A Lakewood police officer arrested for DUI potentially violated a number of department policies on the day he crashed his department-issued car in Gig Harbor last month, a department spokesman said.
Officer Eric Bell, 46, had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit when arrested Sept. 23, according to a report written by Washington State Patrol Trooper Matthew Rogers.
Bell was alone in his unmarked, city-owned 2012 Ford Escape when it left Wagner Way, crashed through trees and came to rest outside the home of an elderly resident. Minutes earlier, he had driven his underage son in the vehicle, Rogers’ report said.
Neither Bell nor his son should have been in the vehicle to begin with. Bell wasn’t authorized to use the car on his day off, Lakewood police spokesman Chris Lawler told The News Tribune on Thursday.
“There was nothing going on that day, so he shouldn’t have been in that car,” Lawler said.
Bell had dropped the boy off with his ex-wife and was heading home at the time of the crash, according to Rogers’ report. Bell told the trooper a deer jumped in front of him, causing him to swerve off the road near The Lodge at Mallard’s Landing.
A witness to the wreck said she didn’t see a deer in the road but heard the Escape coming down the road at a high rate of speed, its tires screeching, and crashing into trees.
“The driver of the SUV proceeded to try and back up and burned the tires trying to get out of the area he crashed, causing a lot of smoke the tires peeling out,” the woman wrote in a witness statement submitted as part of Rogers’ report.
She wasn’t the only witness.
“Right after the collision, Bell stated there was a German lady who stated that she was going to call the police and that he told her, ‘Please do’,” Rogers wrote in his report.
The “German lady” was Irmi McKinstry, the resident whose home Bell’s car nearly crashed into. She has a different version of the events from that night.
McKinstry, 89, was watching TV at the time of the crash. She told The News Tribune she thought an earthquake had occurred.
“It almost went into my bedroom,” McKinstry said of Bell’s vehicle. “I opened the window and asked him if he was OK.”
The Escape had taken out four small trees and a larger one.
McKinstry said Bell told her that he couldn’t get out of the car. He was uninjured in the crash.
“I knew he was drunk, the way he answered,” McKinstry told The News Tribune.
“I said I will call the police,” McKinstry recalled. “He said ‘No,’ really loud. But I called anyhow.”
The discrepancy between what McKinstry told the newspaper and what Bell told Rogers could be trouble, depending on which version is true, Lawler said.
Lakewood officers are required to notify local police agencies as well as their own department when they are involved in an accident in their city-owned vehicles. In addition, officers cannot tell or intimidate witnesses to not report incidents to other police officers or agencies, Lawler said.
Bell’s statements to Rogers also could be problematic.
“It’s an integrity thing,” Lawler said. “You need to be honest.”
As part of an internal investigation, Lakewood police investigators will review what Bell told Rogers as well as interview Bell, McKinstry and other witnesses, Lawler added.
Bell told Rogers he started drinking around noon, nine hours before the crash, in Seattle with “some friends,” according to the trooper’s report.
“I couldn’t tell ya,” Bell said, according to the report. “A couple beers, sweet tea vodka.”
Bell said he had been to the Seahawks/Dallas Cowboys game earlier in the day at CenturyLink Field. The game kicked off at 1:30 p.m. Bell told Gig Harbor police officer Patrick Sam that he had taken his son to the Seahawks game, according to a report filed by Sam.
Gig Harbor police responded first to the wreck, but they requested State Patrol assistance due to the fact a police officer was involved.
This wasn’t the first time Trooper Rogers had encountered Bell.
“I instantly recognized Bell as a driver from a prior collision that I investigated,” Rogers wrote.
That incident occurred June 22 at the southbound Interstate 5 ramp from state Route 16, just south of South 38th Street. Bell was driving a Jeep.
“I recalled the collision because it involved two drivers that had been arguing with each other before the collision and following the collision,” Rogers wrote.
It was also memorable, the trooper said, because Bell had identified himself as a Lakewood police officer.
Lawler said Lakewood police were unaware of the June incident until asked about it by The News Tribune. An accident off duty and involving a private vehicle does not need to be reported to the department, he said, but the department would seek a copy of the collision report to review.
After the wreck in Gig Harbor, Bell told Rogers that he was using his police car to drop off his son because his ex-wife had his Jeep and the only other vehicle he had was an RV, according to the trooper’s report.
The only time an officer can drive his or her child in a police vehicle is to drop the child off somewhere, at school for example, and only if the officer is on the way to work, Lawler said.
“We basically don’t allow you to do it any other time,” Lawler said.
Bell told Rogers his gun and other police gear were in the Escape because he was scheduled to work the next day as a school resource officer.
Bell works at Lochburn and Woodbrook middle schools and Harrison Prepartory. Clover Park School District spokeswoman Leanna Albrecht confirmed that Bell has worked at district schools. Lawler said officers work at the schools on their days off at their own discretion.
At the crash scene, Bell refused a field sobriety test and told Rogers there wasn’t enough evidence to arrest him, according to the trooper’s report. Rogers shut him down.
“I told Bell that he slurred a couple of words and that I could smell an odor,” Rogers wrote. “I then told Bell that he knows the deal and that I have a job to do. Bell stated, ‘Do your job’.”
Bell was arrested, read his rights and taken to Gig Harbor Police Department in handcuffs. There, he blew a 0.23 on a breath analyzer. The legal limit is 0.08.
He later was released on personal recognizance.
Bell came to Lakewood police from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department in 2004, Lawler said. During that time he’s been a patrol officer, except for a 2007-2008 stint with special operations.
Recently, he became a training officer for Lakewood police, which is the reason he was assigned an unmarked vehicle, Lawler said.
Findings from the internal investigation will be presented to the chain of command, Lawler said. Discipline is decided by Chief Mike Zaro.
Attempts to contact Bell were unsuccessful.