FATAL POLICE CHASES
- Murder charge filed against suspect in first Flint fatal Michigan State Police crash
- Flint councilman praying for 1,000 to protest Michigan State Police pursuits that killed bystanders
- Mother of the people: Flint woman killed in crash with state trooper remembered for generosity, love
- Geoffrey Fieger: ‘Double standard’ in play regarding handling of fatal Flint state police chase
- Bystander deaths from two Michigan State Police pursuits in Flint spark anger, lawsuit
FLINT, MI –In a city where violent crime has ranked among the worst in the nation, state police troopers have come under heavy criticism from community members who question why police are chasing drivers who refuse to stop for minor traffic violations.
In the just the past month, such chases have left two mothers dead and stirred outrage from those who say lives are being put at needless risk.
State Police have released few details about the two recent crashes, but said both suspects fled as troopers were attempting to stop them for traffic violations.
The two deaths in one month match the total amount of pursuit-related deaths that occurred in Flint from 2005-2013, according to data from the Office of Highway Safety Planning.
No uniform policy regulating police pursuits exists between the more than two dozen police agencies operating in Genesee County. However, policies reviewed by The Flint Journal show that officers are given great leeway on when to initiate a pursuit, and that the agencies rely, in part, on the officer’s judgment to decide on when a chase needs to be cutoff.
Some Flint residents are questioning the role of the state police and their pursuit of suspects after separate chases left two mothers dead in the past month.
Tiphanie Fayette Mayfield died June 18 after the vehicle she was in was struck June 12 near Mackin Road and Caldwell Avenue by a suspect fleeing a Michigan State Police trooper over a traffic violation.
Mayfield’s vehicle was left mangled after the chain-reaction crash left the car of another innocent bystander damaged.
Jacqueline Nichols was killed just weeks later when a state police cruiser struck her vehicle as he chased a suspect for a traffic violation near Pierson Road and North Street.
The vehicle Nichols was riding in was left on its side on top of a chain-link fence in the yard just north of where the crash occurred.
“When accidents like that happen our department feels horrible,” said Michigan State Police Lt. Brian Cole. “Our deepest sympathy goes out to the families when any tragic incident occurs.”
Cole says the state police are investigating both crashes.
No matter the outcome of the investigations, Flint NAACP President Frances Gilcreast said something needs to be done about the state police’s use of pursuits on Flint streets.
Gilcreast wrote a letter to Gov. Rick Snyder, asking him to modify the state police’s chase policy to prevent them from pursuing traffic violation suspects on city streets.
“The ends do not justify the means,” Gilcreast said of the pursuits.
David Murray, a spokesman with Gov. Rick Snyder’s office, said the office has received Gilcreast’s letter and needs to review the request before responding.
“Gov. Snyder always is interested in hearing from community groups,” Murray said. “We know we share the goal of improving public safety in Flint and other cities. We’ve made excellent progress and have more to do.”
Gilcreast added believes troopers are taking a “by any means necessary” approach to crime fighting that puts innocent civilians at risk.
“A policy to chase in residential streets I think is reckless,” Gilcreast said. “By any means necessary is just appalling to me.”
However, the state police say their main goal is to protect the city’s residents and fight Flint’s violent crime problem.
“We don’t want to lose focus on why we’re here,” Cole said. “Our primary focus is to help the city of Flint to become safer.”
Nearly 270 police chases have resulted in crashes in Flint from 2005-2013, according to state data. All but 17 of those occurred on city streets rather than highways or interstates. Of the crashes that occurred on city streets, 23 percent resulted in injuries or fatalities.
The state does not keep track of which agencies were involved with the chase at the time of the crash, according to OHSP officials.
The chase policy
The state police chase policy already takes multiple factors into account in an attempt to keep troopers and citizens safe, said Cole.
“Everything happens so quickly,” Cole said. “Sometimes we have to make a difficult decision.”
Troopers who are authorized to pursue vehicles have to take eight factors into account before beginning a chase, according to the Michigan State Police official order regarding chases.
The order, provided to The Flint Journal by the state police, requires troopers to consider the nature of the violation, the presence of pedestrians and traffic conditions, the population density of the area, road and weather conditions, familiarity of the area, familiarity with the suspect and if non-department personnel are in the cruiser at the time when they initiate a pursuit.
In both crashes, police say traffic violations led to the attempted stops that initiated the chase.
Gilcreast said she was concerned with the troopers’ willingness to engage in a pursuit over traffic violations, saying that Flint has more dangerous criminal problems that need to be addressed by its police resources.
“Traffic violations,” Gilcreast asked. “That’s not what our issues are in Flint.”
Although the crash that led to Mayfield’s death was initiated over a traffic stop, police allege the suspect was involved in more serious crimes.
Davonte Deshaun Grover, 22, currently faces 15 charges, including multiple counts of controlled substance delivery and controlled substance manufacturing. Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton also charged Grover with second-degree murder for Mayfield’s death.
The suspect in Nichols’ death is still at large.
Attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who is representing Nichols’ family, also questioned the role a ride-along may have played in Nichols’ death.
“In this case, it is also terrible that the state police office had a family tag-along in his car,” Fieger said. “Apparently, he was trying to impress the drive-along.”
Michigan State Police Capt. Gene Kapp confirmed that there was a civilian riding along with the trooper at the time of the crash. Kapp declined to identify the civilian and trooper.
State police policy forbids troopers from initiating a pursuit if there is a non-department passenger in the vehicle or a person in custody, unless the person has a signed liability waiver or it is an extreme circumstance.
Cole said his agency is still investigating whether or not the ride-along had a signed waiver.
State police policy also prohibits troopers from participating in a chase without their lights and siren.
Cole says the troopers in both chases were using their lights and sirens. However, Fieger disagreed, saying witness statements don’t back up the state police’s investigation.
“Our investigation shows for at least five blocks, police were observed” in pursuit, “no lights no siren,” Fieger said while announcing his lawsuit. “The witnesses described, about five blocks earlier, the police just tipped on their siren once, the bleep that often you’ve heard, and then tipped it off and continued to pursue.”
A friend of Mayfield, Cassandra Bowens, also claimed that troopers weren’t using their emergency signals at the time of the crash.
“I’m very angry with what the police thought at that time,” Bowens said following her friend’s death.
Flint denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the city’s pursuit policy, claiming that a release of the policy is exempt because it would reveal instructions for law enforcement and contents of staff manuals.
Flint as the epicenter
More pursuit-related crashes from 2005-2013 were recorded in Flint than in the rest of Genesee County combined, according to state statistics. Flint has recorded 269 pursuit-related crashes over that timeframe, 74 of which resulted in injuries or fatalities.
Despite accounting for 65 percent of the pursuit-related crashes, state statistics show only two of the county’s seven fatal chase crashes over that timeframe occurred in Flint.
More than 120 crashes have occurred outside of Flint in Genesee County over that time frame, with 56 resulting in injuries. Five crashes resulted in fatalities, including a 2007 Fenton crash that killed two 18-year-old Holly men.
Mt. Morris Township police Lt. Matt Lasky said it’s impossible to tell why the out-county crashes tend to produce a higher rate of injuries or fatalities.
“A lot of if it is luck,” Lasky said. “You can’t predict what the violator’s going to do.”
However, Lasky said the chases tend to pick-up speed as they move to the less-populated areas of the county.
“Speeds pick up in rural areas,” Lasky said. “There are not so many turns.”
Lasky said turns and dead-end roads help keep speeds lower on residential streets.
With a overturn of staffing at the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department due to retirement, Undersheriff Christopher Swanson recently issued a memo to staff reminding them of the department’s policy when it comes to pursuing suspects.
The sheriff department’s policy, which was provided to The Flint Journal by the sheriff’s department, mirrors that of the state police in many ways, but places an increased emphasis on encouraging deputies to cutoff chases that could lead to potential injuries and dissuades deputies from approaching the pursuit as a “personal challenge.”
“It is critical to exercise a mature decision to pursue or not,” Swanson’s memo reads. “Discontinuing a pursuit does not signify a lack of courage.”
Swanson said, although dangerous, pursuits are a part of police work and deputies need to be prepared to deal with a situation that will force them to make split-second decisions.
“It’s a true possibility so you better be ready for it,” Swanson said.
Eight people have died in seven pursuit related-crashes from 2005-2013, according to state records. Those that have died in the crashes range from the person running, to the officer chasing and innocent bystanders who got caught in the middle.
Rondle L. Johnson was killed in 2007 in Flint Township after a North Branch man turned off his headlights to elude police.
David M. Thomas was arrested in October 2007 after he crashed into two cars at Miller Road and Ballenger Highway. Johnson, 47, of Flint, was killed and a woman riding in Johnson’s car was injured.
Thomas was sentenced to 15-25 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder and operating under the influence causing death.
Police said that Thomas lost control of his car around 2:30 a.m. after running a red light while headed west at a high rate of speed on Miller Road, according to Flint Journal archives. Authorities said he turned off his headlights to escape a Flint police officer who was trying to stop him for driving the wrong way on a one-way street.
Johnson graduated from Flint Northern High School in 1979 and from Morristown College in 1981. He also served in the Army National Guard. Johnson left behind a fiancé and five daughters.
Flint police officer Owen Fisher was killed in July 2005 after he was struck by a fellow Flint police cruiser during a chase.
The chase started after police spotted someone drinking in a car parked outside the AutoZone at Dort Highway and Richfield Road.
Police tried to question the driver, Christopher Bentoski, but Bentoski sped out of the parking lot.
Bentoski led police on a 17-minute chase with speeds approaching 100 mph through the streets of Flint and Burton.
Fisher and his partner were headed north on Greenly Street when their car was broadsided by a Flint police car traveling west on East Decamp Street.
Bentoski was sentenced to 3-15 years in prison for first-degree fleeing. His passenger, Linda L. Freeman, received 23 months to 10 years in prison.
Fisher was a 2000 graduate of Powers and played on the basketball and soccer teams. His death came only months after being certified as a police officer.
Adam J. Powell and James R. Waller, 18, were killed in June 2007 in Fenton after a vehicle Powell was driving crashed into the Fenton House restaurant.
Police said the crash happened a short time after the two teens and a third person attracted the attention of employees at an Owen Road Taco Bell. Employees called police and told them that “some drunken young men were causing problems,” according to Flint Journal archives.
A Fenton police officer responded around 2 a.m., and located a sports utility vehicle matching the description of Powell’s traveling the opposite direction on Owen Road.
The officer turned on his emergency lights, Powell accelerated and crashed into the restaurant as he tried to turn onto S. Leroy Street.
Powell was a Holly senior and former varsity basketball player. Waller graduated from Holly just the week prior.
What comes next?
The discussion surrounding police chases is Genesee County will not be ending anytime in the near future.
Flint city Councilman Wantwaz Davis said he’s praying that 1,000 people will join him Monday, July 14, at a protest in front of city hall aiming to bring attention to the fatal police chases.
“Governor Rick Synder has caused all of these conditions and we must make him and the emergency manager accountable by making a stand on injustice in the city of Flint,” Davis’ announcement of the protest says.
Community activists will also be awaiting the results of the state police’s investigation into the collisions.
No matter the outcome of the investigations, both crashes will be scrutinized in the courtroom.
Grover, whose alleged run from authorities led to the chase that killed Mayfield, still faces trial on a second-degree murder charge — a process that can take in excess of a year, particularly if specialized tests such as DNA analysis or mental health evaluations are needed prior to trial.
Nichols’ death will move into the civil court, where her attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, will attempt to prove that the state police acted negligently, and that is was that negligence that led to her death.