20/20 Gives Cover to LAPD on Hit-and-Runs, Reminds Advocates Why Mainstream Journalism Can’t Cover Hit and Runs

The 20/20 piece on L.A.'s hit-and-run epidemic includes this footage from a collision in Atlanta.

ABC’s 20/20 news magazine focused Friday’s episode on the dangers of driving and did so in one of the most ham-handed ways possible. “Highway to Hell” was remarkable for many reasons, but the kicker was the love letter from 20/20 to the LAPD for its response to our local hit-and-run crisis.

After a bizarre two-part story on a family that got lost on an unplanned trip into Death Valley that was somehow blamed on their GPS, 20/20 switched focus to the LAPD and the “Capital of Hit and Run” crashes. The reporter talks to three whole people in her piece, Detective Felix Padilla of the LAPD, the victim of a solved hit-and-run crash, and the defense lawyer for the driver responsible for the aforementioned hit-and-run crash. The piece mentions that L.A. has the highest rate of hit-and-runs in the country, as verified by reporting in L.A. Weekly and a report by the University of Michigan. It then explores how great the LAPD is at addressing this problem.

Anyone watching the piece that is not familiar with the LAPD’s history of ignoring hit-and-run crashes in all but the most serious cases, the shocked reaction to the LAPD’s rose-colored glasses recently presented to the City Council or the hours of research and testimony at public hearings by concerned citizens that finally pushed the agency to examine its procedures would come away assuming that the main reason L.A. has a hit-and-run rate three times the national average is Southern California’s high number of illegal immigrants.

Undocumented immigrants are scared to interact with the police so the number of potential witnesses for hit-and-run crashes is artificially reduced, says ABC.  The transition between ABC’s statement that this “might be” a cause and Padilla’s next quote is a little awkward, so the viewer is left uncertain whether the LAPD detective inferred guilt onto undocumenteds or whether ABC did.

There are a lot of factors that play into the high rate of hit-and-runs in Los Angeles including lax investigations, lack of will to prosecute, laws that encourage running over staying if you were drinking, road design that encourages fast driving and media outlets that publish where DUI checkpoints are located. But the ABC news piece mentions none of these and briefly focuses on undocumented immigrants as a cause. The solution is more people reporting hit-and-run crashes…and the high tech “CSI department for cars” that the LAPD apparently uses from time-to-time.

And it’s too bad, not just because the 20/20 story will make it harder for advocates to make the case that the LAPD needs to do more, but also because the real story would make for great television. It’s full of all the elements that make for great television news: horrific crashes, bungled investigations, heroes with movie-star good looks, crusading journalists and a bureaucracy that is as concerned with protecting its reputation as it is addressing the issues

As for 20/20′s portrayal of the LAPD as a department doing its best to tackle the hit-and-run crisis, let’s remember some of the hit-and-run cases covered on Streetsblog. We have the case of Susanna Schick, where the victim claimed she was hit by a car that veered into the bike lane and LAPD stated that the experienced cyclist fell off her bicycle. There’s the case of Don “Roadblock” Ward, who had to complete his own investigation after the LAPD refused to look into the crash that left him lying bloody in the street.

Let’s not forget the truly worst policed hit-and-run case ever. Andres Tena was hit from behind and saw his friend’s bike dragged for blocks before the LAPD stopped the vehicle with the bicycle still under the black hummer’s hood. Unbelievably, the LAPD blamed the bicyclists for “running into” the Hummer. The LAPD actually threatened to press charges against a cyclist who was hit from behind for damage to the several-ton vehicle that nearly killed him.

More recently, LAPD Sgt. Arturo Yanez likely helped his daughter cover up her own experience hitting a pedestrian and fleeing the scene.

None of this is mentioned is even hinted at in the 20/20 story, nor was the LAPD’s embarrassing victim-blaming presentation to the City Council Public Safety Committee last month.

It’s cool that LAPD has the tools to solve hit-and-run crimes. It’s great that they sometimes bring those resources to bear and even occasionally solve a case or two. But to do a full segment on a network television about the hit-and-run crisis in Los Angeles and not even begin to look at whether or not the LAPD could be doing more isn’t sound journalism. It’s malpractice. And by giving cover to an embattled agency just when it’s beginning to respond to the cacophony of complaints might just  make the lives of those fighting for safer streets even more difficult.

Thanks a lot ABC. Do us a favor and stick to reporting on families that don’t realize they should plan out their car trips into Death Valley.