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Police Pursuits

Pursuit went against policy

Wrong-way chase on 101 led to fatal crash
Holly Johnson
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 10, 2005 12:00 AM
 
SCOTTSDALE – Scottsdale police violated department policy at least twice while chasing a Fountain Hills man as he drove the wrong way down Loop 101 and caused a fatal crash, according to a review of police reports and policy guidelines obtained by the Scottsdale Republic. The April 7 crash occurred just two months after the department had revised its pursuit policy. The new policy states that officers must use emergency lights and must terminate chases when a helicopter arrives. It also states they must terminate pursuit if someone is driving the wrong direction on the freeway.

According to Department of Public Safety reports, Scottsdale officers were not using emergency lights during the pursuit, and they did not stop chasing the driver, David Szymanski, when he began speeding the wrong way on the freeway.

Szymanski, 22, led police on a high-speed chase through Scottsdale before screeching onto southbound Loop 101 near Shea Boulevard shortly before 2:45 a.m. He was driving the wrong way on the freeway when he slammed into a Ford Escort, killing Scottsdale resident Cody Brett Morrison, 22, who was on his way home from a concert with friends.

Sgt. Mark Clark said that Police Chief Alan Rodbell would not comment until the department’s investigation is complete.

Scottsdale police initially would not release a copy of their pursuit policy, but eventually complied with a public records request. The DPS declined to release a copy of its report, but a copy of it was obtained from Morrison’s family.

At the time of the crash, a police spokesman acknowledged that they drove alongside Szymanski on the opposite side of the freeway while he continued to drive against the direction of traffic. At the time of the crash, officers were waiting for a Mesa police helicopter to arrive.

In documents detailing the DPS investigation into the crash, a Scottsdale sergeant twice said that no Scottsdale police units had activated their emergency equipment while following the suspect vehicle.

The department’s Vehicle Operations Review Board has not released an official report detailing its findings, but police spokesman Clark did confirm that the pursuit violated policy. The board’s recommendations are now under review by the police internal affairs unit.

“We’re still determining whether this was a pursuit as defined by our policy,” Clark said. “The process is in place for a reason. It’s when we look at what we did and see if there are things we could do better.”

Only one of the 13 police chases for 2003, the last year for which numbers are available, were ruled “out of policy” by the Vehicles Operations Review Board.

One of the department’s priorities for this fiscal year has been to reduce the number of vehicle pursuits that are out of policy to zero, according to internal Scottsdale police documents.

The Szymanski case points to a larger paradox at work in law enforcement: Police pursuits are tricky, requiring deft thinking and quick decisions.

Officers must balance their own safety – and the safety of their partners, squad mates and innocent drivers – with the possibility of apprehending a suspect. They must decide, at a moment’s notice, whether endangering themselves and potentially other drivers outweighs the prospect of letting a suspect get away.

There’s a lot going on during a chase, Clark said. “The first dilemma is to chase or not. There’s a public duty to apprehend a suspect, but it has to be weighed against the risk of endangering other officers and the public in general. That’s the trickiest decision.”

Clark also described also pursuits as ever-changing.

“It has to be noted that this isn’t a static process where a decision is made and that’s it,” he said. “Conditions change, behavior of the suspect may change, and violations may change. All of these things have to be taken into account.”

City Manager Jan Dolan told the Republic on Thursday that she would leave further review of the department’s policy to Rodbell.

“If he decides a review or amendment to the policy is necessary, I will support that,” Dolan said. “I leave those decisions up to the chief.”

Matthew W. Wright, the Morrisons’ attorney, said the family just wants questions answered.

“They want to know how Szymanski ended up going the wrong way on the Loop 101,” he said. “They want to understand why he chose to do that. And there’s another important issue here: We need to know if the police went too far or breached policy and didn’t use prudence in trying to chase down Szymanski. As we sit here today, we don’t know all the answers.”

Wright has submitted public records requests to both Scottsdale police and DPS but has not received all the information necessary to determine whether to pursue legal action, he said.

Szymanski’s pre-trial conference is scheduled for June 21. A trial date could be set at that time.

_______________________________________________________________________
Deadly pursuits may bring new rules
Holly Johnson
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 13, 2005 12:00 AM
It is the ultimate no-win situation. Chase the bad guy, and the potential consequences are deadly. Let him go, and the bad guy gets away.

Two police pursuits in the past two months, one in Scottsdale and one in Tucson, drive home the point.

In April, Scottsdale police tailed a suspected burglar who appeared drunk as he screeched onto Loop 101. The police weren’t using lights or sirens – an apparent violation of departmental policy – as they paralleled driver David Szymanski, who was driving the wrong way on the freeway.

Less than two minutes after Szymanski pulled onto the freeway, police watched as his Chevrolet Cavalier crashed head-on into a Ford Escort, killing a 22-year-old man on his way home from a concert.

In Tucson two weeks ago, officers surrounded a stolen Caterpillar bulldozer as a 14-year-old boy led them on a chase through the foothills. The boy was later shot by officers and remains paralyzed from the waist down.

Police chases are tricky, requiring deft thinking and quick decisions, and there’s little margin for mistake.

Officers must balance their own safety and the safety of fellow officers, the public and the suspect, against the possibility of apprehending a suspect.

“There’s a lot going on,” said Sgt. Mark Clark, a Scottsdale police spokesman. “When there’s first an indication that someone doesn’t want to stop as required by the law, officers have to consider several factors. They have to look at the offense, the severity of the offense and the danger that’s posed to the public.”

Every department has its own policy, and there are no statewide guidelines governing pursuits, even though they are coming under increasing scrutiny across the country.

Nevertheless, some Valley departments have begun to change their policies.

Phoenix police are in the process of revising their pursuit policy, and the Peoria Police Department only chases known and violent felons.

In 2003, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office changed its pursuit policy, barring deputies from chasing drivers suspected of committing minor traffic violations or property crimes.

Before the new policy, officers were free to use their own discretion.

“We’ve narrowed it (the policy) back a little, but we’ve still got one of the more-lenient pursuit policies compared to other agencies,” said Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Travis Anglin.

Most departments agree that keeping chases to a minimum is the best way to prevent accidents and keep innocent drivers safe.

“It’s absolutely dangerous and just not worth it,” said Phoenix police Detective Tony Morales. “We’ll keep chasing them, but they have to be pretty dangerous, and we have to know what they’ve done, what crime they’ve committed, with absolute certainty.”

Like most other Valley departments, Phoenix police use helicopters to track suspects from the air, and their new policy, which takes effect Aug. 1, will be much more restrictive.

“Basically, we’re not going to be chasing stolen cars anymore,” Morales said. “We will still pursue known and dangerous felons.”

Valley police departments agree that keeping pursuits confined to violent, known felons is the best way to safeguard innocent lives.

“If an area is busy – say it’s 5 p.m. at 59th Avenue and Bell Road – we’ll terminate a chase due to the traffic conditions and the chances of hurting innocent people,” said Glendale police Officer Matt Brown. “But if the roadway’s wide open at 2 a.m., chances are we’ll let it go on longer with the hope that it will end safely for everybody concerned.”

Peoria will pursue violent felons as well, but that’s about it, said spokeswoman Shelly Watkins. Perpetrators of non-violent felonies, misdemeanor crimes or traffic violations are not pursued, she said.

“If it’s a violent felony, it’s up to the officers’ discretion,” she said. “But if you look at our crime rate here, we don’t have many. So that’s probably why you don’t see a lot of chases here.”

In Scottsdale, the Police Department’s internal affairs unit continues to investigate the April accident caused by Szymanski.

Scottsdale’s police pursuit policy, last revised in February, requires supervising officers to end pursuits immediately when suspect vehicles drive the wrong way on freeways. It also requires the use of lights and sirens.

“Our department is obligated to thoroughly review the actions of our officers in this incident and intend to make our findings available to the public when we have completed the review process,” said Scottsdale’s Clark. “It would be premature at this point to draw conclusions on the officers’ actions immediately prior to the tragic accident caused by Mr. Szymanski.”

The crash killed Cody Brett Morrison, of Scottsdale. Matthew W. Wright, the Morrisons’ lawyer, said the “family just wants questions answered.”

“They want to know how Szymanski ended up going the wrong way on the Loop 101,” he said. “They want to understand why he chose to do that. And there’s another important issue here. We need to know if the police went too far or breached policy and didn’t use prudence in trying to chase down Szymanski. As we sit here today, we don’t know all the answers.”

 

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