Milton Olin’s Killer Escapes Charges. A Broken System Cries for Change.

Last night, Brenda Gazaar broke the story in the Daily News that the District Attorney will not be pressing charges against Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Wood, who struck and killed Milt Olin from behind with his car while Olin was riding his bicycle in the bike lane. Olin, a former Napster executive and lawyer, was riding legally and safely in the bicycle lane on the 22400 block of Mulholland Highway in Calabasas.

Olin is pictured in his cycling gear with sons Chris, left, and Geoff

Olin is pictured in his cycling gear with sons Chris, left, and Geoff

Reaction from safety advocates, critics of the scandal-plagued Sheriff’s Department and bicyclists was swift on social media. The department’s internal investigation showed that Wood was typing non-emergency messages on his on-board computer when his car veered into the bicycle lane at high enough speed to strike Olin and send him flying over his handlebars.

I share their outrage, and the investigation into Wood’s killing of Olin has been under fire from the moment the Sheriff’s Department declined to pass the investigation off to the California Highway Patrol, but the burden of proof to convict a peace officer who kills someone with a vehicle is so high that even a well-ordered investigation may have yielded the same results.

The system is broken.

Maybe a review of the D.A. will overturn the initial ruling and a criminal trial will occur. Even if that’s the case, there’s going to be a high standard for Wood to face justice.

The system is broken.

Gazaar explains:

Wood, a 16-year department veteran, was returning from a fire call at Calabasas High School at the time of the collision.

“Wood entered the bicycle lane as a result of inattention caused by typing into his (Mobile Digital Computer),” according to the declination letter prepared by the Justice System Integrity Division of the District Attorney’s Office and released Wednesday. “He was responding to a deputy who was inquiring whether the fire investigation had been completed. Since Wood was acting within the course and scope of his duties when he began to type his response, under Vehicle Code section 23123.5, he acted lawfully.”

The law does not prohibit officers from using an electronic wireless communications device in the performance of their duties, according to the letter. Furthermore, prosecutors said it was “reasonable” that Wood would have felt that an immediate response was necessary so that a Calabasas deputy wouldn’t unnecessarily respond to the high school.

And there you have it. Because Wood didn’t want another deputy to drive to a fire that was already contained, and because the LASD allows deputies to use their on-board computers while driving, there really isn’t much the law can do to bring Wood to justice for Olin’s death. Even though the communication he was sending was far from critical.

But that doesn’t mean the rage should subside nor that there isn’t still work to be done. Despite their tragic loss, Olin’s family is trying to create something positive out of the tragedy. The Milt Olin Foundation is dedicated to making the streets safer for bicyclists through education and advocacy. Doubtless some of that advocacy will be aimed at changing the Sheriff Department’s unsafe driving rules.

As news of Wood’s legal exoneration spreads–no matter what happens in the civil trial Wood will serve no jail time for killing Olin–more and more people will want to take action of some sort. There’s already talk of sit-ins, protest rides and testifying at an upcoming Metro hearing about the LASD’s uneven record of enforcing laws as Metro’s enforcement arm.

A rule that allows a driver to veer into a bicycle lane, striking and killing someone actually bicycling safely, needs to be changed. Fortunately, there is an election underway at the moment. Even though Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell has a large lead after the primary over Paul Tanaka, anything can happen in an election. In my experience, the best time to get an elected official to commit to change is before they actually win office.