WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — When Sheri Chisholm was hit by a Wrightsville Beach Police SUV as she walked along a crosswalk in front of Town Hall, she didn’t expect to be the one blamed for the incident.
On June 24, about 15 minutes before sunrise, Chisholm was in the middle of the crosswalk when she was struck in the left buttock by the police vehicle. The impact caused severe bruising known as gluteal hematoma. Two weeks later, Chisholm received an email from a property and casualty adjuster with the N.C. League of Municipalities. A letter informed her the department could not be held responsible for the collision.
“Since contact was made with the white Tahoe as it was fully in its turn, this would constitute at a minimum contributory negligence on your part for failure to maintain a proper lookout and not seeing the white Tahoe before you walked into it,” the adjuster, Charlotte Martin, wrote.
Because she was wearing dark clothing and earphones — and because the unmarked police vehicle was “already fully in its turn [when Chisholm] collided with the front left fender” — it was determined she was “not paying attention” to her surroundings before the collision. North Carolina is a ‘contributory negligence’ state, she explained: if any party is at least one percent negligent, then each party is responsible for their own damages.
Throughout the investigation by the N.C. State Highway Patrol (NCSHP) — according to the WBPD, the agency is called in to investigate when a police vehicle is involved in an accident to prevent bias — she said she never received a call from the Wrightsville Beach Police Department so she could give a statement.
“I’m just sort of flabbergasted that a police officer hits a pedestrian, and they can’t offer me the courtesy of a phone call. It just doesn’t sit right with me,” she said.
She was also frustrated that she had not yet received bodycam footage recorded by the officer who was driving the vehicle, Sergeant James Lowe, and that the dash cam was never activated. Captain Jason Bishop, she said, told her the camera is activated when the emergency lights are turned on, retroactively recording 30 seconds prior.
“When I spoke with Captain Bishop and asked, ‘Why didn’t he turn on his blue lights?’ He responded, ‘I don’t know, he should have,’” Chisholm recalled of their conversation.
But in response to questions from Port City Daily, Bishop said Sgt. Lowe did not activate his lights after the collision because he was “more focused on checking on Ms. Chisholm and ensuring she was Ok.”
Chisholm offered a more cynical opinion.
“[He failed to turn them on] after he hit me and I’m laying there in the middle of the road,” she said. “To me, that was him attempting to avoid the dashcam from coming on, which retroactively spots 30 seconds. So it would’ve captured the whole accident, had he turned it on.”
Bishop confirmed that both the dashcam and bodycam are activated when emergency lights are turned on, recording 30 seconds prior to activation. Chisholm said she was told the department has the bodycam footage but she has been unable to obtain it. (Bishop did not immediately offer the footage to Port City Daily, instead saying it must be obtained via an open records request under the state’s stringent requirements for releasing police footage; in this case, disclosures can only be made to Chisholm.)
Although Bishop declined to say if Lowe was reprimanded in any way for the accident, a human resources officer with the department said Lowe had received no demotions or suspensions since he was hired in late 2015.
‘If you hit a pedestrian, own it.’
Chisholm said she parked her car at Stone Street in downtown Wrightsville Beach to walk what is known as ‘The Loop’ — a popular 2.5-mile circuit with joggers and walkers. When she was walking back toward the beach on the sidewalk of Causeway Drive, crossing Seawater Lane, she said she suddenly felt a “full body blow” from her right.
“I was in the middle of the crosswalk — of course, I looked both ways, there was nobody coming — it’s three car lengths wide with two exit lanes and one entrance. I was almost to the entrance lane when I just felt like I’d been shoved — the feeling when you walk into a door frame accidentally,” Chisholm said. “I was walking east but my right leg was forward,
so he hit me square in my left ass cheek,” she said, laughing because that detail would become public information.
A man who had witnessed the accident wrote in an incident report that he had not seen “anything reckless looking.”
Lying on the street, Chisholm wiggled her toes and fingers, lifted her ankles and wrists, and bent her knees — everything seemed to be okay. She said she was trained in first aid, and her father was a retired physician while her best friend’s husband was an EMS driver, so she knew enough to perform a self-examination. Because she had a potential real estate deal to prepare for, she decided to leave without any EMS attention, according to Chisholm.
Before she left, the officer said he needed to file an incident report because her elbow had dented his vehicle’s front hood, she said.
“He asked me, ‘Did you not see me?’ I said, ‘No I didn’t see you. I wouldn’t walk out in front of you if I had seen you. Officer, it’s not like I stepped off a curb in front of you — I was midway through this crosswalk,’” Chisholm recalled of their conversation.
She asked him to call so she could provide a statement, but said that never happened. In an incident report later collected by the NCSHP, she wrote that the officer “called no one while I was there, did not turn on his blue lights, and did not call it an accident scene nor did he tell me I was leaving the scene of an accident.”
The NCSHP was originally contacted by Port City Daily on June 30, asking why the agency had not yet contacted Chisholm while conducting an investigation of an accident she was involved in. A spokesperson provided an incident report but did not respond to that question.
The following day, on July 1, a state trooper visited Chisholm’s residence to collect her statement. He told her she could be held responsible for “leaving the scene of an accident,” according to Chisholm.
“No one told me I was leaving the scene. I was on the scene with a police officer. I was there, left my info — it was the police that never called me back,” she said.
Before the trooper came to her house, Chisholm said she filed a complaint at the WBPD simply because she “wasn’t given the courtesy of providing my statement.”
“I told them, ‘This is not my complaint. I’m not litigious. I’m not trying to file a complaint; I just feel like I ought to be able to say what happened to me,'” Chisholm recalled.
She said she had received X-rays and an ultrasound to make sure there wasn’t a more serious back injury but was only diagnosed with severe bruising. Although she has only spent about $90 in copayments, according to Chisholm, she’s worried about receiving a larger radiography bill in the near future.
And although the bruising is gone, she said she still has a “knot the size of an egg on my ass.”
Ultimately, she was discouraged by the department’s lack of self-accountability after the accident, especially as its website claims it is “committed to protecting the lives, property and rights of all people” with “honor and integrity.”
“If you hit a pedestrian, own it,” she said, adding that officers should be well aware of joggers and walkers crossing the entranceway to City Hall and the police department.
When asked if the department acknowledged the NCSHP’s finding that Chisholm was at fault, Bishop responded, “The WBPD would not determine fault. That would be the NCSHP.”
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