Did BSO chase put lives in danger?

High-speed police chases have often led to car crashes and even deaths. Is last week’s Cooper City chase the latest example?

08/11/2012 5:00 AM

08/11/2012 10:31 PM

When 26-year-old Obrian Oakley made his ill-fated decision to run from police, it sure seemed like the actions of a criminal: Witnesses in the area had seen Oakley’s apparent accomplice stealing small items from unlocked cars, and Oakley’s flight itself also hinted at some level of guilt.

But as Oakley sped away — at speeds that may have topped 100 mph — there was nothing to suggest he was a violent felon. The Broward Sheriff’s Office’s internal policies forbid police chases except in cases of violent felonies. Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence that multiple BSO patrol cars tailed Oakley, with sirens blaring.

At the intersection of Sheridan Street and Palm Avenue in Cooper City, Oakley’s attempted escape turned tragic. His silver Infiniti ran a red light, collided with another car, then plowed into two bicyclists. Both cyclists, 61-year old Christopher McConnell of Cooper City and 60-year-old Dean Amelkin of Coral Springs, died instantly.

“It is wrong that the police followed this man at that speed,” said Elvia Rodriguez, 67, who was walking in the Rock Creek neighborhood that Oakley sped through hurriedly on Aug. 5. Rodriguez said “more than five” police cars were pursuing Oakley at a “very fast” speed.

The chase happened at around 7 a.m. on a Sunday — a time when the neighborhood’s winding, tree-lined roads attract plenty of joggers and dog-walkers.

“Even me and the other pedestrians were at risk,” Rodriguez said.

BSO officials have declined to comment on the case or to acknowledge that a pursuit even took place pending further investigation, said Dani Moschella, an agency spokeswoman.

If BSO officers indeed violated department policy by chasing Oakley, it’s possible the department could be sued by the families of the two slain bicyclists.

In the BSO-submitted arrest affidavit for Oakley — in which he is charged with offenses that include burglary, petty theft, and first-degree murder of the two bicyclists — police state that Oakley told them he “panicked” after a Rock Creek resident, having witnessed the car break-ins, announced he was going to call police. When fleeing, Oakley said he was driving “in excess of 110 miles per hour” and that he “saw two or three police cars behind him that had their lights and sirens activated.”

After hitting the bicyclists, Oakley ran away, but police caught him within a few hours. The two occupants inside the other car that Oakley collided with, a red Toyota sedan, sustained only minor injuries.

The driver of that Toyota, 72-year-old Eddy Charlier, said he remembered “there was a police chase,’’ though he did not see the pursuit itself.

He said Oakley’s silver Infiniti “was like a flash,’’ and that deputies could not have been far behind because they arrived, five cars in all, almost immediately after the impact.

“It didn’t take two seconds for them to come look at it,’’ he said. “I didn’t make a call for them.’’

For decades, police departments across the country have been adopting tighter guidelines regarding high-speed chases. A quick glance at the carnage of such chases reveals why: One article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin estimated as many as 40 percent of U.S. police pursuits end in collisions, and those collisions kill about 300 people (officers, offenders, or innocent bystanders) per year.

“The more cops that are in a chase, the more likely death will result,” said Richard Moran, a criminology professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. “It just increases the odds that something bad is going to happen.”

In this particular case, Moran said it wasn’t just BSO’s own policies that should have prevented a car chase. As Oakley fled, he left his accomplice behind. That man, 25-year-old Sadik Baxter, was arrested immediately. With one arrest already in hand, Moran argues that police had enough information to figure out who the second guy was, and where he lived.

“It’s pretty clear if you had one of the offenders, you were going to be able to track down the other one pretty easily,” Moran said. “Why chase him when you know where he’s going?”

Tod Burke, a former Maryland police officer who is now a professor of criminal justice at Virginia’s Radford University, said based on his own experience, “If I am giving pursuit and I have my lights and sirens on, what often happens is the officer gets tunnel vision...everything focuses on “I’ve got to get this person at all costs.”

But Burke also said it’s important to be cautious when scrutinizing BSO’s role in last week’s deadly crash.

“You and I weren’t there,” Burke said. “I would say let the investigation come out.”

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