Devin Petelski, the 25-year-old Brentwood woman killed in a traffic collision involving a Los Angeles Police Department cruiser last month, was laid to rest during a small private ceremony Friday as questions remained about the Venice crash.
Her family had retained the services of star attorney Mark Geragos — he had sent investigators to the scene of the crash — but have since hired another attorney, according to two sources. The LAPD and the city are taking the case quite seriously — the LAPD's elite Specialized Collision Investigation Division is leading the charge — partly because the family seems, at the least, prepared to sue.
Some friends of Petelski allege that the cruiser was speeding and completely blacked out — without even its parking lights on — when it was headed east to a high-priority burglary call shortly before midnight on Oct. 15.
The cruiser skidded, t-boned Petelski's 1994 BMW, and spun around. Both officers inside were seriously injured. Petelski died at a hospital two days later. Friend Christopher Medak obtained a witness's mobile-phone photo that appears to show the cruiser right after the crash with all its lights out.
Photos taken after rescuers and other officers arrived appear to show the cruiser with emergency lights on (which Medak finds suspicious).
Police and an assistant city attorney say Petelski failed to yield the right-of-way when she turned right onto Venice Boulevard from a stop sign at Glyndon Avenue (map) near Venice High School and was struck by the black-and-white. Assistant City Attorney Bob Pulone says a lack of accordion-like front-end damage on the black-and-white indicates the cops weren't going all that fast (the speed limit is 40 miles per hour), but that a black box on the cruiser and skid-mark analysis will ultimately reveal the vehicle's velocity.
Medak says Petelski had been working late that night as a counselor at an alcohol treatment house nearby — that it was her habit to give people rides back to the residential facility after AA meetings. Petelski was a recovering alcoholic herself, and friends like Medak say they found inspiration in her fortitude.
Friends of Petelski say the officers that night were engaged in a all-lights-off practice called “silent running.” Those familiar with police policy, however, have never heard of such a thing. Medak, who works as a first assistant director on films, said he came up with the term to describe cop cars speeding to calls blacked out or with no emergency lights and siren. He said it's a naval term that describes moving undetected.
Pulone says the officers were responding code 2 — the second-highest-priority call — to a burglary-in-progress call when the collision happened. “Once you get that [call],” he told the Weekly, “short of going to something more serious, you drop what you're doing and you go there.”
The officers were “responding to back a unit handling a burglar-there-now — what we call a hot prowl,” adds Det. Jesse Ravega, the lead traffic investigator on the case. “They were not assigned a code 3 call yet,” he said, referring to the highest-priority call. Another unit had already been dispatched code 3 to the report, Ravega said, which indicates it was indeed a high-priority, emergency situation.
In 2004 the department banned “code 2 high” responses to calls, which encouraged no-overhead-lights, no-sirens, full-speed-ahead responses to crimes in progress such as burglaries and bank robberies. The idea was to get there fast without alerting the suspects.
While flooring the pedal and ignoring traffic laws is now against LAPD policy unless officers are dispatched to a “light 'em up,” full-siren “code 3,” it's not unusual that to see black-and-whites rushing to crimes-in-progress sans flashing lights, a fact that Ravega allows: “I'm not arguing with your observations,” he said.
Another police practice is to turn off the emergency lights and siren close to a code-3 crime scene: The idea is not to tip off the bad guys and girls. It's not exactly “silent running.” In Petelski's case, one witness who was driving behind the officers said the cruiser was running with its emergency, blue-and-red lights on but that they went off as the vehicle turned onto eastbound Venice from nearby Lincoln Boulevard, which is about three blocks from the collision.
Officials would not reveal how close the officers were to the burglary call when the crash happened (or, perhaps, they don't know). Pulone acknowledged that officers sometimes turn off their lights and sirens when they they get about a block from crimes in progress.
“Depending on the call, you will go without lights and sirens,” he said. “There's a burglar in the house and you get close enough, you turn off the lights and sirens. You want to have the element of surprise. I have no problem with them shutting down lights and siren as they get close to a call. If your speed is appropriate and you start obeying traffic laws according to the vehicle code, a car can shut down [the lights and siren] a block away. You get to a stop sign and you would not stop if there's nobody there. You want to get there as fast and safe as possible.”