Two Independence police chases on 23rd Street killed victims
When a high-speed Independence police chase on June 1 led west along 23rd Street into Kansas City and ended in a wreck that killed and injured innocent bystanders, the crash might have seemed familiar.
Almost the exact same thing had happened about four years earlier.
The earlier wreck occurred on January 13, 2014, when a speeding driver fleeing an Independence police pursuit along the same street also crossed into Kansas City and crashed into another car, killing a 35-year-old man and injuring two passengers.
To settle the resulting lawsuits, the city of Independence paid more than $767,000.
Now, after a similar wreck has killed four people and injured four others, Independence police and city officials are facing questions about how officers choose to pursue despite the risk to the public.
Since the 1990s, many law enforcement agencies around the country, including the Kansas City Police Department, have decided to restrict dangerous car chases to situations where a violent felony or a threat to public safety is in play.
Independence police have not made that change, keeping a policy that largely allows officers to pursue whenever they see fit.
Independence police have said that a third of their vehicle pursuits that ended in an arrest last year were for stolen autos — as was the case in the chase and wreck on June 1 that killed, among others, a young father on the way to see his newborn daughter.
"Just ask the families if it's worth it," said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina who studies police pursuits and served as an expert witness in a lawsuit over the 2014 wreck.
"In the mid-90s we came to the conclusion that it's not worth chasing anything other than a violent criminal," Alpert said. "That's kind of the line in the sand."
Since then, Alpert said, the majority of U.S. police agencies tightened their pursuit policies. Research, including interviews with people who have run from police, has shown that when police stop chasing, the person fleeing slows down — lessening the danger.
Data from police chases show that 97 percent of suspects slow down within 90 seconds, Alpert said. Some of that information comes from StarChase, a GPS tracking system many police departments use to follow suspects remotely instead of chasing.
Since Independence police use StarChase too, they should have access to the same information, Alpert said.
The 2014 police pursuit started about 10:30 a.m. on a Monday, when Independence police officer Sean Allwood was working traffic enforcement at the intersection of 23rd Street and Hall Road.
When a Saab flew by at 75 mph, accelerating west on 23rd Street and almost hitting another vehicle, Allwood activated the lights and sirens on his unmarked police car and gave chase.
The Saab reached 100 mph as it crossed into Kansas City, with Allwood right behind it.
As the two cars passed Blue Valley Park, Allwood realized they were headed toward a series of intersections and he decided to stop the pursuit. At this point, the chase had covered nearly three miles in about two minutes, according to court documents.
Allwood turned off his lights and sirens and stopped at the stoplight at 23rd Street and Topping Avenue.
The Saab kept going for four blocks to 23rd and Hardesty Avenue, where it ran a red light and crashed into a Chevrolet.
The driver of the Chevrolet, 35-year-old Jason R. Lewis, a father of five, was killed. He had been driving some friends home from a trip to the grocery store. One passenger, a 35-year-old woman, was left in critical condition and a 17-year-old girl also was hospitalized.
The driver of the Saab, Andrew K. Stark, then 22 years old, walked away from the wreck but was arrested and prosecuted. He is serving a 15-year sentence in prison for second-degree murder and assault.
After the survivors and family members sued, the city of Independence paid $600,000 to Lewis' widow and $167,500 to the passengers, according to city records.
Independence police did not respond on Monday to questions about that wreck.
When asked about police pursuit policies in light of the June 1 wreck, the Police Department issued a statement saying it is department policy to "conduct vehicular pursuits as safely as possible, keeping the safety of the public as our highest priority.
"Officers use discretion when deciding whether or not to pursue a fleeing vehicle," the June 4 statement said. "When a vehicle pursuit has begun, the officer continually evaluates the importance of continuing while weighing the risk to public safety versus the need to apprehend the suspect(s)."
The June 1 police pursuit began shortly before 4 p.m. when two Independence police officers on patrol near 23rd Street and Ralston Avenue spotted a Jeep that had been reported stolen.
When the officers tried to pull the Jeep over, it sped away. They put on their lights and sirens and pursued it west on 23rd Street — just as the officer had done in the 2014 chase.
The police car sped up to 90 mph but was still not gaining on the Jeep, which moved out of sight hundreds of yards away.
Before police saw the Jeep again, it had smashed into a Dodge Avenger at the intersection of 23rd Street and Television Place.
Three people in the Dodge would die from the wreck: Shawn Johnson Jr., 30; Anthony A. Belton Jr., 24; and AaRon Daniel, 29, who was on his way to see his new daughter, born two days earlier. Another passenger was injured.
Also killed was a passenger in the Jeep, Amanda Perry, 27, of Independence.
The driver of the Jeep, 24-year-old Victoria M. Brown of Kansas City, was injured and has been charged with three counts of second-degree murder.
This wreck was less than two miles from the site of the 2014 crash, on the same road.
Alpert, the police pursuit expert, was not surprised that it had happened again.
"If you keep chasing someone, yeah, it's predictable that there's going to be a collision unless someone stops," he said. "And unfortunately for us as citizens, the bad guys don't play by the rules and the police have to be the adults."