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Editorial
Nov. 2, 2005

Fatal police chase, actions by officers raise questions
Public deserves answers about Loop 101 incident that killed man

The bungled police pursuit of a suspected drunken driver that killed a Scottsdale man on Loop 101 resulted in the punishment of five officers.

But many questions remain.

The big one: Why did this happen?

As the facts of the April 7 incident emerge, it is clear that police did not follow the department's own chase policies.

The conclusion was tragic. David James Szymanski, the police target, drove the wrong way on the freeway and collided head-on with a car, killing Cody Brett Morrison and hurting two other people.

Morrison's relatives have filed a $3 million notice of claim against the city - a step generally considered a precursor to litigation unless a settlement is reached.

The public now knows the fate of the five involved: a lieutenant, the on-duty watch commander, is suspended for 80 hours without pay; one sergeant is suspended for 40 hours without pay and another is demoted; the officer who started the pursuit is suspended for 30 hours without pay; and another officer gets "an official Letter of Reprimand."

Szymanski is charged with first-degree murder and faces the death penalty if convicted.

The Scottsdale Police Department's pursuit policy allows chases involving "emergency driving" when a fleeing suspect is believed to have been involved in "a violent or dangerous felony or when an immediate and articulable threat to human life exists."

The 16-page internal affairs report on the incident made public last week found that the misdemeanor criminal damage Szymanski was suspected of and his outstanding misdemeanor arrest warrant "did not elevate this incident to the level of fitting with in the department's pursuit policy."

Police departments must have strict pursuit guidelines because such chases can easily go awry and pose a public hazard. Fleeing suspects, possibly chemically impaired or simply with nothing to lose, can make reckless, foolhardy and dangerous decisions.

Police pursuit policies affect everyone. What happened to Morrison could happen to anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Scottsdale police officials say that a review has determined the policy itself is fine. That may be, but it is disturbing that this incident happened.

Three of the five police officers were disciplined for failing to supervise the incident properly. If three supervisors were unable to recognize that an inappropriate pursuit was under way and didn't stop it, that's a serious problem.

The incident, and the supervisors' reaction to it, also raises the question about how routine these out-of-policy pursuits really are. Is there a training problem that police leadership needs to address? Is there a culture within the department that looks the other way when officers chase suspects this way? Do they avoid formally declaring "pursuits" to avoid the intense internal scrutiny that such announcements inevitably bring?

The public deserves answers to these questions.

Police officers do dangerous work, must make split-second decisions and deserve everybody's support.

Occasionally, good intentions unfortunately go haywire.

When they do, police leadership owes it to residents to explain why and if additional steps will be taken to minimize the chances of something like that happening again.

Talkback

Five members of the Scottsdale Police Department have been disciplined in the botched April 7 pursuit of suspected drunken driver David Szymanski. He is suspected of driving the wrong way on Loop 101 and crashing head-on into another vehicle. One person died in the collision.

1. Is the punishment of the five officers appropriate? Too harsh? Too lenient?

2. Are you satisfied with the way the Police Department handled this controversy? Do you have any questions about the incident that remain unanswered?

3. Is a police pursuit of a fleeing suspect ever appropriate?

E-mail us at ne.letters@scottsdalerepublic.com or write us at Opinions, Scottsdale Republic, 16277 N. Greenway-Hayden Loop, Suite 200, Scottsdale, AZ 85260. You can also fax us at (602) 444-7985.


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