Joy Lambert was killed on her way to work in Rockford. She was 55.
David Harris was killed on his way home from his job as a Chicago Police officer. He was 42.
Karina Alanis Gonzalez was with her husband when she was killed in Portage, IN. She was 33.
Fredi Morales was killed as he walked to his car in Wheeling. He was 20.
And Donovan Turnage was killed in Chicago on his way to get a pre-Christmas haircut. He was 11.
These are just some of the innocent bystanders in the Chicago area who have been caught in the middle of deadly high-speed pursuits by local police, in just the past three years.
A study by the U.S. Department of Justice called police chases “the most dangerous of all police activities” and found there are far more police chases than police shootings, nationwide. And a recent investigation by USA Today found that more people are killed or injured in the Chicago area, as a result of police pursuits, than anywhere else other than Los Angeles.
So NBC5 Investigates spent the past two months tracking down information on every Chicago-area police pursuit that we could find, that resulted in injury or death. We searched through news reports, federal crash data, civil suits and police reports.
We found that in the past ten years, 141 pursuit-related crashes in the Chicago area resulted in 108 people getting killed, and another 216 people hurt. And we found that in the majority of cases, it’s not the fleeing driver or fleeing passengers who are getting killed or injured: It’s a pursuing officer or – most often – an innocent bystander.
And – lately – the numbers have been going up, dramatically. For example, NBC5 Investigates found 18 innocent bystanders were killed as a result of police pursuits in the Chicago area between 2006 and 2012. That’s 18 innocent people, killed over a seven-year period – an average of two or three innocent deaths each year.
But in just the three years since – 2013 to now – 18 more innocent bystanders have been killed – meaning the rate has jumped threefold, in just the past three years.
On a Saturday afternoon in July of 2015, Shatrell McComb was waiting with her three children at a bus stop, on their way to spend a day at the beach. “I looked one way for the bus,” she says, “and then I heard a loud sound, and I turned my head, and my son was hit.”
Police had been chasing a suspected murderer for three-and-a-half miles through Chicago’s south side when the fleeing car jumped the sidewalk and crashed into the bus stop where McComb’s son, Dillan Harris, had been sitting in his stroller. The little boy was killed instantly. He was thirteen months old.
“This happened on a Saturday afternoon, on 63rd Street – a busy bus line street,” says Antonio Romanucci, who is representing Dillan’s family in a civil suit against the Chicago Police Department. “That’s where the balance test comes in.”
Romanucci is referring to the “Balancing Test” which is detailed in CPD’s written policy on police pursuits, mandating that officers are only allowed to chase someone if they determine that “the necessity to immediately apprehend the fleeing suspect outweighs the level of inherent danger created by a motor vehicle pursuit.”
The policy is twelve pages long, with an array of directives on when officers are allowed to start a pursuit; how they’re supposed to conduct and monitor a pursuit, and when they should stop pursuing an offender. According to Professor Geoffrey Alpert at the University of South Carolina – one of the nation’s leading experts on police pursuits – that complicated policy is part of the reason that, he says, Chicago lags behind most every other major city in the country, when it comes to pursuit safety.
“Reducing the officers’ discretion is important,” Alpert says. “It’s not fair to the officers to put them in a situation to make them think about those type of things, and run all those computations in their head, in a split-second.”
Alpert says his research shows that the best pursuit policy – and the safest -- is one that specifically limits police-pursuits to dangerous felons and suspects of violent crimes. Without those limits in Chicago, he says, “they’re chasing a lot of people; they’re creating a lot of damage and injuries, and the liability is enormous for taxpayers.”
Alpert acknowledges that it’s in the DNA of police – and the public too – to want to catch the bad guy. But, he says, most police – and most people -- don’t realize the true cost, in lives and in injuries, that these chases cause. “The more the public knows, the more I will predict they’re going to want a restrictive policy.”
Even where someone is suspected of a violent crime, Alpert says the potential consequences of the chase must be weighed. “You’re not going to chase at three in the afternoon in a school zone, with kids walking around, for a crime that isn’t some sort of terrorist act,” he says. “If this person is such an important subject, if police put the proper resources into it, there’s a good chance they will find him or her.”
Attorney Romanucci argues that was the case in the chase that killed Dillan Harris: “When they were chasing at high speeds through residential neighborhoods, it’s inevitable that these chases end in tragedy.”
A spokesman from the Chicago Police Department told NBC5 Investigates that the department cannot comment on the Dillan Harris case, because of the pending civil lawsuit. The department also declined NBC5’s request to talk on-camera about CPD’s pursuit policy. But the spokesman acknowledges that the policy is “very subjective.”
And in some cases, it’s not necessarily clear when a pursuit even begins.
On December 12, 2015, Maria Carrion-Adame, a mother of five, set out with several of her family members from their home on Chicago’s south side, on a pre-Christmas pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in northwest-suburban Des Plaines. At the same time – several blocks away -- a Chicago police cruiser spotted a blue Dodge Caravan.
“Looks like it’s stolen,” an officer tells dispatchers at the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), which is charged with approving and monitoring police pursuits.
The officer gives OEMC the license plate number, and then says, “We don’t have anything activated yet … We’re just following.”
The audio exchange continues as officers give a block-by-block update to OEMC, as they follow the Caravan over a course of several narrow, residential blocks for nearly a mile.
So was this an official police pursuit, or not?
Again, CPD will not comment on the case, citing pending litigation. NBC5 Investigates drove the same route – observing all speed-limits and stop signs – and it took significantly longer than the time logged on the dispatch audio – which would seem to indicate the officers were following the Caravan at higher-than-posted speeds.
On the audio, a minute and 48 seconds later – a voice comes back with the results of the license plate of the Caravan: “Hot car. Three heads.” Another voice says: “I’m sorry, say again: Was it a stolen car?” “Yes: Stolen car with three heads.” (“Three heads” means they saw three people in the car.)
Then, immediately, a voice says: “No. Discontinue.” And another voice adds a one-word command: “Terminate.”
But just seconds after that order to “terminate,” it’s clear from the audio that the Caravan – the one police were following – had crashed: “Ambulances for 7-1!” an officer yells in the audio. “Ambulances 7-1 for sure!”
At 71st and Carpenter, the Caravan had barreled into an SUV – the one carrying the Carrion-Adame family on their way to church. Maria’s brother, Ricardo, was driving, and saw Maria in the rear-view mirror. “She was not speaking or screaming anything,” he says. “I think she was unconscious. … She wasn’t moving.”
Maria was killed, and several other members of her family were injured in the crash – some seriously.
“We’ve taken a hard hit,” says Maria’s sister Viridianna Carrion, who was also in the crash. “We are left with a profound emptiness – especially when we see her children sad, asking questions that we can’t answer.”
Without commenting directly on this case, Chicago police do acknowledge that their officers are not allowed to pursue someone where the only suspected crime is a stolen vehicle.
“The futility in many of these cases is that the suspect’s going to keep running as long as you keep chasing,” says Alpert. “And – again – for what? For someone blowing a stop sign? For someone stealing some property? It just isn’t worth it.”
But NBC5 investigates found that nearly two thirds of the Chicago-area chases we analyzed were started for something that appeared to be relatively minor and – in many cases – quite possibly violated the rules of the local police department.
A full third of all the chase-related crashes we found, appear to have started because of a traffic violation. Those chases killed at least nine innocent bystanders in the Chicago area in recent years:
• Joy Lambert, 55, killed in Rockford in February of 2016, after police tried to pull over a car for speeding;
• Willie Owens, 66 and Margaret Silas, 88, both killed in Chicago in August of 2015, after a car fled police after being pulled over for a traffic violation;
• Fredi Morales, 20, killed in Wheeling in September of 2014 when a police officer tried to get a driver to stop for a traffic infraction;
• David Harris, 42, killed in Chicago in March of 2014 by a man fleeing a Calumet Park policeman following a traffic stop;
• Eugene Ratliff, 32, killed in Chicago on his birthday in September of 2013 by a car fleeing police after a traffic stop;
• Michelle Parker, 54, killed in Rockford in August of 2013 by a truck that police were pursuing for reckless driving;
• Brian DeWitt, 18, killed in Evergreen Park in October of 2010 by a police officer trying to catch up to a speeding car;
• and Kenyatta Brack, 16, killed in Dolton in August of 2010 when his bike was hit by a car fleeing police after an attempted traffic stop.
Another thirteen percent of the local chases analyzed by NBC5 Investigates involved a suspected stolen vehicle – with no indication of a more serious crime. Those chases killed at least four innocent bystanders in the Chicago area in recent years:
• Maria Carrion-Adame, 37, killed in Chicago in December of 2015
• Donovan Turnage, 11, killed in December of 2013
• Zachary Bingham, 18, killed in Kane County in December of 2012
• And Marciea Adkins, 42, killed in Chicago in July of 2011
“You’ve got to take – especially -- the young officers who are ten feet tall and bulletproof – and explain to them that this is a risk to the public that may not be worth taking,” Alpert says. “There has to be a linkage between policy, training, supervision, and accountability.”
But despite the questions raised in many of these deadly police pursuits, NBC5 Investigates has found there is no consistent reporting or review of police pursuits and crashes: Not, it appears, on a local level, and definitely not at the state or federal level.
For example, Illinois law says that a state agency – the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board (ILETSB) should “review police pursuit procedures” every year. The ITLETSB, in turn, asks all police agencies to file a report every time they launch any kind of pursuit – even when it doesn’t result in death or injury. But the board’s policy is unclear: At one point it says these reports are “requested,” and in another paragraph it says these reports “will be submitted.”
An ILETSB spokesman acknowledged to NBC5 that the board does not receive reports from many police departments. But he also confirmed the board does fulfill its duty to review the chase reports it receives, every year.
So NBC5 Investigates checked the ILETSB’s files for reports on seventy police chases we’d found in the Chicago area since 2013, which all resulted in death or injury: A total of 116 people getting hurt, and 40 people – including 18 innocent bystanders – getting killed. We wanted to see how – or if – each of these pursuits was handled in the state’s required annual review.
We found that not a single one of those chases was reported to the state: not the chase that killed Karen Williams in Cherry Valley in September of 2014, not the chase that killed Miguel Agustin-Tellez in Elgin in May of 2014, not the chase that killed Marisol Mercado on the west side of Chicago in July of 2013, not the chase that killed Jacqueline Reynolds in Chicago in May of 2013, not the chase that killed Karen Gendron Shafer in Rockford in February of 2013, and not any of the other innocent bystanders killed as the result of police chases in Illinois in the past three years.
None of these chases – all resulting in deaths of innocent bystanders – was reviewed by the state agency that’s specifically charged with that responsibility.
On the national level, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the only agency that has information on the cause of deadly car crashes, and – occasionally – a crash will include a notation that it was related to a police pursuit. But the numbers appear to be seriously under-reported. According to NHTSA data, 72 people died in the Chicago area in a ten-year period, in crashes that were related to police pursuits. But we found 23 additional deadly crashes – all related to Chicago-area police chases – that don’t show up on NHTSA records – meaning that federal data is not accounting for nearly one in four of the deadly pursuits in the Chicago area.
On the local level, in Chicago it’s spelled out that the CPD’s Traffic Review Board is supposed to meet bimonthly to review each CPD pursuit that results in serious personal injury (or death), to determine if it complied with rules. But NBC5 Investigates has been asking for two months for the pursuit reports, and the reports summarizing the Review Board’s findings. To date, we have not received any of these reports.
There are issues on the local level in the suburbs, as well.
In October of 2010, a police officer in south-suburban Evergreen Park spotted a speeding car, and sped up to try to overtake the vehicle. Official reports show the officer was speeding east on 95th Street, at speeds up to 90 miles per hour, in an effort to overtake the car. The officer acknowledged in a deposition that he was in an unmarked vehicle, and confirmed that he never turned on his lights or sirens. He also confirmed that he never contacted police dispatch to tell them what he was doing, according to his deposition.
Brian DeWitt, an 18-year-old high school senior, was making a left turn from Central Park Avenue onto 95th Street, when the Evergreen Park police car crashed into him. He was rushed to the hospital, and his parents were called there as well.
“They put us in a room, and we waited and waited,” says Brian’s mother, Debbie. “And then they finally let us go in the room, and they were pumping his heart, and they told us to hold his feet, because we couldn’t get close to him.
“They were just trying so hard to keep him alive,” Dewitt says. “They were pumping, and pumping, and pumping – and then they just finally called it, and he was gone.”
Debbie and her husband John say they did not learn until the next day that their son had been hit by a police officer – when they learned of it on a television news report about their son.
The Evergreen Park Police Department declined to comment on the case, except to confirm that the department did not investigate the police-pursuit, and handed the investigation of the crash itself to the Cook County Traffic Crash Reconstruction Team. In an e-mail to NBC5 Investigates, the police department also acknowledges that “no disciplinary action was taken against the officer involved.”
John and Debbie DeWitt eventually received a $2.5 million settlement from the Village of Evergreen Park as the result of a civil lawsuit. Shortly after that settlement was finalized, Debbie DeWitt wrote a letter to the Village’s police chief, expressing her dissatisfaction that the police officer was never reprimanded as a result of the crash. “As the very least, his driver’s license could have been suspended,” she wrote. “He needs to take responsibility for his actions. He took my son’s life.”
She added: “I would like your officers to think that when they are out driving and responding to a call or doing a pursuit, to ask themselves if their family was on the road in front of them, would they continue driving the way they are. Please help to stop innocent deaths.”
The DeWitts say no one from Evergreen Park ever responded to the letter.
Now they hold a fundraiser each fall – midway between Brian’s birthday and the anniversary of his death – to raise money and awareness for PursuitSafety, a national non-profit group dedicated to educating police officers on the dangers of pursuit-related crashes.
The DeWitt’s $2.5 million settlement is part of a growing trend in the Chicago area, as more people seek damages to compensate for the death or injury of a family member after a police pursuit. In fact, NBC5 Investigates found that Chicago-area taxpayers have paid out more than $95 million in civil settlements and judgments, in 24 separate lawsuits filed over a ten-year period. We found ten more pursuit-related lawsuits that are currently pending in Chicago-area courts. And, we found, the rate of lawsuits filed, seeking damages after police chases in recent years, has gone up sharply in the past three years – mirroring the recent sharp rise in innocent deaths and injuries.
“Every one of these victims is someone’s mother, father, child,” says Alpert. “When you start talking about lives, and the people in wheelchairs, and the people disabled because of a pursuit that never should have happened, you can’t put a dollar amount on that.”