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After deaths of Petersburg couple,
more loss: loss of trust

by MICHAEL PAUL WILLIAMS
TIMES-DISPATCH COLUMNIST

May 14, 2007—The criminal-justice system has failed a Petersburg couple, grievously and irrevocably, not once but twice.

The first injury occurred last summer when a Petersburg police officer speeding to a nonemergency call without a siren or lights broadsided their car. Robert Allen, 75, and his wife Juanita, 71, died less than a block from home.

The second injustice took place Thursday in Petersburg Circuit Court, when a judge acquitted officer David M. Christian of involuntary manslaughter.

Christian was found guilty of reckless driving. His punishment: a $500 fine and a suspended license for 60 days.

"He gets away with it because he's a police officer -- period," Timothy W. . Allen, the couple's son, said after the verdict.

Given the lack of accountability, who can argue?

Judge James F. D'Alton Jr. ruled that Christian's actions didn't meet the legal definition of involuntary manslaughter.

According to testimony, Christian was driving at least 65 mph -- 30 mph more than the limit -- with one witness testifying that he believed the officer was clocking 80. Without lights or a siren.

If that doesn't meet the definition of "negligence so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard of human life," they need to rewrite the code.

And if police policy allows officers to drive in such a manner, the policy needs to be changed, said Candy Priano, whose teenage daughter was killed in a police chase in California. Priano, an activist on police pursuit policies, operates the Web site KristiesLaw.org.

"The idea that the people you trusted were involved in the death of your loved one adds another type of loss: the loss of trust in someone you thought would keep you safe," Priano said.

If an officer is driving at high speed without a siren and lights, "basically, you're playing Russian roulette, and something's going to happen," said John Phillips, an advocate of more restrictive police responses through his Web site PursuitWatch.org.

In 2001, Phillips' sister, Sarah, was coming home from a movie in suburban Orlando, Fla., when her car was rammed by a vehicle being chased by police. She died a month shy of her 21st birthday.

Phillips said his organization helped Orange County, Fla., rewrite its pursuit policy. As a result, officers can pursue suspects only in the event of a violent crime.

"The departments that are making these moves, they're pleased with it," he said. "And it's not hampering their ability to do their job. They're still catching the bad guys."

Christian wasn't involved in a pursuit or even an emergency. He was responding to a disturbance call.

Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, said progressive police departments have been restricting pursuits and emergency responses for the past decade. "My opinion is you shouldn't pursue for anything that is less than a violent felony," he said. "It's simply not worth risking someone's life."

That should go double for nonemergency responses.

The Allens' deaths should force area police departments to examine their response policies. And if officers place themselves and others at risk with their driving -- or cause injury or death -- they should receive more than a slap on the wrist.

Police are supposed to protect and serve. The system that did the Allens such a grave disservice should not protect the police.

Contact staff writer Michael Paul Williams at mwilliams@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6815.

 

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