A lawsuit contends the Durham County Sheriff’s Office failure to address a deputy’s reckless behavior led to a Durham police officer’s serious injury during a motorcycle training exercise last year.
The lawsuit alleges Deputy Paul Aiken caused the Feb. 7, 2017, motorcycle crash that resulted in three people – Aiken and two police officers – being injured and taken to the hospital.
Filed by one of the injured officers in June, the lawsuit claims the Sheriff’s Office overlooked Aiken’s history of reckless behavior and failure to stay current with trainings and certifications. His behavior “posed an imminent threat to his fellow deputies, officers of the DPD and the public at large,” it states.
Before the crash, police supervisors expressed concerns in person and by email with the Sheriff’s Office about Aiken’s “dilatory approach to training and operation of his motorcycle” and “about Aiken’s general fitness” in the motorcycle unit, the lawsuit states.
Aiken was banned from the unit for a period of time, but “instead of instituting long-term and meaningful remedial action to address his conduct and the danger he posed to others, the DCSO allowed him to return,” the lawsuit states.
After the motorcycle crash, law enforcement officials described Aiken and Officer Larry Cox’s injuries as minor.
The lawsuit, filed by the second officer, Francisco De Vera Rodriguez, states his injuries include a traumatic brain injury; multiple face, skull and tooth fractures; and injuries to his shoulder, lower back, and nerves in his hands, arms and face.
De Vera, 38, a Durham police corporal in the Patrol Services Bureau, alleges negligence by Aiken, Sheriff Mike Andrews, Durham County, the Sheriff’s Office and its insurance company. De Vera has been with the Police Department since July 2011.
19 days in hospital
A lawsuit represents one side of a story in a dispute, and Andrews, Aiken and others named in the lawsuit haven’t filed their responses to the allegations.
Aiken and Andrews declined to be interviewed for this article, and Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen referred questions to Durham County Attorney Willie Darby.
“The county attorney’s office is investigating the matter and will file a timely response,” Darby wrote in an email.
De Vera’s attorney, Michael Maurer, said his client spent 19 days in the hospital, had multiple surgeries and procedures and missed several months of work.
De Vera’s injuries still affect his daily life, Maurer said. He transitioned into a supervisory role upon his return, Maurer said.
The lawsuit seeks more than $25,000 in compensation for current and future medical expenses and wages, loss of enjoyment of life and other damages. The figure is standard language in Superior Court civil cases. Often attorneys don’t disclose the actual requested damages until later in the legal process.
Aiken, who currently works as a deputy in the Durham County courthouse, was also found to be at fault in a June 2017 wreck involving a county vehicle, according to the lawsuit. A week later he showed up intoxicated at a high school graduation event in which he was supposed to be an escort for the Sheriff’s Office, the lawsuit states.
On Feb. 7, 2017, three deputies and five police officers had just completed a funeral escort on their motorcycles together and were conducting a joint training, the lawsuit states.
Around 2:30 p.m. officers were traveling in formation northbound on South Lowell Road in Durham County.
“Aiken was generally known to be a weak rider, and, as such, he was often placed at the rear of the formation to limit his impact on other riders and overall formation,” the lawsuits states. But on this day, a deputy placed Aiken the number six position, in front of De Vera and Cox, the last two riders.
While traveling down the road, Aiken, who was on a Sheriff’s Office issued 2013 Harley Davidson, “suddenly began operating his motorcycle in a careless and reckless manner, including breaking formation by weaving side to side throughout the travel lane, slowing down/speeding up for no apparent reason, braking in curves (which is contrary to basic fundamentals of group riding and is itself a hazard to other riders in formation), and generally disregarding his duty to operate the motorcycle in a safe and prudent manner,” the lawsuit states.
Aiken returned to his normal riding for about five minutes, but resumed erratic driving and “abruptly steered his bike to the edge of the road and ran off the road to the right, losing control of his motorcycle in the process,” the lawsuit states.
Aiken swerved back on the road in front of De Vera and Cox, it states.
Cox swerved to avoid a collision with Aiken, and crashed his motorcycle in a field. De Vera swerved to the left and then the right to bring his bike to a stop, but a large utility pole was in his direct path, the lawsuit states.
“De Vera crashed his bike, was ejected from the seat, and sustained multiple life-threatening injuries,” the lawsuit states.
Concerns before the crash
Before the February crash Aiken had “repeatedly engaged in conduct demonstrating that he was unfit to remain” on the motorcycle unit, according to the lawsuit.
Aiken failed to complete his training, stay current on necessary motorcycle certifications, failed to follow established criteria for safe motorcycle operation and “routinely operated his motorcycle in a careless, reckless or otherwise unsafe manner which frequently jeopardizes the safety of other members of the unit,” the lawsuit states.
On June 9, 2017, about four months after the motorcycle crash, Aiken was charged in another at-fault crash while operating a county-owned vehicle, the lawsuits states.
A week later, the lawsuit states, Aiken was assigned by the Sheriff’s Office to serve as an escort in a patrol car with Project Graduation, an annual drug and alcohol-free celebration for graduates at certain Durham high schools.
“Despite the fact this was to be an alcohol-free environment, Aiken himself reported for duty (in uniform and utilizing a Sheriff’s Office patrol car) at Project Graduation intoxicated,” the lawsuit states.
The Herald-Sun requested Aiken’s employee information that is allowed to be disclosed under state law, which includes dates and types of suspensions or demotions for disciplinary reasons.
Aiken has held the rank of deputy during his entire tenure with the Sheriff’s Office, spokeswoman Breen wrote in an email. “He has not been dismissed, suspended or demoted during his time with us,” she wrote.
Aiken started working at the Sheriff’s Office in August 1999 making $25,432, and his salary has increased over the years to $57,786. The information provided states Aiken was transferred from courts to Patrol D squad in 2001, and then back to courts on Sept. 25, 2017.
Aiken received raises after annual evaluations in 2014, 2015 and 2016, but the information provided by the Sheriff’s Office didn’t list any other increases or decreases since then.