High speed stakes: Innocent people caught up in police pursuits

More innocent people are getting hurt and killed than suspects in Phoenix-area high-speed chases, so what's being done to reverse that trend?
Published: Nov. 2, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST|Updated: Nov. 3, 2023 at 5:43 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Arizona’s Family Investigates found the number of high-speed police chases has gone up in recent years with devastating consequences. Over the last decade 111 people have been killed in crashes that result from these pursuits. New numbers show innocent people, not the suspect or officer that are hurt.

These dangerous chases happen at all times of day and night, often at high speeds.

Authorities try to intervene like when a trooper used a PIT maneuver on Loop 101 in Scottsdale back in August. But it didn’t stop the driver.

“10/4 vehicle is trying to go the wrong way southbound,” you hear a trooper say in radio traffic. “We need to get a helicopter. He’s going to cause a head on,” another says.

He ultimately crashed into several cars, injuring four innocent people.

Then there’s the catastrophic head on crash that ended a police chase in Tempe back in 2018.

“Then all of a sudden I saw the vehicle in front of me they just sped out of the way,” Alicia Lewis, the woman injured in the collision told investigators.

Police tried unsuccessfully boxing in the suspect. He sped away.

Lewis told authorities she never saw it coming.

“I saw like a redish, maroon color SUV just slam directly into me,” she said.

She suffered a broken hand and foot. But others haven’t been as fortunate.

“The man in the pick-up was ejected and killed. An innocent victim of circumstance,” a former KOLD reporter said.

This is the aftermath of a high speed police chase that turned deadly.

“It was devastating. You don’t lose a kid, you know. It’s not right. Especially that way,” Eilene Rowley, the mother of the man killed said.

Her son, Ronnie Papanikolas was 31 years old.

“He was the most loving, generous, kid that you could ever imagine, well to me he was a kid… He would do anything for anyone,” Rowley said.

Rowley said he was in the Tucson area for work in November 2010. The Department of Public Safety or DPS was chasing a suspect who rammed into Ronnie’s pickup from behind on I-10.

Rowley said her son was doing everything right. “Yeah, yeah, he pulled over to the right like he was supposed it. It shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have happened,” she explained.

Rowley hired attorney Nasser Abujbarah and sued DPS.

Abujbarah has handled several cases like this and claims troopers should never have been chasing the suspect, Joel Morando of Tucson. They pulled him over for a traffic violation when he sped off, troopers followed.

“They could have found him very quickly and if he didn’t engage Ronnie would not have been involved in that crash,” Abujbarah said.

According to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System or FARS, Ronnie was one of three innocent bystanders killed in police chases in Arizona in 2010.

Since then the number of police chases has climbed along with the number of deaths. In 2021, 10 innocent people died, none of them involved in the pursuits.

“It is the most difficult part of this job,” Abujbarah said.

A new report by the Department of Justice recommends that pursuits should only take place when an officer is aware a violent crime has been committed or when the suspect poses an imminent threat to commit another violent crime. Dozens of local, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies support the findings.

“It’s not as though we’re saying don’t ever pursue, but we’re saying if you’re going to pursue make sure it’s for the right reasons,” Chuck Wexler, the Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum said.

They helped develop the report.

“Make sure there’s adequate training, there’s adequate supervision, and you’re, you’re prepared,” Wexler said.

According to DPS’ policy, the trooper “shall terminate pursuits when the risks outweigh the need for immediate apprehension of the suspect.” They list 11 factors to consider, including danger to life and property, the nature of the crime and their training. But the decision to chase is largely left to the trooper.

“The rules that we give our police officers are just not as clear as they should be,” Abujbarah said.

Arizona’s Family Investigates asked if the crash involving Ronnie happened now, would this trooper be within the guidelines to pursue that suspect. “Yes, because they’re so vague,” Abujbarah responded.

Troopers found 150 pounds of marijuana in Morando’s car. Jurors convicted him of possession and transportation of the drugs along with criminal damage and fleeing from law enforcement. But they deadlocked on all the charges connected to Ronnie’s death. A judge sentenced Morando to 13 and a half years behind bars.

Arizona’s Family Investigates asked Eilene in her mind, who was responsible for the crash that killed her son. “My mind, personally, the troopers. Definitely the troopers,” she said.

In the end, Eilene settled her lawsuit with DPS.

“I’d rather have my son back than the money,” she said.

DPS declined to be interviewed. Here’s the statement they provided:

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