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Law enforcement is not above the law.
That obvious and straightforward statement apparently tends to get lost when it comes to the “blue line” – allowing police discretion when dealing with their own.
As well documented by News staff reporter Matthew Spina on Sunday, this code of brotherhood can stretch the bounds of the law to the breaking point. It happens when an officer, or an officer of the court, is stopped for some driving infraction and then gets off without consequences because of his job.
The result can be especially dangerous in cases involving drunken driving.
Erie County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael E. Haug was stopped in 2009 for erratic and possibly impaired driving. But rather than face charges, he was turned over to his supervisors in the Sheriff’s Department. Two months ago, after hours in a bar, Haug plowed his Jeep into a motorcyclist stopped at a red light.
The accident ejected the motorcyclist, who suffered a torn small intestine, bruised internal organs and a leg broken in three places, among other injuries.
Sources said Haug’s blood-alcohol content was measured at around 0.25 percent – three times the legal limit.
What would have happened if Haug had been issued a ticket or faced charges after the earlier run-in? Maybe he would have learned his lesson and the motorcyclist would still be riding. Trouble is, you can’t go back and change events.
Haug, like so many others, was the beneficiary of a police culture that sometimes operates on a wink and a nod when it involves one of their own. If the officer on patrol doesn’t play along, he risks angering his fellow officers or, worse, ticketing an officer who in the future might be backing him up on a dangerous call.
Law enforcement, above all, should set good examples, and yet across the country there are stories of drunken officers being killed and killing others in car accidents.
We understand the quandary the reporting officers are in when stopping one of their own. They have a job in which reliance on colleagues is critical. So, when a colleague strays from the law and drives drunk it creates a dilemma that results in the blue line. However, when it comes to public safety and getting a drunken driver off the road, regardless of whether that person has a badge, the answer is clear.
The person Haug hit, Daniel Colosimo, 37, a husband and father who had ironically just beaten Hodgkin’s lymphoma, suffered traumatic injury and now gets around using a walker rather than a motorcycle.
The crash is still under investigation, but the Sheriff’s Office has suspended Haug without pay.
Colosimo’s brother said Haug is innocent until proven guilty, and he’s right.
He’s also right that people serving the public, including police officers and their superiors, should be held to the highest possible standard.