Mom of teen killed in police chase wants policies revised
BY STEVE METSCH email@example.com March 7, 2013 8:42PM
Brian DeWitt's friends still leave messages for him in notebooks at his grave. | Steve Metsch~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 9, 2013 6:01AM
A settlement was reached earlier this year between Evergreen Park and the family of a Morgan Park teen who died after his car was slammed into by an unmarked police car chasing a speeder down 95th Street in October 2010.
The pretrial settlement will result in the village paying $2.5 million to the family of Brian DeWitt, who was 18 when he died.
But Brian’s mother, Deborah DeWitt, wants something else from the village: further revisions to its policy governing high-speed chases.
The Evergreen Park Police Department did tweak its policy about 10 months after DeWitt’s death, although a Cook County Sheriff’s investigation absolved the Evergreen Park police officer of blame and found that Brian DeWitt turned left in front of the squad and failed to yield.
Police Chief Michael Saunders said the changes were not made in response to the accident.
The new policy asks officers to consider if a pursuit presents “hazards to uninvolved bystanders or motorists” and also says “pursuit vehicles should not exceed 80 mph without express permission from a supervisor.”
The unmarked car that hit DeWitt’s car was going 90 mph 2.2 seconds before impact, though it slowed to 59 mph one-tenth of a second before the crash, according to the investigation.
The speed limit on 95th Street is 35 mph. Deborah DeWitt thinks an 80-mph chase on that road is another tragedy waiting to happen.
“That’s way too fast, 80 mph. There’s a little comfort knowing they’ve made some changes, but I don’t know if that’s enough,” she said. “That’s still way too fast if you ask me.”
The head of a national nonprofit group dedicated to ending high-speed pursuits by law enforcement departments agrees with DeWitt.
Candy Priano, of PursuitSAFETY, lost her daughter, Kristie, 15, who died when the family’s van was hit in such a pursuit 11 years ago while they were driving to her basketball game.
“Going anywhere above 35 mph can cause someone to get killed. All police chases put innocent bystanders and the officers at risk of death or injury. You can put limits on it, but I think we can do much better,” Priano said from her California home.
Every law enforcement agency seems to have a different policy, she said.
“We’d like to see them avoid pursuits altogether. The best way to catch someone is still through detective work. Yes, we want the bad guys to be caught — not for innocent people to be killed or injured,” she said.
Tracing license plates is one way to track down those who flee police, she said. She also argues most suspects leading police on high-speed chases are small-time offenders.
“None of the victims whose photos are on our website were killed as a result of the pursuit to catch a murderer or rapist or a kidnapper. Not one,” said Priano, who visited DeWitt a few weeks after Brian’s death.
Voicing her complaint
Deborah DeWitt still finds it hard to walk into her son’s bedroom because of the painful memories.
She recently sent a letter to Saunders, and a copy to Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton, urging them to “please help to stop innocent and unnecessary deaths.”
In the letter, she chides Saunders for not reprimanding the officer, who was driving the unmarked black Dodge Charger that broadsided Brian’s car as Brian turned left from Central Park Avenue onto 95th Street, killing him and injuring his friend.
Saunders’ response was that his department acted in accordance with the findings of the sheriff’s department.
“We brought in an outside agency so things would be perceived on the up and up. We stand on their findings. I concur with their findings,” Saunders said.
Two months after the accident, a toxicology report found that Brian had trace amounts of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his system.
“I think that was an attempt to shift the blame,” Deborah DeWitt said.
DeWitt wrote in her letter that the officer’s “unsafe, reckless driving violated the department policies for operating unmarked vehicles by driving at an excessively high speed in a 30 mph zone, without lights and siren. At the very least, his driver’s license could have been suspended.”
Saunders again expressed his condolences to the DeWitt family and said a village attorney would review DeWitt’s letter before responding to her.
“I feel terrible for the DeWitts’ loss,” Saunders said. “At the same time, I understand it was resolved.”
The department’s pursuit policy, revised in August 2011, is online “where the officers can access the policy,” Lt. Peter Donovan wrote in an email. Previously, the guidelines were in binders issued to each officer, Donovan said.
The new policy says that one of the factors to consider is “the importance of protecting the public and balancing the known or reasonably suspected offense and the apparent need for immediate capture against the risks to officers, innocent motorists and others.”
Other Southland communities have their own pursuit policies.
In Tinley Park, to initiate a high-speed pursuit, an officer must determine if someone in the vehicle has committed a crime involving death or great bodily harm.
“It has to be an upper-level crime,” Tinley Park Police Chief Steve Neubauer said.
Those being pursued must be attempting to escape using a deadly weapon, or indicate that they are endangering someone else’s life or may inflict great bodily harm unless they are detained.
“They are rare now. In my long history in law enforcement, chases used to be quite prolific back in the day. That’s why we had these policies put in,” Neubauer said.
Oak Lawn police Division Chief Roger Pawlowski said the department’s pursuit policy requires officers to consider many factors, one being ”the seriousness of the offense.”
Policies around the nation were reviewed before Oak Lawn adopted its policy, he said.
“A supervisor monitors the pursuit (on the radio) and if the supervisor decides it’s too trivial to carry on, they are required to terminate it. If you are in a physical pursuit, you are responsible,” Pawlowski said.
“We’re happy with this,” he said of the department’s policy. “It’s very professional.”
Deborah DeWitt is glad such policies are in place, and hopes they prevent another tragedy.
“This is not about the money,” she said of her letter to the police. “This is about making sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
She smiles when she recalls how she and Brian would see movies together, and how he’d playfully torment his sisters as brothers often do.
His room has not been redecorated, she said, excusing herself during an interview to dab tears with a tissue.
DeWitt avoids driving down 95th Street, lest she pass that intersection. She often drives down 111th Street to Casimir Cemetery to visit her son’s grave near Marist High School, which Brian attended before he transferred to Morgan Park High School.
At the grave, there’s a plastic container that holds three spiral notebooks filled with messages from Brian’s family and friends. “Forever in our hearts” is inscribed on his gravestone.