Pella Chronicle

May 10, 2013

Police officer wins appeal, discipline reduced

By CHELSEA DAVIS
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — An Ottumwa police officer will not have a permanent stain on his record from his involvement in a collision with a garbage truck four months ago.

Officer Josh Kobes filed an appeal of his two-day suspension at an Ottumwa Civil Service Commission meeting Thursday afternoon, and commission members decided to reduce disciplinary action against him to a written reprimand, which will leave his record after one year. A two-day suspension would have remained on his record for the rest of his career.

Kobes was cited in January after colliding with a Bridge City Sanitation truck at West Main and South McLean Streets. He was responding to several calls of a drunken driver when he slammed into the truck in the middle of the intersection.

Attorney Michael Moreland, representing the city, and attorney Jill Hartley, representing Kobes, presented arguments regarding the circumstances surrounding the accident.

As video prior to and of the accident was played, Ottumwa Police Sgt. Chad Farrington described the scene. Kobes left the garage going east on Gateway Drive, picked up speed, secured his seat belt, turned onto McLean, put on his sunglasses, crossed the railroad tracks and dropped his gaze several times, looking for his microphone.

Throughout the approximately minute-long video, Kobes reached 63 mph on Gateway, 50 mph on McLean prior to the railroad tracks and was driving 31 mph when he collided with the truck.

"He said while he was traveling he thought there was something he needed to say and the microphone was not there, which is why he was down looking for it," Farrington said.

But it was Kobes' responsibility to make sure that microphone was secure and his seat belt and sunglasses on before leaving the garage, Farrington said. And with a 23-second wait for the garage door to open, he said Kobes "had ample time to locate his microphone and put his seat belt on."

The problem with Main and McLean is that it's a blind intersection, Farrington said, as the VFW blocks the driver's view of eastbound traffic.

Kobes violated the OPD's policies and procedures in regards to operating an emergency vehicle and safe driving, said interim police chief Tom McAndrew.

A police officer may "proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation," according to OPD policy.

Farrington said the accumulation of all the distractions were unsafe and possibly led to the accident.

"It shows the inattentiveness of Kobes while driving an emergency vehicle at high rates of speed, which ultimately led to the accident," he said.

He said there is not a specific speed officers must drop to when driving through intersections, but must use "extreme caution."

But McAndrew didn't take issue with Kobes' accelerated speed, lack of seat belt, putting on sunglasses or looking for his microphone.

"The issue was he went through the intersection without caution," he said. "The reason I gave him his discipline is he violated the safe driving rule."

The Accident Review Board assigned Kobes eight points, which led to their recommendation that he be disciplined with a written reprimand.

At Kobes' Loudermill hearing with McAndrew, he had the chance to explain his side of what happened, though McAndrew said he provided several "excuses."

"What stands out in my mind is Officer Kobes never really accepted responsibility for the accident," McAndrew said. "He blamed it on a few different things: the type of call he was responding to, the set-up of the car as far as the location of the microphone.

"It doesn't matter what type of call you're going on, you have to always keep in consideration the safety of everyone involved. And I don't care what type of intersection it is, you should be paying attention and not messing with your car. The location of the microphone has nothing to do with blowing through an intersection and not using extreme caution."

Kobes said he applied the brakes as hard as he could when he saw he was going to hit the truck, then tried swerving right to avoid a collision.

"If my attention weren't divided, [speed] wouldn't have been a problem," Kobes said. "Unfortunately that's the nature of my job is dividing my attention. But I don't think I made excuses. I accept that I was in an accident. It is what it is. ...I'm not going to say I don't deserve discipline. I fully admit my faults that got me to where we are today.

"My only recollection is of actually looking to the left and seeing something ... a big truck. It was too late when I saw the truck."

Commission member John Vandello said he thought Kobes was careless, but was impressed with his sincerity at the hearing, knowing that Kobes has "paid a terrible price for this."

"In the back of my mind, I know this hurts you very, very badly," Vandello said. "I think all of this has sent the right message to you, frankly."

Commission chair James McDonald agreed.

"I'm certain that you're going to learn from it," he said.

Thursday's hearing was briefly delayed to resolve a question about compliance with open meetings requirements.