After an 11-year-old girl was fatally struck by a suspected impaired driver who plowed his SUV through a park this week, Charleston police and city officials denounced the wreck as "senseless" and pledged to dedicate more resources to improving safety for pedestrians and motorists.
Police Chief Luther Reynolds said a renewed focus on traffic safety was already in the works before Monday's wreck at Cannon Park. But he said the death of Selma Akguel, who was visiting from Denmark and was walking on a sidewalk with her parents when she was hit, was a "powerful reminder" of the city's persistent traffic issues such as impaired driving.
He said the Charleston Police Department, which has long focused on other problems such as crime, is now evaluating how to dedicate more officers to traffic enforcement in the coming months. It'll be a delicate balance to not divert resources away from other important teams at a time when 36 positions are vacant, he said. Nine officers are currently assigned to traffic, and Reynolds said he'd like to eventually shift as many as 10 more officers to focus solely on traffic.
"I believe we can do better," he said.
Reynolds audited traffic data after taking the helm of the department in April. Sixty-nine percent of traffic fatalities between 2009 and 2017 involved impairment as a contributing factor, he said.
Reynolds recently called for collaboration among city departments to tackle issues such as traffic fatalities, impaired driving, speeding, accessibility and pedestrian safety. He said that push culminated in a newly formed Traffic Workgroup Committee, which involves personnel from other departments such as transportation, emergency management and the fire department.
Reynolds said the committee will evaluate data and look to council members and the mayor's office for input as it first identifies "low-hanging fruit," or obvious improvements such as better signage or speeding enforcement in problematic areas.
The death of Selma Akguel prompted outrage and showings of support from city leaders and community members. A GoFundMe page for her family set up by Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg's son, Joseph Tecklenburg, had surpassed its $2,500 goal by raising more than $3,680 as of late Thursday afternoon.
Jeffrey William Wakefield, 30, of Dogwood Road in West Ashley, is charged with reckless homicide and felony driving under the influence resulting in death in connection with the crash.
Authorities said his SUV careened through Cannon Park on Rutledge Avenue south of Calhoun Street and stopped after hitting a tree. Prior to that, police said Wakefield's SUV was involved in a hit-and-run crash that damaged an unoccupied parked car about a half-mile away on Rutledge Avenue and Morris Street.
Investigators took samples of Wakefield's breath and blood after he failed a field sobriety test, but authorities have not elaborated on whether he was suspected of being drunk. An incident report offered few details.
Councilman Mike Seekings, whose district includes the site of the fatal wreck, said he supports Reynold's initiative to get planners and department leaders in the same room to move toward "a common goal of mobility and public safety." The city also needs buy-in from businesses, residents and visitors, said Seekings, chairman of the Traffic and Transportation Committee.
"I don't know specifically what could’ve been done to prevent what happened," he said of Monday's crash, "but we have to make every effort to implement some solution."
Keith Benjamin, the city's traffic and transportation director, has worked closely with Reynolds on traffic management since the Interstate 526 bridge closure over the Wando River in May. He said the new committee should prioritize "actionable steps" for curbing problems such as pedestrian deaths.
"This is unacceptable for such a tragedy to occur, but I do think there's a responsibility the city can take to make the necessary changes for folks to be safe," he said.