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Police pursuits can be costly — in money and lives

TWO BOYS were on the corner, waiting to cross the street, when trucker Robert De-Paul, idling at the light, heard the screaming sirens and the raucous whine of an engine pushed to its limits. One boy dashed across, making it safely to the other side. Darnell Malik Bennett wasn't so lucky.

Wreckage remains after the accident in which Officer Isabel Nazario died in September when her police cruiser was slammed by a stolen car being pursued by other officers. (Steven M. Falk / Daily News)
Wreckage remains after the accident in which Officer Isabel Nazario died in September when her police cruiser was slammed by a stolen car being pursued by other officers. (Steven M. Falk / Daily News)Read more

TWO BOYS were on the corner, waiting to cross the street, when trucker Robert De-Paul, idling at the light, heard the screaming sirens and the raucous whine of an engine pushed to its limits.

One boy dashed across, making it safely to the other side.

Darnell Malik Bennett wasn't so lucky.

As DePaul watched in horror, the 14-year-old Fern Rock boy stepped into the crosswalk on Broad Street near Chelten Avenue and into the path of a speeding motorcycle. The biker smashed into Bennett and sent him flying 80 feet.

In the incident report, Police Officer Daniel Sweeney noted De-Paul's fury at the "piece-of-s---" cyclist, who'd blown through a red light, passing stopped traffic illegally by zooming down the turning lane.

But Sweeney didn't mention his own role in the wreck: The cop had been chasing the cyclist at high speeds for at least nine blocks through the dense residential streets of West Oak Lane on a sunny spring afternoon, just as hundreds of students were let out from nearby Gen. Louis Wagner Middle School.

The biker's initial offense: He wasn't wearing a helmet.

Although the incident occurred five years ago, it resonates today: Bennett remains permanently brain-damaged and partially crippled from the collision, his family still battling the city, the Police Department and the cyclist in an unresolved civil lawsuit.

And anti-pursuit advocates say his experience offers ample proof of why police departments should restrict or even forbid pursuits altogether.

Police watchdogs say that too often officers pursue unjustifiably,and the result can be deadly.

Nationally, an average of a person a day — 368 last year — dies of injuries suffered in police pursuits, according to the federal Fatal Analysis Reporting System. The advocacy group Pursuit estimates that 4,000 people are injured annually in police pursuits.

In Philadelphia, where two police officers have died and another 59 people have been injured in pursuits this year, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has decided that the department's pursuit policy is too lax and plans changes to take effect next month.

"This department is 10 to 15 years behind other major cities with its pursuit policy," said Ramsey, former commissioner of the Washington, D.C., police department, which has one of the nation's most restrictive policies. "It's not consistent with best practices."

Philadelphia's policy, crafted in 1994, allows pursuits to nab someone suspected of committing a violent felony, such as murder, kidnapping or rape; to apprehend someone with a deadly weapon who used or intends to use it, and to recover a stolen car if the driver breaks traffic laws to elude arrest.

Ramsey declined to divulge what policy changes are in store, saying the final draft was being reviewed by the Fraternal Order of Police.

"I'm not saying there won't be any more pursuits, but we will have a higher threshold," Ramsey said.

According to a copy of the new policy obtained by the Daily News, pursuits will be justifiable in only two cases: if the officer believes it will prevent someone's death or serious injury; or if a pursuit is necessary to nab someone who committed, or tried to commit, a violent felony or who possesses a deadly weapon.

Nationally, police departments are tightening their pursuit policies, with some banning them altogether and others allowing officers to pursue only known violent offenders. D.C.'s policy, crafted in 1991 after seven bystanders died during police pursuits, mirrors the new policy Ramsey proposes for Philadelphia.

Lt. Frank Vanore, the Philadelphia Police Department's chief spokesman, offered a simple defense of police pursuits.

"If people run and we just let them go, nobody's going to stop for us," Vanore said.

But the nation's leading experts on police pursuits say that's one of two deep-rooted myths that should be corrected.

"Police say: 'If we don't chase, everybody's going to run.' That's just not true. Most people do stop," said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal-justice professor at the University of South Carolina who co-authored the book "Pursuit Driving: What We Know."

Further, people who do flee police aren't necessarily serial killers, Alpert said.

"Most are not fleeing because they have a dead body in the trunk. They're fleeing because they're making bad decisions," Alpert said.

In a 1997 study he did for the U.S. Department of Justice, Alpert determined that only 16 percent of suspects who fled police had been involved in serious criminal activity.

Alpert also found that about 40 percent of police pursuits end in crashes, and 20 percent in injury.

Further, the more cruisers that are involved in a chase, the more likely a collision will occur, Alpert determined. Ramsey's proposed policy would address that by restricting pursuits to just two vehicles and prohibiting cruiser "caravans."

In Philadelphia, pursuits are down from last year, with 207 through Halloween this year, compared with 321 for all of 2007, according to police statistics.

But those pursuits are increasingly ending with smoke and twisted metal. Thirty percent of the police pursuits so far this year ended in crashes, up from 22 percent last year, according to police data. Pursuit-related crashes represented a tenth of all the 667 police-involved collisions last year, according to the data.

And police crashes can be costly. Philadelphia has paid out $1.7 million since 2000 for police-related crashes, according to city data.

"This is not an anti-police campaign," said Candy Priano, a California mother who started the group Voices Insisting on Pursuit Safety after her 15-year-old daughter, Kristie, died in 2002 when a teenager being pursued by police T-boned the Priano family's minivan. "But in too many cases, the suspect poses no immediate danger to the public, and it's the chase itself that threatens the public. Most suspects can be arrested through good police work, rather than a pursuit."

Priano added: "Chasing for a traffic violation is clearly not a reason for a chase. Police should only chase suspects for known violent crimes. Anything less than that is just not worth the risk to the public or to our officers."

That became tragically clear in Philadelphia this fall, when two officers in unrelated pursuits were killed in collisions.

In September, Officer Isabel Nazario died and Officer Terry Tull was seriously injured after a joyriding teenager fleeing police T-boned their cruiser in Mantua. Officers began that mile-long, high-speed chase because 16-year-old Andre Butler was driving erratically and making U-turns that grazed parked cars. Nazario and Tull were rushing to join the pursuit when Butler hit them.

And last month, Sgt. Timothy Simpson died after a Levittown man trying to elude police broadsided Simpson's cruiser in Port Richmond. Officers had been chasing William Foster because he was driving erratically. Simpson, responding to an unrelated robbery call, was not involved in that chase.

Sometimes, the price of pursuits is measured in decades.

Darnell Bennett was 14 when Paul Eugene McDuffy, a Yeadon man fleeing police on a red Honda motorcycle, hit him on May 15, 2003.

Bennett was walking home from school when McDuffy mowed him down, leaving him permanently brain-damaged and partially crippled.

The preceding events would later come out in depositions, after attorney Howard Popper sued the city, the Police Department, Sweeney, McDuffy and the bike's owner, on Bennett's behalf.

Popper declined to allow interviews with Bennett's family, because the case remains in litigation. McDuffy couldn't be reached for comment.

But Sweeney, at deposition and in an interview last week, said McDuffy first caught his attention at Bouvier Street and 66th Avenue, where the cop, then a five-year veteran, was patrolling what he described as a "well-known drug location."

Police Department policy discourages pursuits of motorcycles but does permit officers to chase stolen vehicles if the driver breaks traffic laws to elude arrest.

Sweeney testified at deposition that he believed that the motorcycle had been stolen, although he couldn't specify why. The bike had not been stolen; it belonged to McDuffy's girlfriend, according to court paperwork.

Last week, he further explained that he suspected McDuffy was acting as a lookout for drug dealers. And although McDuffy wasn't speeding, he was "driving in circles" and wasn't wearing a helmet, which then was illegal, Sweeney said.

Sweeney last week denied that he had pursued McDuffy; rather, he said, he "followed" him at a distance to "monitor" his activity and gain time to run his license plate to check if the motorcycle was stolen.

When McDuffy turned onto busy Broad Street, Sweeney turned on his lights and siren to warn motorists and pedestrians and gave dispatchers at the 35th District headquarters at Broad and Champlost a heads-up that McDuffy was coming their way.

But by then, McDuffy had run over Bennett.

After the collision, Bennett spent a month in a coma and a year recovering from broken bones and head trauma in area hospitals and rehabilitation centers.

But the boy who loved cars will never drive one — or even be agile enough to tinker with the engine in a garage. And although he loved playing football, basketball and baseball, he now can do little more than watch from the sidelines.

That's because his injuries are long-lasting and debilitating, his attorney and doctors say.

He has had multiple surgeries and ongoing physical therapy to improve his mobility, Popper said.

Bennett uses a cane to get around, but he falls so much that his neurologist predicts he'll eventually have to use a wheelchair, Popper added.

Bennett is a senior at Ben Franklin High School, where he'll stay until he's 21, Popper said. He has suffered from depression and vision loss, and now relies on his mother to do simple tasks such as tying his shoes or bathing, Popper said.

"High-speed chases rarely make sense for the officers involved or for the citizenry, particularly in cases of nonviolent or traffic offenses," Popper said. "This case speaks for itself."

Sweeney said he feels "terrible" for Bennett's ordeal.

And he remains angry, five years later, that McDuffy was never charged in the wreck.

Lt. Vanore said suspects generally are charged in such incidents. The two fleeing drivers that caused the wrecks that killed Nazario and Simpson earlier this fall were charged with murder and related charges.

He said he didn't know why McDuffy hadn't been charged.

Sweeney does.

"Plain carelessness on behalf of AID (the Accident Investigation Division), and you can quote me on that," Sweeney said. "They told me they were going to get a warrant for his arrest for aggravated assault. But they didn't even charge him with a traffic offense. Criminally, they made this guy not responsible at all for what he did. And that makes things [litigation] worse for me."

Sweeney said he feels like a scapegoat.

"It's the deep-pockets theory, where people think the city of Philadelphia has the deep pockets to stand behind this police officer, so they're going to make me look like a monster and overlook the responsibility of the motorcycle operator," said Sweeney, who works in the 2nd District, at Harbison and Levick, in the Northeast, but is detailed to the Northeast Detectives warrant unit.

He's more cautious about initiating pursuits, he said.

"When you decide to start a pursuit, you are putting a lot of people in jeopardy, but you have to consider what the person is wanted for. With them out on the street, they are also a danger to society," Sweeney said. "It's a catch-22. It's a lot to weigh in an instant."

FOP President John McNesby agreed. "Police officers have just a split second to make a decision [whether to pursue], and everybody else has hours and days to second-guess their decision later." *

Staff writer David Gambacorta contributed to this report.