July 3, 2012

Trooper's response to wrong-way driver to be reviewed

Douglas Cropper's supervisor says he sees no error in the trooper's rush to block a driver going the wrong way on I-295.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A Maine State Police panel that investigates crashes involving troopers will analyze Trooper Douglas Cropper's use of his cruiser to stop a wrong-way driver on Interstate 295 last week. His supervisor says Cropper acted responsibly.

click image to enlarge

Trooper Doug Cropper’s cruiser rests at the I-295 crossover after it was hit Friday by a Toyota Corolla being driven north in a southbound lane by a 88-year-old Scarborough man. Cropper intentionally blocked the errant car so as to potentially avert worse accidents.

Courtesy photo

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Two Lewiston residents who were moments away from a high-speed, head-on crash say he saved their lives.

"We would have went about 65 to 70 (mph) head-on into the other car," said James Chouinard of Lewiston, who said the car he was riding in, with his wife driving, fishtailed as it stopped just short of the cruiser.

The Fleet Safety Board investigates every cruiser crash to determine whether the driver followed policy. Troopers can be disciplined or sent to remedial training if the board finds they didn't.

"I've looked at the situation, and from my point of view, from his commanding officer, I don't see he did anything wrong," Lt. Louis Nyitray said Monday. "This incident will be reviewed by the Fleet Safety Board. They will make a final determination that will supersede anything I say."

Had Cropper rammed the other vehicle intentionally -- which police sometimes do to stop a fleeing driver when there is an imminent threat to the public -- the incident would have been reviewed by the Attorney General's Office as a use of deadly force.

Cropper positioned his cruiser just before Kenneth Gill, 88, of Scarborough arrived, driving a 2010 Toyota Corolla north in the interstate's southbound passing lane shortly after 4 p.m. Friday.

Cropper's risky maneuver required split-second decisions and superior driving skill.

Sgt. Robert Nichols, who is investigating the incident, said he knows of no State Police policy for handling a wrong-way driver on a divided highway -- though following in the wrong direction would definitely be bad.

Cropper had stopped a truck in the southbound lanes of I-295, at the Exit 6 ramp that leads onto Forest Avenue, when he got a call from the barracks saying a car was northbound in the southbound lanes.

"He could have sat there and done nothing and we could have picked up the pieces, or do what he did and quite possibly prevent a tragedy from occurring," Nyitray said. "This came down to an officer making a calculated, risky decision, knowing full well he's going to place himself in some amount of danger."

Unable to flag down the driver, Cropper jumped into his cruiser, backed up to the exit ramp, then accelerated onto Forest Avenue inbound, his lights flashing, siren blaring.

He would have driven onto I-295 northbound, but the entrance ramp there is closed for repairs.

"That foiled what would have been a pretty easy chance to get ahead of (the wrong-way driver)," Nichols said. "He had to follow the detour like everybody else."

Cropper sped down Marginal Way. He estimates he was going 60 mph, but he didn't look at his speedometer because he was avoiding other cars. Traffic was heavy on Marginal Way in the direction he was headed, so he shifted into the oncoming lanes to get past the traffic.

He got to Franklin Street and turned onto the Exit 7 northbound on-ramp. As he pulled onto the interstate, he saw the Toyota running alongside him.

"He saw the vehicle northbound, a little in front, and he accelerated," said Nyitray.

Cropper had just a few hundred yards to overtake the Toyota and pull into a crossover connecting the two sides of the interstate.

He reached the crossover and swerved sharply to the left, just getting the nose of his cruiser into the southbound passing lane.

Nyitray said, "He literally pulled into the crossover, stuck his nose out into the passing lane -- and boom."

Gill's Toyota slammed into the cruiser. Cropper estimates it was going 45 mph. Neither man was seriously injured.

The collision likely prevented a much more serious crash.

Chouinard, who was headed to Old Orchard Beach with his wife, Edris, for an early celebration of their wedding anniversary, said, "(Cropper) come flying off the other entrance and pulled right in front of us with blue lights. We had to slam on our brakes not to crash into" the cruiser.

"We didn't even notice the other car until it hit him," Chouinard said Monday.

His wife was driving their 1984 Mercury Marquis, which had new brake pads because he had replaced them that week.

"Every now and again, I keep crying about it," Edris Chouinard said of their ordeal. "I'm just so glad we're alive. (Cropper) saved our life. He's awesome."

Police believe Gill entered the interstate at Exit 5 in Portland, which connects to Congress Street and the transportation hub on Sewall Street. Nichols said he did not know -- and Gill did not know -- which ramp Gill used to get on the southbound lanes headed north.

Gill said he was going north to pay his water bill in Waterville. Nichols said he didn't determine whether Gill has property in Waterville or his account was an indication of his confusion.

Cropper opted not to charge Gill.

"That's Doug's decision," Nichols said. "He didn't charge him, and I agree with him. He's old and he was obviously confused."

Police will report the incident to the Secretary of State's Office, which determines whether to revoke someone's driver's license.

"We certainly could charge (Gill). I don't know what purpose that would serve," Nichols said. "He told me he's done driving."

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: dhench@pressherald.com

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