By: Cat Reid, Kshb.com
INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — On January 13, 2014, Independence police officers were pursuing 22-year-old Andrew Stark for speeding.
As police pressed pause on their end, Stark sped off, running a red light and ramming into a car driven by 35-year-old Jason Lewis. Lewis was killed, and his two passengers were severely injured.
But the crash that morning didn’t just claim lives; it also led to a settlement of $767,500 paid to the passengers in Lewis’s car and to his wife.
The department couldn’t comment directly on the payments, but Independence Public Information Officer John Syme did sit down with 41 Action News to talk about their chase policy.
“Everything we do, we just want to get better at what we’re doing, without turning around and saying we’re not going to chase bad guys anymore,” Syme said.
The department’s current policy says officers can still go after suspects for misdemeanors and traffic offenses, but those pursuits must be avoided or stopped if they “pose unnecessary risk to life or property.”
The policy takes into account the fact that departments don’t just face lawsuits; they’re also on the hook for some property damage during chases.
In Independence insurance only covers damage more than $10,000. Anything less comes out of the city’s coffers. From 2012 to 2017, they paid out more than $23,000 in property and auto body damage.
One of those payments went to Kyle Stick. He was driving with his wife down Truman Road last May when he saw two police cars stopped ahead. He didn’t realize at the time he was caught in the middle of a police pursuit for a man in a stolen car.
“As soon as we ran over those stop sticks, it just instantly deflated all four tires,” Stick said.
Those stop sticks are meant to stop suspects, but that day, they stopped Stick instead. The department paid him $381.36 for the damage.
“There is definitely a chance of another vehicle coming and blowing out their tires. Our officers are trained to pull them out immediately. Things don’t always work that way though. There are always side issues that occur,” Syme explained.
Kansas City, Kansas
Independence isn’t alone. In 2014, the KCK Police Department settled two lawsuits for $625,000. With insurance figured in, the city shelled out $250,000 for the chases, in which two innocent bystanders were killed. One was 62-year-old Graciela Olivas, killed when Christopher Stewart crashed into her car at 34th and Shawnee Drive. Police officers were chasing Stewart for traffic violations.
The other settlement came from the death of 8-year-old Jasmine Rodriguez, who died when a driver running from police crashed into her mother’s van.
As a result of their deaths, the department decided it would only chase those wanted for serious felonies. But in May of last year, that changed again. Officers can once again pursue for all crimes.
“Bad guys knew that we’re not chasing people. That’s a horrible message,” Chief Terry Zeigler said in an interview with 41 Action News in October.
Zeigler stood by the change, even after two people died in a crash while fleeing from police.
“That young man made decisions that cost two people their lives, and that’s not our fault,” he said of 20-year-old Zackery Smith, who was behind the wheel.
A spokesman for the department said their chase policy is not under review.
Changes in Independence
Since the crash that killed Lewis, the Independence Police Department has implemented changes.
A new technology called StarChase allows officers to track suspects with GPS instead of high-speed chases. The department nabbed 133 criminals that way from 2016-2017.
Officer John Syme also said officers terminated 58 percent of pursuits in 2017 because of risks to public safety.
“We know it’s our job to catch the bad guys. We just have to be smarter about it, and I think we are. We’re doing that,” Syme said.
41 Action News requested this data from KCPD as well, but we were told staff would need to pull each chase up individually to search for a corresponding settlement or payment. The legal department said the process would be time-consuming and expensive to identify a small number, if any, payments.
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