When Cop Hits Baby

What happened on Seaverns Avenue? A distracted cop in a patrol wagon collides with a mom pushing her toddler in a stroller. But when local bloggers want answers, sometimes fact blurs with fiction. (Boston Globe Sunday Magazine)
By David Abel  |  Globe Staff   |  October 19, 2008

FIFTY MINUTES AFTER IT HAPPENED, THE NEWS SURFACED ON LOCAL blogs. The first account, posted on a site called Bostonist , read in part: "A witness who asked not to be identified said the baby was very small, went flying after the collision, and was crying. It was also said that the baby was taken away in an ambulance."
The same item got picked up the next morning by the more widely read Universal Hub blog , where less than an hour later, someone using the name Jchristian commented, "I have a one-year-old, and reading this, seriously, made me feel a bit ill for a minute. It's amazing how differently one feels about babies after having one - when it's not abstract anymore, the thought of one being truly hurt is a visceral experience."
SwirlyGrrl responded to Jchristian: "It is just somehow different when you can just imagine that moment where the stroller is being torn loose from your grip." Then Jchristian wrote: "Why is this story not reported yet anywhere else but Bostonist and here?"
Echoed Sheenaspleena: "I was wondering about that too. That's not right!" And on it went, with postings that bounced from indignation to curiosity to sympathy.
This is a story both about a horrifying accident and about the changing way we filter news and gossip and everything in between. The collision inspired the kind of dread that haunts any urban mom, and its impact spread quickly beyond that busy corner. It would spawn a flurry of questions, opinions, theories, all leavened with a mix of rage and ruth for police and pedestrians alike. But it would also reveal how Boston's rising number of hyper-local blogs can serve to fuel reputation-coloring gossip as well as help to reknit a city where so many neighbors remain strangers. These increasingly popular echo chambers have provided a means for those long walled off from one another in siloed lives to search for answers - immediately and collectively - about events that might not make headlines anywhere else, but that spark intense interest within the span of a few blocks.
ALL SHE WANTED was milk for her child. It was another harried day balancing work and her 1-year-old boy, whom she had just fetched from day care, served dinner, bathed, and dressed for bed in his red-striped dinosaur pajamas.
With the sun still out and her husband working late on the evening of August 7, Tara Giard decided they had time to run a quick errand. So she strapped Leo into his new Maclaren Volo stroller, wrapped a blanket around him, and wheeled him out of their Jamaica Plain condo onto Centre Street, where she faced a humdrum choice: Go to the drugstore or the convenience store?
On a whim, the 34-year-old mom instead opted to check out a new gourmet market a few blocks away and splurge on organic milk. Wearing a lime-green long-sleeve shirt, Giard joined the throngs out for the neighborhood's "First Thursday" festivities and pushed the black stroller along Centre Street, past the old firehouse, the dingy bar, the drugstore, until she arrived at the corner next to the Purple Cactus, a popular burrito spot, facing the mustard-colored City Feed and Supply, her destination.
At the same time, on the other side of Centre Street, Boston Police Officer Patrick Wayne Wood rolled to a stop in one of the department's newest vehicles, a massive Ford F250 patrol wagon that had 70 miles on the odometer and less than 24 hours on the road. Wood pulled to the side of the street to drop off his partner, Officer Cesar Abreu.
Despite traffic streaming by in both directions on Centre Street, Giard saw the idling blue-and-white wagon out of the corner of her left eye. It was about 7:40. The sidewalks were crowded, the stores open late, the sun waning in the sky, and Giard had only a few feet left before she could start shopping for milk. With the crosswalk clear, she prodded Leo's stroller off the curb and began venturing across Seaverns Avenue, a one-way road off Centre.
As Giard passed over the fading white lines of the crosswalk, Wood, who had pulled away from the curb, caught a break in the oncoming traffic, hit the gas, and turned left onto Seaverns. Giard watched as the wagon headed toward them, but she couldn't make eye contact with Wood, who had glanced to his right for one last check of the oncoming traffic and was riding high in a vehicle plagued with blind spots. "Why isn't he stopping? Why isn't he slowing down?" Giard thought.
Driving alone, Wood turned his head back to the crosswalk. He never saw the stroller. But he heard a piercing shriek and suddenly spotted Giard. Wood slammed on the brakes. There wasn't enough time to stop before impact.
THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON, MIKE BELLO, one of the Boston Globe's city editors with a nose for tragedy, walked over to my desk in the newsroom. He'd received a call from a law enforcement source who had seen the blog posting on Universal Hub, and Bello wanted me to check it out. So I called police headquarters. What I got didn't seem to square with what we had heard. A police official read me the account from Wood's report, which said the Giards "walked into the path of the motor vehicle, at which point [the officer] locked up the brakes, and the vehicle stopped abruptly, brushing the baby carriage."
Nearly 24 hours after the collision, I drove to the scene, hoping to find a witness or anyone who knew more than what I'd learned from the blogs and the police. Then I got a call forwarded to my cellphone from our newsroom. Divya Kumar, a 31-year-old mom from Jamaica Plain, said she saw it all and wanted to set the record straight. "It's a misrepresentation to say the officer brushed the stroller," Kumar told me. She'd been standing on a corner of the intersection at the time. "The stroller caught air and landed facedown - it was horrible and frightening." She added: "They should have been in his line of sight. They were pedestrians going through a crosswalk. I don't understand how he didn't see them."
The story that I wrote for the next day's paper was brief - "Baby, 1, hit by police vehicle in Jamaica Plain" - and it appeared on a page inside the newspaper's Metro section. But the story, which quoted the police report as well as Kumar, only fueled the call for more information that had started swirling the day before on the blogs.
That night, the bloggers who had been so angry with the police for what they perceived to be a coverup of the incident turned their frustration on me. A writer on Universal Hub wrote, "They played down the accident." And another wrote mockingly: "No damage to car, police consider citing baby for being in road. . . . The effect of trying to minimize these events with misleading language is that people learn to distrust their own police departments. The Globe could have called the mother and asked her to describe the event and provided that information too."
The police, however, were not releasing her name. She was the victim, after all, not a criminal.
The online speculation spread to local user groups such as JP Moms, a forum where Jamaica Plain mothers turn to one another for advice or simply to vent, and the back and forth went on for weeks. Some shared details about dangerous intersections, others decried the paltry information provided by police, and more than a few questioned why the media had not followed up on the story and didn't seem to care about an event of such magnitude to those in the orbit of the blogs.
One mom signed on as ddkwon wrote: "It sounds like my worst nightmare."
Another mom under the name moonbeam wrote that she was horrified when she saw the aftermath. "I haven't been able to stop wondering about them since I saw that stroller hanging off the bumper of the police truck," she wrote. "I am speechless."
As time passed with no new information, the tone on the various blogs changed, and some posters could not contain their frustration and began to wonder whether, in fact, the mother who got hit was to blame.
"I think that pedestrians could try to be a bit more considerate of drivers. . . ." wrote a mom who identified herself as juniperdev. "It is nervewracking to drive in Boston sometimes because people just hop in the street in front of your car constantly. Sometimes it can take 20 minutes or more to get through Centre Street because everyone just crosses wherever they feel like. This is a huge pet peeve I have about Boston."
Then someone using the name Kaz questioned Kumar's account. "The witness statement may be a tad more hyperbole than reality," Kaz wrote on Universal Hub. "We don't know since it seems that this didn't raise any red flags . . . [and] the mother (still unnamed to the public) hasn't made a press statement to make it known that this injustice was brought upon her child, or even who she is."
The chatter veered off in that direction for some time, as others chimed in about their issues with rogue pedestrians, until a mom who identified herself as Isadora posted on JP Moms that she was friends with the mom whose child had been struck. "I think what needs to be remembered about this," she wrote, "is that a family was affected and continues to be affected by posts. . . . I feel hurt about the posts that have been going around. It feels unfair, gossipy and exploitative."
It was the first acknowledgment for all of the bloggers that their words were, in fact, being seen by the mother. And that she wasn't happy with what she was reading.
THE MOMENT OF IMPACT REMAINS SUSPENDed in time for Tara Giard. When she closes her eyes, she often sees it all over again. "It's not the kind of thing you can just forget about or move on from," she says.
We learned her name after posting a message on the JP Moms website, hoping she might see it and reach out. She did, and after hesitating at first, she agrees to meet me with her lawyer at Ula Cafe in Jamaica Plain. "It's just been really hard, hard to sleep. I keep having visions of the whole thing," she says.
When the 5-foot-6 blonde realized the patrol wagon wouldn't stop in time, she tried to push her stroller out of the way and screamed as loud as she had ever screamed. Even if he hadn't glanced to the right to check for traffic, Wood probably wouldn't have seen them. The high-riding vehicle is known for blind spots in its lower front, according to a police report on the incident.
As Wood saw her and slammed on the brakes, Giard braced herself, holding out her hands and pressing against the passenger side of the hood. The vehicle pushed her only a few steps backward. She got lucky. But at the same time Giard watched as the bumper on the driver's side of the patrol wagon struck the stroller, flipping it several times, until the 8-pound Maclaren Volo landed on the far side of Seaverns, on top of Leo.
Giard ran to her son, struggled to unstrap him, and scooped him up. She wanted to hug him tight. She wanted to cover him with a blanket. She wanted someone to call an ambulance. There were cuts on his face and blood dripping from his forehead. He was hysterical, sobbing inconsolably.
"It was just mayhem," she says.
Wood jumped out of the patrol wagon and bore the fury of a mother who had just witnessed horror. "I can't believe you're a police officer!" Giard recalls yelling at Wood. "You should know better."
Wood asked her to step out of the street and radioed for an ambulance and a patrol supervisor. Giard says Wood apologized, but she had more important concerns. Something didn't feel right in her arms. She worried Leo had suffered a skull injury.
Witnesses ushered the Giards into City Feed, which, it turned out, was still under construction and not yet open for business. With Leo still wailing, employees setting up for the store's opening offered her tea and an ice pop. She turned them away; she had to call her husband. A stranger loaned her a cellphone, and when her husband answered, he was apoplectic. "It was a call you never want to get," she says.
The paramedics arrived, and she watched as they immobilized Leo with a neck brace and a long board and carried him into the ambulance. Giard went with them to Children's Hospital, where her husband met them. Leo cried hysterically until midnight, when the medical staff decided to sedate him.
THE NEXT MORNING, AFTER CLEANING HIS cuts and running a battery of CAT scans and Xrays of his head and spine, the doctors released Leo. He appeared to be fine; they told the Giards to watch for any peculiar behavior, because head injuries can lie dormant. Leo seemed irritable, more clingy than usual, and they stayed home together the rest of the day. "I didn't want to take him outside ever again," Giard says.
When the couple finally saw a copy of the police report, they couldn't believe it. "It didn't match with my recollection of the events, in that it said the stroller was brushed, in that it said the stroller was tipped, and in that it said that I walked into the path of the vehicle," Giard says. "I felt like it was blaming me."
She called a lawyer (though no suit had been filed as of earlier this month). It wasn't until we met a few weeks later that she learned what police had told me after I sought the results of the police's internal investigation through a Freedom of Information Act request: Wood, 41 and a 12-year veteran of the department, was issued a citation for failing to yield to a pedestrian and ordered to take a driving course at the police academy before he would be allowed to drive another police vehicle. I tried to reach Wood on multiple occasions. He never returned my calls. But Lieutenant Michael Kern, the commander in charge of the investigation, summed up the police findings. "After reviewing the reports and surrounding circumstances," Kern wrote, "I have determined that PO Patrick Wood was solely at fault."
AS OF EARLIER THIS MONTH, TARA GIARD continued to wait for an official apology, or perhaps a new stroller, from the Boston Police Department. She has locked the old stroller in her basement storage unit, still bound in the police department's blue-and-white evidence tape. "I don't want to see it," she says.
Leo seems to have returned to normal, though Giard remains anxious about taking him for walks in a stroller. She prefers to carry him and continues to shudder whenever he falls. Lingering along with her persistent fear is a latent sadness. She has yet to come to terms with all the exchanges on the blogs, the volley of questions about her judgment, and meanspirited rants on sites that had become a considerable part of her social network. She feels as if the community that she had often turned to had turned against her at her most vulnerable time. "It was so offensive," she says. "It was infuriating. Absolutely maddening."
She thought there would be more empathy, more understanding about why she wouldn't want to respond to all the posts and put her name and story out there for everyone to see.
"You really can't underestimate the effect on me," Giard says. "I shouldn't care what people think about me, but I was extraordinarily upset to read comments like this. We're all pushing strollers in JP, in an urban setting."
The shock of the trauma may be wearing off, but the sting of the gossip remains, and the dark memories have begun to feel like scars. "I was very angry at first," she says. "Now I'm just very sad that it happened to us, sad that it's in our memories."
To move on, the Giards have decided it's time to escape the city's busy streets - and to take a break from JP Moms and Universal Hub and the other blogs. The couple recently reached an agreement to sell their condo. They're renting in Newton, Giard says, while they look to buy somewhere in the suburbs.
"We're done with city life."
David Abel is a Globe staff writer. E-mail him at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.