DPS: deadly high speed chase broke several policies
A board finds officers violated DPS chase policy
Now it's official: last year's fatal high speed state police chase in Tucson never should have happened. Video by kgun9.comvideo
DPS officers detain a suspect following the November 11 high speed chase.
After the chase officers found marijuana in the suspect's car
Chase victim Ronald Papanikolas of Utah
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Now it's official: last year's fatal high speed state police chase in Tucson never should have happened.
For months, 9 On Your Side has been asking questions about the chase that took the live of 31 year old Ronald Papanikolas of Utah. Finally, after months of repeated public records request, the Department of Public Safety has provided to KGUN9 News its final report on the incident. The verdict: officers made a series of mistakes and poor judgment calls, letting a chase that began with a routine traffic stop turn deadly.
On November 11th of last year, DPS pulled over 25-year-old Joel Morando after following a car too closely on I-10. Then the officer's police dog alerted to possible marijuana in the car and Morando took off. Other officers joined in, with the pursuit reaching speeds of 105 miles per hour.
In an effort to stop Morando, officers laid out stop sticks three times. After the last attempt, Morando swerved out of the way and slammed into Ronald Papanikolas' truck, killing the 31-year-old Utah man.
At the time, Nine On Your Side wanted to know whether the chase was necessary and if it even conformed to DPS policy. The victim's relatives were asking the same questions.
“If they were just trying to do a regular traffic stop," asked Eilene Rowley, the victim's mother, "why couldn't they just let it go and go find him later? I don't understand why they would let it get out of hand that bad."
The reivew board had the same question -- and concluded that the chase should have stopped at that point, given the way the suspect was driving, the fact that officers had already ID'd the man, and given the fact that whole episode started with a routine traffic stop.
More specifically, the Critical Incident Review Board found that three of the five actions taken by officers were "not reasonable."
First, the board criticized Officer Aaron Buckmister for failing to immobilize Morando, enabling the driver to get back on the road and speed off again.
Then the board called the repeated use of stop sticks dangerous and inappropriate. It was during the final attempted use of those stop sticks that the fleeing car swerved, slamming into the victim's truck.
Finally, the board found that the supervising Sergeant, Chris Hemmen, should have stepped in to stop the chase. The board pointed out that the officers already knew who was behind the wheel, and that the chase involved a non-violent offense.
The report detailed the board's displeasure with Sgt. Hemmen's inaction. As a supervisor, the board wrote that it expected Sgt. Hemmen to "step back" and do his job, namely supervise. Instead he let the pursuit go on for 30 miles until, ultimately, an innocent man died.
The conclusion of the critical incident review, given the ultimate price paid by Ronald Papanikolas, is that the officers involved should be held accountable. That decision was ultimately left to the DPS chain of command. But in the end DPS did not recommend disciplinary action. The board also recommended refresher training on various chase and detention procedures.
The board's report also noted that DPS is in the process of re-writing its chase policy. Last year, after some difficulty, 9 On Your Side was able to obtain a copy of that policy. It stresses the need to protect the public safety, but leaves the decision on whether to engage in a chase up to the discretion of the officer making the attempted stop.
The documents that DPS provided to 9 On Your Side contain a tracking sheet showing which offices have reviewed the report, and what action was taken. On May 10, the sheet notes that the office of the DPS director, Robert Halliday, disagreed with the review board's recommendations. No further action was indicated.
However, on Thrusday a DPS spokespereson in Phoenix told 9 On Your Side that the report still sits on the desk of deputy director Dennis Young, where it is undergoing review. The spokesperson said that Young still has the option of recommending disciplinary action, and also said that until that review is complete, DPS will have no further comment.
KGUN9 News will keep on top of this story.