Family Wants New Criminal Review for Deputy Who Fatally Struck Bicyclist

Relatives of a man who was struck and killed by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy while bicycling in Calabasas asked Wednesday that prosecutors review what they call new evidence to determine if criminal charges are warranted against the deputy.

The request came one day after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved an $11.75 million settlement with the family of entertainment lawyer Milt Olin Jr., a former Napster executive who was struck while riding east in a bike lane on Mulholland Highway around 1 p.m. Dec. 8, 2013.

Authorities said Deputy Andrew Wood was driving east on the highway at about 45 mph after checking out a call about a small brush fire on the Calabasas High School baseball field. Wood was updating a co-worker by typing on the patrol car's mobile digital computer when the road curved slightly left and the patrol car crossed into the bike lane and hit Olin, according to a summary provided to the board.

Olin was thrown from the bike and crashed through the windshield of the patrol car before falling onto the road. An off-duty paramedic driving behind the crash tried to provide emergency aid but quickly determined that Olin was dead.

On Aug. 27, 2014, District Attorney Jackie Lacey declined to bring any criminal action against Wood, finding insufficient evidence to support a charge of vehicular manslaughter.

At a news conference Wednesday, Olin's widow, Louise, and her attorney, Bruce Broillet, said they want Lacey to look at the case again and consider information they claim to have uncovered since the initial review. Citing more detailed cell phone records from Verizon, Olin's attorneys contend Wood sent a personal text message to his wife 15 seconds before the impact. Afterwards, a partially completed, unsent message was found on the patrol car's mobile computer, which Broillet cited as evidence Wood was typing on the computer at the moment Olin was struck and knocked into the patrol car's windshield. Broillet contends that timeline of text then computer messaging while traveling at 45 miles per hour explains why Wood veered into the bike path--and apparently never saw Olin--though Wood would have had an unobstructed view down a straight stretch of road for 21 seconds, by the legal team's calculation.

Wood told investigators he was stopped at a red light when he texted his wife, but Olin's attorney dispute that, citing the second-by-second cell phone records.

"Milt would be here today if not for Deputy Wood's decision to continue driving instead of pulling over to use his mobile devices," Louise Olin said. "Aren't law enforcement officers here to protect us?" 

She said Wood "may as well have been blindfolded," given his level of distraction at the time of the crash.

In response to a request for comment, the District Attorney's office said it has not been contacted by attorneys representing the Olin family.

"However, if new information were to surface, it would be reviewed objectively," stated an email from Greg Risling of the DA's media relations office.

An internal sheriff's department investigation found the deputy's actions violated policy and "appropriate" administrative action was taken against Wood. The department also created an ad hoc committee to address the need for better training on distracted driving and 21 of the committee's 34 recommendations have since been adopted, according to the county. Other recommendations are being evaluated or awaiting funding.

New guidelines adopted by the department in 2015 restrict deputy use of wireless communication devices, such as the mobile computer and cellphones, while driving.   Under the revision, apart from one button acknowledgement and confirmations, deputies are trained to access the MDC only when stopped, and while en route to use the two-way radio to communicate and request and receive information, such as checking for wants/warrants and running license plates.

"All that information can be voiced over the radio, just as it is on the MDC," said Commander Scott Gage who oversees the department's Professional Standards and Training Division.

The emphasis on the radio is not unlike the work flow in the pre-digital era.

"It's always been a part of what we do, and not that big a transition," said Gage of the revised policy.  He said even before the 2013 fatality and the 2015 policy revision, there had been an "evolution" of guidelines for wireless communications.  In cases of multiple deputies responding, Gage said radio communication is actually more effective than digital messaging because information requested or learned by one of the responders is immediately shared with all.

Since the revision, a followup focused on the Lost Hills substation found a 26 percent decrease in preventable collisions, according to department data provided to the County Board of Supervisors when they voted on the Olin settlement. 

For routine calls, deputies are trained to pull over  to check data on the MDC. For priority and emergency calls, deputies are to proceed immediately, and use the two way radio.  Only under special circumstances, such as being unable to get through on the radio, are deputies allowed to use the MDC while driving, Gage said.

Cellphone use is also restricted under the guidelines, Gage said.  California's anti-texting while driving law has an exemption for law enforcement, but only for work-related communications, not for personal messages.

Following her husband's death, Louise Olin established a foundation in his name to increase awareness of the dangers of distracted driving, and launched a movement known as "Stop Wrex."' The foundation developed a smartphone app called HandsOff, which rewards users for driving hands-free.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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