IMPD officer begins rehab after paralyzed in crash involving drunk driver

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As an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer finally begins his long awaited physical therapy at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana, he said he is not angry at the drunk driver who put him in a wheelchair.

“I’ve forgiven him,” said Officer Santos Cortez of suspect Jerrel Watkins. “I can’t forget. Of course not.”

Tests revealed Watkins blood alcohol count was .29%, more than three times the legal limit, when he slammed into Officer Cortez’ patrol car last June 10 on West Washington.  Watkins will plead guilty Wednesday.

Cortez had been dispatched that Sunday night to look for a drunk hit-and-run driver.

“I would do it all again,” said Cortez. “The accident. Everything. Nothing can ever change the way I feel about being a police officer and doing the job I swore to do.”

Cortez was ejected through the passenger side window of his patrol car as a result of the crash. His vehicle slammed into a pick-up truck, containing a man and a small boy. Their injuries, and the injuries to Watkins, were minor.

Cortez was left paralyzed from the waist down.

“At least when he’s done with his punishment he’ll be able to walk out of jail and be with his family,” said Cortez, father of five. “I had to stay in the hospital, go back into a hospital for more than a half year, and I didn’t get to see my children. He’ll be able to walk and be able to play with his children and be able to get on the floor and have no issues of getting up and being able to walk with them in a park or do things with them or go ice skating or roller skating or bowling. It’s harder for me to do those things with my kids because it makes it that much harder in a chair.”

During one of his early rehabilitation sessions, physical therapist Kim Deckman was teaching Cortez how to lift himself up off the floor and place himself back into his wheelchair.

The week, Cortez’ dog accidentally pulled him out of the chair and onto the floor.

“It’s not fun. It feels like a fulltime job,” said Cortez about the rehab sessions. “Anything to be out, to finally be getting some mobility is better than just being in a hospital.”

As Cortez watched a wild police chase of two teenagers suspected of murder in Indianapolis last week, he said he got the itch to be back on patrol.

“It went through my part of town, where I work, so I was sitting there, going, ‘God, if I could just be in a squad car. If I could just help if I could be just be there.’

“I’m still a police officer. If I could go back out on the streets right now and lock somebody up, lock up a drug dealer, lock up anybody, anything, a robber, a thief, anything, I would do it in a heartbeat. I will chase them down in a wheelchair if I could.”

Right now Cortez’ assignment is to regain his balance and mobility.

Public Safety Director Troy Riggs has told Fox 59 News that there will be a job within the department whenever Cortez is ready to report for duty.

In May, Cortez will represent all injured police officers when he takes part in National Police Week ceremonies in Washington, D.C.

He hopes his road back to rehabilitation serves as an inspiration for all officers.

“I kind of want them to think, ‘I still have the ability to go out there and perform this job at 100 percent. He would give anything to be able to go out there.

“I hope I inspire them to look at it that way…that their bad day is not as bad as my bad day.”

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