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Sunrise Police 'Emergency' Trip To Fetch Florida Panthers Hockey Gear Draws Fire

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SUNRISE POLICE HOCKEY GEAR
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SUNRISE -- -- Two police officers, lights flashing and sirens blaring, fetched hockey equipment from the airport and drove it back to the arena in time for a Florida Panthers game last month.

Police Chief John Brooks called it an emergency. Others aren't so sure.

The March 3 incident attracted attention after someone claiming to be a Sunrise resident sent a disapproving email to City Hall.

"When did the police department become a taxi service?" the email said. "The police can't even chase criminals anymore because of the danger to other road users! But they can go out of the city to pick up sports equipment?"

The Panthers called in five players from the minor leagues to play in a game being televised at 6 p.m. Their equipment did not arrive at the airport until 5 p.m. and had to be picked up before the game began.

Sunrise police defended the decision to send two officers working an off-duty detail to the airport with lights and sirens on, saying no department policies were broken.

But a criminal justice professor called it a misuse of emergency protocol.

"In many cases, police departments won't chase felons because of the danger of pursuits," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor with John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"A lot of police agencies tell their officers to minimize lights and sirens because it freaks out drivers," he said. "Some people immediately hit the brakes."

The Sunrise officers, one in a squad car and one in an unmarked unit, left the arena about 5 p.m. and made it back before the game started at 6 p.m. Police officials declined to say whether they exceeded the speed limit.

Officers are permitted to speed and break traffic laws when responding to a "Code 3" emergency. But according to the Sunrise Police Department policy manual, most Code 3 responses involve preventing the commission of a felony or providing emergency assistance to a person in danger of death or injury -- not fetching sports equipment from the airport.

O'Donnell questioned who would be liable if an officer were at fault in a traffic accident during a police escort.

"This story brings up a lot of ethical and liability questions," O'Donnell said. "The questions get answered when ... people are dead. If there's a collision, the taxpayers are going to be on the hook."

Sunrise Police Sgt. Rodney Hailey couldn't say whether the arena or department would be liable.

"It would all depend on the circumstances," he said. "Each situation is unique. All accidents are different."

When the Broward Sheriff's Office provides an escort, the party requesting the service accepts responsibility and liability for the actions of the deputy during the detail, said spokeswoman Dani Moschella.

Sunrise has an agreement with the BB&T Center to provide a free escort for teams and artists upon request.

Sunrise police officials declined to name the two officers or the Panthers official who accompanied them to the airport.

"The department has no further comment on this issue," Hailey wrote in an email in response to questions from the Sun Sentinel.

"This is a bombshell story," O'Donnell said. "And the public is being told to butt out. It's none of your business who was in a taxpayer-funded police car. This is a lack of transparency. And they're bowing down to the great NHL franchise."

sbryan@tribune.com or 954-356-4554 ___

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