A crash, a DUI suspect, and no response from SPD

Linda Byron's story of a traffic accident, an alleged drunk driver, and the lack of response from Seattle Police.

A car crash during an evening rush hour last month left two drivers angry and frustrated after Seattle Police failed to respond to their repeated calls to 911. Both drivers told dispatchers they thought the man who caused the accident was drunk and they feared he could hurt or even kill someone if he left the scene.

The incident began as Mariann Oxford was driving along Lake City Way on January 14. She was heading home to Kirkland from her job in Seattle. Oxford said she saw a four-door sedan go straight through a right-turn only sign and crash into her Toyota pick-up truck.

That was around 5:50 p.m. At 5:59 p.m. Oxford made her first call to 911.

"I just was just hit by a car on the corner of Lake City Way and NE 20th. His car is into my car so I can't move it, and I'm blocking traffic significantly, can you send someone right away?" Oxford asked the dispatcher.

Two other witnesses called 911 to report the accident at about the same time.

A third witness, Jennifer Aspelund, was on her way to the hospital to visit a friend. She said she pulled over just to leave her contact information but changed her plan when she saw the male driver.

"He walked past me and I smelled booze, right away and I thought, I'm not leaving, I'm staying here until the police get here," Aspelund said.

Ten minutes later police hadn't arrived.

"I thought this is really weird because we smelled alcohol and nobody's coming so I decided I'm going to pick up the phone and I'm going to call."

Aspelund can be heard on the 911 recording stating: "Somebody already called it in, but I actually saw the accident happen and this guy appears to be very drunk. And he is kind of wanting to leave, and his car is smashed."

Oxford was able to edge her car onto a side street so that was no longer blocking traffic on busy Lake City Way while she waited for police. At 6:16 pm she called 911 again. The dispatcher recognized her and said: "Okay, I'm not able to say how long it's going to take ma'am but we do have the call in."

Oxford asked police to hurry and to bring a breathalyzer.

"I've lost too many friends to drunk drivers, and I just did not want another drunk driver on the road," Oxford said in an interview at the scene recently.

The minutes tick by and at 6:48 p.m. nearly an hour after the accident, Aspelund called 911 again.

"I called once, but I'm in fear this guy is going to try to drive away and he's extremely intoxicated," Aspelund said. The dispatcher told Aspelund that they are aware that the women are still waiting for police at the scene.

Aspelund emphasized that it was urgent that an officer come soon.

"And this guy, I actually smelled alcohol on his breath, I got close enough. So, he is really hammered," Aspelund said.

The dispatcher stated that police were extremely busy, and promised to update the call.

Meantime, Aspelund and Oxford said they repeatedly told the suspect he could not leave the scene of an accident until police arrived.

But after another 30 minutes went by Aspelund said the man was growing impatient so she made a surprising suggestion: "I said, 'I got a great idea…I said why you don't use your phone and call?'"

And he did call—at 7:41 p.m. The man told the dispatcher he was reporting a car accident on Lake City Way and that they'd been waiting two hours for police.

On the tape he sounds like he's slurring his words. The dispatcher recognizes the incident, asking: "Is this the silver 4 door and the Toyota Tacoma pickup?" He responds: "Why yes it is." Then the dispatcher tells him that he is free to leave: "If both drivers have Washington licenses and proof of insurance, it's not required to see an officer." The DUI Suspect states: "We've already transferred all the information. Dispatcher: "It's not required to wait for an officer, you can go ahead and leave..."

But he doesn't leave.

"The only thing I can think of is he was so intoxicated and we were so insistent that he stay, he just stayed," Oxford said.

Oxford called 911 two more times, at 7:40 p.m. and 8:11 p.m. telling the dispatcher that she thought the driver who hit her was drunk and she would like police to do a breathalyzer test on him.

The dispatcher tells Oxford that officers were on the way around 8 p.m. but had to be diverted for an emergency.

Frustrated by the lack of response from the 911 center, Aspelund tracked down a phone number of the Seattle Police Department North Precinct, located about 2.5 miles from the crash site. She said the officer who answered was no help at all, telling her that unless there was a horrible accident police were unlikely to respond and recommending she take up her complaint with city leaders.

Three-and-a-half hours after the accident, Oxford and Aspelund gave up on Seattle Police and called the Washington State Patrol. Within minutes a trooper arrived. According to the WSP incident report the suspect denied he had been drinking and blamed the odor of alcohol on his dentures and his apparent impairment on diabetes.

The trooper administered a field sobriety test which the suspect failed. The trooper noted in his report that the man's eyes were watery and bloodshot, his coordination poor and his speech slurred. A portable breath test at the scene measured .111 and breathalyzer tests taken at the precinct registered .098 and .099, all above the legal limit of .08.

The trooper arrested the suspect for DUI. Court records show an interlock device was installed on his vehicle and he has a court date in March.

SPD's North Precinct commander, Sean O'Donnell, told KING that the lack of lack of response by Seattle Police on the evening of January 14 was inexcusable. He said he is looking into what went wrong and promises to take action to fix it.

O'Donnell said that part of the problem was that once the vehicles involved in the crash were moved out of the flow of traffic, the 9-1-1 center downgraded the collision in priority.

O'Donnell said it was a busy night and they also had a number of officers off duty for everything for training and sick leave, to a funeral and administrative leave. He also said officers responded to many serious calls, including a missing Alzheimer's patient, a robbery, a collision rollover, a suicide, a prowler, a death and a carjacking.

But a review of the 911 incident log also shows during the nearly four hours that Oxford and Aspelund were waiting, police in the North Precinct also responded to a liquor violation, a shoplifting incident, a car prowl, theft of a license plate and illegal dumping.

Asked if Oxford and Aspelund are owed an apology, O'Donnell said, "Well I'd be happy to apologize to them right now and say that in a perfect world or perfect circumstance we would have gotten there promptly and taken care of the suspected DWI, we didn't do that and we're going to try and fix the issues that may have gone wrong here so that we can do that."

SPD Chief Kathleen O'Toole issued a statement to KING 5:

It is unacceptable when our department fails to respond to a call for service as it did following this DUI collision.

In fairness to the many hardworking dispatchers and call takers who staff our 911 Center, this is about a fundamentally broken system that we are working hard to fix.

We are investing in better technology, hiring additional staff, providing better training and designing more functional workspaces that improve efficiency and communication. We are reviewing all of the Center's policies and procedures. This is a major overhaul.

I have asked that this incident be sent to the Office of Professional Accountability for further review and investigation. 

-- Follow Linda Byron on Twitter: @LByron@K5

This story story first aired on February 25, 2016.


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