Mark Vasquez was unlucky in life and unlucky in death.
Vasquez's funeral procession drew hundreds of police officers from California to honor the service of the Manhattan Beach officer, who died of cancer at just 36. By the time it was over, his funeral had been overshadowed by yet another tragedy, when two motorcycle officers working traffic control collided at high speed.
The body count from the crash read like the aftermath of a bank shoot-out: one officer dead and two badly wounded. The dead officer, Andrew Garton, 44, was the first ever killed in the line of duty in the 89-year history of the Hawthorne Police Department. He left behind a wife and two young boys.
Tragedy turned almost to dark farce a week later, when a Cypress Police Department motor officer working traffic control at Garton's subsequent, huge funeral procession broke both his wrists in a collision while returning to his station miles away in Orange County.
The fatality and serious injuries have raised pointed questions about the size, staffing and costs — human and financial — of the elaborate funeral processions routinely held when public-safety personnel die on the job. R. Samuel Paz, a Los Angeles civil rights lawyer, tells L.A. Weekly he hopes Southern California cities will study whether such processions should continue in their current scope and size.
“These processions are public relations events that police use to show solidarity with their fallen comrades, and I respect that,” Paz says. “But the cities that have them should look into the abuse, waste and danger to the public that they appear to create.”
An eyewitness to the collision that killed Andrew Garton was still asking questions a month later.
“Why were they going so fast, at least 60 miles an hour, maybe as fast as 80, without any sirens or lights flashing?” asks 67-year-old John R. Mitchell. “It wasn't a chase, or anything like that.”
Mitchell was 10 feet from the crash between Garton and Sgt. Rex Fowler of the El Segundo Police Department, who suffered a broken leg.
As one of the police motorcycles flew through the air directly toward his car, Mitchell thought he was a dead man. “If it had gone through my windshield, I'd be a goner,” he tells the Weekly. Instead it hit the front end of his 1998 Toyota, causing thousands of dollars of damage.
Mitchell was stopped in heavy northbound traffic on Hawthorne Boulevard as the Vasquez funeral procession approached in the southbound lane with dozens of cars and 40 motorcycle officers guiding the traffic.
The two traffic-control motorcycles nearest to him both were traveling in a straight line five yards apart. The lead bike swerved slightly to the left and the second bike drove right into it.
“He didn't even hit his brakes,” Mitchell says. “It was a bang-bang kind of collision.”
Mitchell, an efficiency consultant, says he offered several suggestions to the California Highway Patrol — which is handling the investigation — when it interviewed him days later.
“First of all, they need to cut way back on all the speeding,” he says. “There's no need for these motor officers to be going 60, 70, 80 miles an hour when the cars are only going 15.”
Other eyewitnesses said the two motor officers appeared to be engaging in “leapfrogging,” a maneuver in which officers block an intersection and then rush to the next intersection before the procession arrives.
“They should use sawhorses to block those intersections. Each city could supply workers to man those intersections until the procession passes,” Mitchell says. “That would solve that problem.”
Manhattan Beach Sgt. Mark Mason, who organized the Vasquez funeral procession, says he had never heard the expression “leapfrogging” until he saw it in articles about the collision. But he confirms that his plan called for motor officers to quickly move from one intersection to the next.
Mason says he has not tried to learn what went wrong in the fatal collision because he “didn't want to prejudice the CHP investigation.”
While Mitchell says he is speaking out about problems with police funerals because of his near-death experience, he feels compelled to add: “I respect the police. … It's just that they could handle these funerals a lot better.”
The issue is so sensitive that three independent organizations normally unafraid to take on police issues — the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, California Taxpayers Association and the ACLU — all declined to comment. Spokesmen for Jarvis and the CTA each suggested contacting the other organization.
But Linda Lee Grau, who lives in Orange County and ran for the Irvine City Council, says the issue is too important to stay silent out of fear of being criticized.
“We need to forestall future loss of life by recognizing that police funeral parades need to scale down,” Grau tells the Weekly. “Why are they having these overlarge funeral parades? Is it a display of an iron fist in a velvet glove? Is it a fraternal organization flexing its muscle?”
She also cites civic costs: “Shouldn't police and fire departments be sensitive to the economic pain their citizenry is going through day in and day out? It is reasonable for the police to voluntarily curtail police funerals.”
Manhattan Beach Police Chief Eve Irvine says that in addition to the 40 motor officers from several South Bay police departments working traffic control, hundreds of uniformed police — many from Manhattan Beach — participated in the Vasquez procession.
“The vast majority were off-duty,” she tells the Weekly. “And the on-duty officers had their radios on and were ready to respond if called somewhere else.”
Hundreds of media reports were filed about the collision that killed Garton. Most mentioned in passing that Vasquez, the officer being memorialized that day, had died of cancer 10 days before. None detailed his short, unlucky life.
He was hired by the Manhattan Beach Police Department in 2005 and diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that attacks the bone marrow, in 2007. At the same time that city leaders were telling him to focus on getting better, the city denied his workers' compensation claim, which would have helped pay medical bills that reached $700,000 before he died.
The initial denial triggered a four-year legal battle. The city said two years on the job was too soon to contract cancer from being a first responder to several fires, but the family argued that Vasquez had passed a rigorous series of physicals that would have picked up any latent cancer signs before he was hired. The city approved a doctor to examine him, and that doctor decided the cancer had indeed been caused by his job. An administrative law judge ruled in favor of Vasquez on March 3, and his family was grateful.
But the city appealed that decision, and the battle was still under way when the officer died on May 16.
“They stalled and stalled, hoping he would die before they had to pay a cent,” his father, Manuel Vasquez, tells the Weekly. “They got their wish.”
The CHP is scheduled to release the results of its investigation into Vasquez's doubly tragic funeral — which could include new safety recommendations — at the end of August.
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