IMAGE: Vigil attendees included Badders’ grandchild Aliyah, Arianna Woodley, second from left and Megan Bryant on right. Photo by Megan Ginder.
BY BILL BROWN
A swerve to the left instead of the right, a stomp on the brakes or simply more attentive driving, might have prevented three tragic deaths. And why was a Takoma Park police officer accused of a road-rage incident allowed to drive a city vehicle when off-duty? Why is he only being charged with traffic violations?
That’s what the victim’s family and friends want to know. They put their questions and thoughts on signs carried at a vigil last Saturday, April 16 at the Takoma Park Memorial Park and Community Center.
At the blossom-filled war memorial park they gathered, sang, and listened to Katherine Badders, the mother of one victim and wife of another, talk about her loss and how the deaths might have been avoided if stricter actions had been taken by the city of Takoma Park.
Off-duty Takoma Park police officer Travis M. Ala, driving approximately 60 miles per hour on March 21, 2015, crashed a city-owned car into the rear of a stopped vehicle, killing its three occupants.
Raymond Badders, 63, of Manchester, Md., died at the scene of the collision in Anne Arundel County. His daughter Susannah Badders, 19, and her friend Jason Simpkins, 19, of Ellicott City, Md., died the next day at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
The March 21, 2015, car crash in which three died. Photo ©2015 Glenn A. Miller.
Despite the clear day and fair weather, Ala apparently failed to see stopped cars ahead of him on state highway Route 50. Traffic was at a stand-still, due to an accident farther down the road. Ava swerved to avoid the car directly in front of him, instead crashing into the Badders’ vehicle. Attorney Richard L. Gershberg, who represents the victims’ families, said that the state police investigation found no evidence that Ala applied the brakes before the collision.
“What the hell was he doing?” asked Gershberg.
A claim that Ala’s brake pedal was blocked by a rolling water bottle was not borne out by the investigation, said Gershberg.
Toxiology tests for the presence of drugs or alcohol were conducted on the victims, but not on Ala, said Gershberg, a point that distresses Katherine Badders.
“If I had killed three police officers,” she said, “I would have been tested, and maybe charged.”
His grandchild holds photo of Raymond Badders. Photo by Megan Ginder.
Also distressing to Badders is the fact that Ala was allowed to drive a police vehicle, with weapons, following an alleged road rage incident in which Ala allegedly brandished his gun.
Ala was also off-duty during that July 6, 2014, incident, and was driving the same state highway Route 50. The Prince George’s County office of the State’s Attorney later indicted him on charges of first and second degree assault and use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence. Allegedly, Ala encountered a slow-moving car in the left hand lane, passed it, pulled in front of it and slammed on his brakes. The vehicle moved to the center lane. Ala allegedly proceeded to get behind it and follow closely.
A witness alleged that Ala pulled out a black handgun and pointed it at the vehicle. According to the state’s attorney the victims stopped their vehicle on the shoulder and Ala pulled in behind them. When he realized they were attempting to take photos of him, he drove away. Police traced him by his license plate number.
Vigil in front of the Takoma Park Community Center, where the city police department is located. Photo by Megan Ginder.
Badders was stunned when, three months after the fatal accident, she learned of this prior road-rage incident. “What was he doing in a police car…with weapons?” she asked.
Ala had the legal right, despite any misgivings the city may have had. The Takoma Park police followed correct procedure within the limits of the law, said chief Alan Goldberg. Like everyone else, a police officer has to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
By the Maryland Law Enforcement Bill of Rights officer Ala could not be suspended unless he was under a felony charge, which he was not at the time of the accident.
When the law allowed, he was placed on suspension from the Takoma Park police force. Nearly a year passed following the road-rage incident in which he was not charged. In fact, the statute of limitations was nearly up when on June 30, 2015, a felony charge was formally brought. He was suspended without pay at that point.
When he resigned April 8 from the Takoma Park police force he was on suspension with pay.
Derek Miller. Photo by Megan Ginder.
Both the accident and the road-rage case did not occur in the city. Outside law enforcement and legal agencies—the state police and Prince George’s and Anne Arundel county court systems—handled them. The only role of the city would have been to initiate an administrative investigation into a collision involving a city vehicle. But, that investigation would be suspended if charges are placed until the court resolution.
More recently, Badders was stunned when Ala’s road-rage case was dismissed on a technicality.
The indictment was made in Prince George’s County, where the incident concluded and was reported. However, most of the event, including the alleged brandishing of a gun, occurred in Anne Arundel County. So, the indictment was dismissed on March 14, 2016, for “Lack of Proper Venue,” according to Prince George’s county circuit court records.
The dropped charges in that case came a few months after an Anne Arundel County grand jury chose not to indict Ala for the fatal accident. The jury decided in November, 2015 that there was no evidence of gross negligence—such as driving over the speed limit—or malicious intent, that would trigger a felony charge. Gerchberg said the grand jury was not told that Ala was a police officer.
“The Maryland State Police will issue Mr. Ala with the traffic citations for misconduct, including reckless driving, negligent driving, failing to control speed to avoid a collision, and driver changing lanes when unsafe,” said Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Wes Adams in a statement reported in the Dec. 4, 2015, Capitol Gazette.
Arianna Woodley and Katherine Badders with a Badders grandchild. Photo by Megan Ginder.
According to Badders, these traffic citations have fines no higher than $500. “There has to be another layer of punishment,” she said, “there has to be something greater than a ticket. Justice must be seen to be done.”
It may be too late for the Badders and Simpkins families, she said, but for the sake of other families, “maybe they need to tighten up the statutes.”
Ms Badders felt the Saturday vigil got results. She thought it spurred Ala’s April 8 resignation and the city manager’s statement of condolence released the same day as the vigil.
Takoma Park City Manager’s statement
April 16, 2016
The City of Takoma Park and the Takoma Park Police Department extend their deep sympathies to the families of Susannah and Ray Badders and Jason Simpkins as they remember their loved ones a little over a year after their deaths.
The person responsible for the accident, Travis Ala, was an off-duty Takoma Park police officer at the time. The accident occurred in Anne Arundel County. The accident was investigated by the Maryland State Police and the case was turned over to the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Office and Grand Jury. The Grand Jury determined that there was no gross negligence involved in the accident. Traffic citations were issued.
Other than the fact that Mr. Ala was an off-duty Takoma Park police officer driving a take-home Takoma Park police vehicle at the time of the accident, the City of Takoma Park was not involved in any aspect of the accident or in the investigation of the accident. Mr. Ala no longer works for the City of Takoma Park.
The City of Takoma Park monitors incidents involving our police officers both on and off duty, such as reports of unsafe actions or unprofessional behavior, and provides training or takes disciplinary actions if warranted. We also adhere to all appropriate personnel laws and procedures.
We understand that none of this helps the families and friends of Susannah and Ray Badders and Jason Simpkins feel any better. Again, we extend our deep sympathies to the Badders and Simpkins families.
Media Specialist Craig Terrill
City Manager Suzanne Ludlow
Chief of Police Alan Goldberg
A civil suit is likely to be filed against the city by the accident victims’ families. State law has “serious limitations” on the amount of damages in such suits, said attorney Gershberg.
The vigil was joined by a couple of Takoma Park residents. One of them was Elizabeth Wallace. She’s been following this and other city police issues.
“It’s not just Ala, it’s Milton Flores [arrested for assaulting a D.C. police officer last February] as well, and whether or not we really have the proper, objective personnel procedures in place,” she said.
Megan Ginder, Clara McNemar. Photo Megan Ginder.
Under the Officer’s Bill of Rights, a police officer charged with a misdemeanor can be suspended with pay or have duties restricted. If convicted of a misdemeanor, an officer has a right to a hearing.
An officer convicted of a violent crime of assault would not be allowed to carry a firearm, rendering the officer unable to perform normal police duties.
A officer charged with a felony can be suspended without pay, as Ala was when indicted in the road-rage case. If convicted of a felony an officer has no right to an administrative hearing.
Travis M. Ala joined the Takoma Park Police Dept. in January 2012 after serving four years on the Annapolis Police Department. He was assigned as a detective with Takoma Park’s Special Assignment Team. In 2012 he was voted Officer of the Year following one of the city’s largest marijuana arrests. Prior to becoming a police officer, he served in the United States Marine Corps.