KC Police Chief: ‘To this day, I have no idea why that accident occurred’
Two days after an off-duty Kansas City police officer caused a fatal wreck on Interstate 435, many questions remain unanswered about why the officer was driving a Police Department vehicle that day.
Police officials said Tuesday they did not know the specific reasons why the officer was driving a department van to an off-duty job at Arrowhead Stadium.
The crash, which occurred when the van rear-ended a family’s car in heavy traffic before the Kansas City Chiefs game, killed a Shawnee Mission South High School senior and left two of the student’s family members seriously injured.
The officer, who was injured in the wreck, has not yet given a statement to investigators, Police Chief Rick Smith said Tuesday.
Smith said he did not know what off-duty role the officer had at the stadium and that there was no indication that the officer was impaired.
“I still to this day have no idea why that accident occurred,” Smith said. “I just wanted the community, the city and the public to know that our integrity is above reproach and we want everyone to know what we are going to do here is thorough and professional.”
The Police Department has brought in the Missouri Highway Patrol to help with the investigation. Once complete, the findings will be presented to Jackson County prosecutors to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.
The highway patrol has the police van involved in the crash “in storage under camera so that no one else has been allowed to touch it,” Smith said.
It is common for officers to use department vehicles while working off-duty, he said.
The specific reason why the officer drove the van to his off-duty assignment at Arrowhead will be reviewed once the investigation is complete, said police spokesman Sgt. Jacob Becchina.
Department policy allows officers to drive police vehicles while off-duty, he said.
At Arrowhead, the van could have been used to transport referees or players, to block traffic, or for other security-related purposes.
“You know it is a big operation on game day, having 80,000 people show up at one location takes some coordination and it takes some resources,” Chief Smith said.
By having the off-duty officers present with their vehicles, it frees up the department from using the vehicles of on-duty officers at the stadium, Smith said.
The officer involved in the wreck is assigned to the Police Athletic League, where he serves as a mentor and youth coach. He has been with the department for six years. The Police Department has not released his name.
Officers assigned to the police athletic league have access to department vans for trips away from the athletic league center, Becchina said.
“During these times the officers are considered “on duty” as part of their responsibilities of their assignment at PAL.”
It is unclear if the officer had been on duty or had worked another off-duty assignment prior driving to the stadium. Becchina said that also is part of the investigation.
The Police Department is self-insured, which means it doesn’t have an insurance policy to cover the wreck. The department would be responsible for paying any damage claims or legal settlements arising from the crash.
Tom Porto, a civil attorney who has represented clients who have sued the Police Department, said the department may be liable for damages if it is determined the officer was working at the stadium in his capacity as a police officer.
One question, Porto said, is whether the officer was driving to the stadium from his home or directly from the Police Department.
“This is a tragedy. But again there is going to be a lot of argument and a lot of different facts to be taken into consideration to determine ultimately where liability lays,” Porto said.
The crash happened about 4 p.m. in slow-moving traffic on Interstate 435 just south Stadium Drive.
Killed in the wreck was 17-year-old Chandan Rajanna, who was driving his father and sister to Arrowhead for the game.
The Rajanna family’s car was rear-ended by the police van driven by the off-duty officer.
Chandan’s father Krishna Rajanna, 81, remained hospitalized Tuesday at Truman Medical Center. His sister Lisa Allen suffered a brain injury and family members said they were not sure about her recovery.
Chandan was the youngest of five. He was a cornerback for the Shawnee Mission South Raiders football team and was set to graduate in the spring.
Chief Smith expressed his condolences to the family and said the aftermath of the wreck has been hard for the officer’s co-workers, too.
Police are used to responding to people in peril, but in this instance the peril was caused by one of their own, Smith said.
“I am not taking anything away here of what happened; what I am saying it tragic all the way around,” he said.