with medical conditions. So then, with self-reporting, we have drivers in a position of assessing other people's injuries.
Self-reporting takes away the element of having a neutral arbiter present at the scene of the crash. What if one driver never self-reports and then denies they were even at the scene, or driving? With one party's denial of being present, there is no investigating officer to gather important evidence or record interviews with drivers or witnesses. There is no unbiased third-party report to even prove the defendant was present.
I have clients that did not independently take photos of the other driver's car, license plate or driver's license because they were so nervous from the crash. Fortunately in those instances, a traffic collision report was made by an officer so the lack of photographic evidence was not damaging. The result would have been much different had the crash occurred after this new LAPD policy implementation.
It is important to note that traffic collision reports are not perfect. The police officers are not percipient witnesses to the crash itself. The reports may not be accurate since the officers make decisions based on the biased information given to them by each party. The officers also have their own unspoken personal biases that are reflected in the police report. Further, the police reports are not admissible at trial.
However, not having traffic collision reports for all types of crashes, regardless of severity, is worse than any above-stated flaws. Moreover, since the majority of cases settle before trial, the issue of a report not being admissible at court is miniscule. Although far from perfect, having police officers responding to a car crash and preparing a police report is essential for an efficient society. LAPD's decision shifts a non-delegable responsibility onto the victims of the crash, and potentially to the courts.
It's also worth mentioning here concerns that also have been raised about LexisNexis' handling of accident victims' personal information: by outsourcing "minor" accident reporting, local government is complicit in helping to commoditize someone's misfortune for uses like targeted ads, promotional messages and sweepstakes invitations. And in 2016 the New York Times reported that police information collected by LexisNexis was sold to insurance companies -- cities got a percentage of the profit.
It is impossible to advise prospective clients about all the steps they should have taken at the time of the accident before they called you. But you should inform past and existing clients about this new LAPD policy change. If they are involved in a crash, it could be the best tip they ever got.