Remembering the Fallen: Officer Robert White

On January 27, 1985, San Jose police officer Robert White was electrocuted while investigating an accident in which a motorist struck a high-voltage transformer.


Below is the San Jose Police Department's account of this tragedy.



S.J. Policeman Electrocuted at Crash Scene


By Sidney Hill – Staff Writer


A freak Sunday morning accident involving a pickup truck and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. equipment caused the San Jose Police Department’s first death in the line of duty in 15 years. Patrolman Robert A. White, 25, died after coming into contact with 12,000 volts of electricity while investigating a routine traffic accident, police said.


Lt. Richard Couser said White went to the intersection of Old Piedmont Road and Tumble Way in East San Jose at about 2:30 a.m. in response to a reported hit and run. He found a pickup truck that had rammed an apparatus resembling an electrical transformer, and while investigating the situation, he somehow was exposed to the current.


Witnesses called an ambulance, which took White to Alexian Brothers Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about 3 a.m. Police Chief Joseph McNamara, who visited the scene shortly after the accident, said it was difficult to determine how White came into contact with the electricity. "We may never know what really happened," McNamara said. "All we can say is that it looks like the current hit him and knocked him on his back. "We’re talking about a tremendously powerful transmitter. He may not have even touched it.


The equipment involved is called a pad-mounted sectioning switch, which is used to preserve some power if a blackout occurs in the surrounding area, a PG&E spokesman said. The switch, which controls the current, sits inside a 3-foot-squarea metal box that is mounted on a concrete stand. The PG&E spokesman said the impact of the truck cracked the metal box, exposing a series of wires carrying 12,000 volts. Cyndi Campbell, 35, a Tumble Way resident who called the police after hearing the truck crash, said it looked as if White picked up a fender that had fallen from the truck near the electrical equipment.


Flash of Light


"When he picked it up, an arc of light flashed over him," Campbell said. "The light flashed three separate times, and you could see smoke. After the third flash, he let go of the fender and fell to the ground on his back." Campbell said. Campbell said she went into the house to call an ambulance while neighbors tried to revive White.


McNamara said the driver of the truck, whose name has not been released, returned to the scene but was not charged with any traffic violations. "He had gone to call for help," McNamara said of the truck driver, who apparently lost control and fell out of the truck before the crash. "The incident wasn’t a hit and run," McNamara said. "And it wasn’t a high-speed crash or anything like that."


Fifth to Die


White is the fifth San Jose police officer to die in the line of duty and the first since 1970. The bachelor, who had been on the force two years, also is believed to be the youngest. Richard Huerta, who was shot in the head while writing a traffic citation, was the last San Jose Officer to die on the job. His death on Aug. 6, 1970, followed by 20 years of the slaying of John J. Covalesk, who was shot by a burglar. On April 5, 1933, John Buck became the second San Jose officer killed in the line of duty. He died from wounds suffered in a shoot-out with two robbery suspects. The first officer killed on the job, detective Van Hubbard, died in a shoot-out on July 12, 1924. McNamara called White’s death "every bit as tragic" as the others.


‘Dangerous Situations’


"The public forgets that police, by the very nature of the function they perform, are constantly in dangerous situations," he said. "Television likes to portray the shoot’em up-type situations, but the officers and their families are always aware that there’s the potential of being killed in a traffic accident or by inhaling some toxic chemical.


"Officer White was surveying a scene, in an attempt to make sure that no other innocent person was injured there." McNamara called White a "fine officer, who was competent and quiet, but well-liked by his peers." White’s family declined to be interviewed Sunday. Couser said they also asked that the department not release any personal information about him. McNamara said the department will have a funeral and formal ceremony for White later this week.


UPDATE ON THE ACCIDENT


According to Lt. Ken Hawkes, Commander of the SJPD Traffic Investigation Unit, the vehicle that struck the PG&E box – a Datsun pickup truck – had been involved in a prior accident that resulted in the driver’s door being knocked out of alignment and the right front fender being replaced. The misalignment of the door did not allow it to latch properly.


After the driver, an 18-year-old male, left a nearby residence, he began making a right-hand turn at the intersection of Old Piedmont and Tumble Way. During the turn the driver’s door flew open and the driver was ejected. The pickup then centered itself and continued up a residential driveway before striking the PG&E power box almost head-on. It was made of metal, measured approximately 3 to 4 feet on each side, and sat atop a concrete foundation.


Three things occurred at impact: the vehicle sprung back a few inches form the PG&E box; the right-front fender, which was a replacement and had not been attached to the vehicle as securely as possible, came completely off and fell to the ground; and the metal box had been moved significantly in that part of it was off the concrete foundation.


The driver, who suffered cuts and abrasions form having been ejected, went to call for help. Then he returned to the scene. Bob, working unit 7173, received the call as a possible hit and run. But when he arrived at the scene and made contact with the driver, the hit and run was officially changed to a minor injury accident. The Datsun pickup had no tailgate, and because the driver was sitting on the end of the pickup bed when bob arrived, it was determined that no electricity was running through the vehicle itself.


After Bob’s arrival, he walked around to the front of the truck, possibly to check for a front license plate (the vehicle had no rear plate). Because of electrical burn marks on the end of the vender and in the center of one of the sides of the power box - and based on witness’ statements – Bob is believed to have picked up the fender. In doing so, Traffic Investigations believes the fender either made contact with the power box to the fender. This made bob a grounding point for the 21,000 volts.


Bob is survived by his father and mother, Joseph and Nora White; two sisters, Katherine and Patricia White, and a brother. Christopher White. All live in San Jose. Bob’s death is also a terrible tragedy for the 921 sworn and 262 non-sworn department members, as well as our Reserves, Retirees and many friends of the San Jose Police Department.