Crime

Like ‘Russian roulette’: Deputy’s crash that hurt man avoidable, pursuit experts say

The Jackson County sheriff’s deputy who crashed into a motorist while speeding through a red light without warning was clearly responsible for the wreck and likely violated the department’s pursuit policy, police chase experts said.

And the wreck, they said, was easily avoidable.

Sean Stoff, 34, was charged Wednesday with misdemeanor careless and imprudent driving in the 2018 crash that injured Christopher Reed, 30, of Raytown. Reed was thrown from his car by the impact and suffered extensive head injuries, a spinal injury and a broken clavicle.

Stoff on Thursday remained an employee with the sheriff’s office, which he joined in May 2014, according to Marshanna Hester, Jackson County’s spokeswoman. It was unclear what Stoff’s duties included.

Stoff’s county-issued vehicle plowed into Reed’s 1989 Chevrolet Caprice while chasing another car.

Geoff Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina who studies pursuits and watched dash camera video of the wreck for The Star, said there was no good reason Stoff continued the chase that led to the crash after deputies deployed a GPS tracker on the vehicle they were pursuing.

The tracking system, StarChase, allows dispatchers to view a vehicle’s location and speed in real time. The purpose is to allow deputies like Stoff to monitor a fleeing vehicle without chasing it.

“So why would you need to speed?” Alpert asked. “Why would you raise the risk to anyone?”

Another professor who watched the video, Dennis Kenney at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said StarChase was created to “avoid the very thing that happened here.”

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment Wednesday and Thursday. Sheriff Darryl Forté did not respond to a call or text from The Star. Attempts to reach Stoff were also unsuccessful.

But in a Facebook post Thursday evening, Forté said he became concerned last year about the department’s vehicle pursuit policy established months before he was elected, a worry shared by members of his office. Forté previously was chief of the Kansas City Police Department, which has a stricter policy.

Since the 1990s, law enforcement agencies across the country, including Kansas City police, have restricted dangerous chases to situations where the occupants have been involved in a violent felony or there is an immediate danger to the public.

But a number of police departments in the Kansas City area still allow officers to chase at high speeds for any infraction. And in the decade before 2015, there were more than 700 pursuit-related crashes in the metro area, The Star previously reported.

Forté suspended pursuits pending a policy review, he said.

After a review in March, commanders and deputies discussed ways to make pursuits safer, the sheriff said. The sheriff’s office established what Forté called a restrictive vehicle pursuit policy April 13.

The policy was changed to include guidelines that specify when deputies can initiate a chase.

Forté did not outline those new criteria in his post. The sheriff’s office did not respond to a public records request for its pursuit policy.

“The value of life and property must remain at the forefront of what we do, especially during vehicle pursuits,” the sheriff wrote.

The chase began May 9 when another deputy pursued a tan Buick because it had a damaged taillight and a search of its license plate showed an association with an active warrant in a missing person case, according to reports from the Missouri Highway Patrol.

Reed was making a left turn with a green light when the deputy hit his car about 1:35 a.m. at Missouri 350 and Maple Street in Raytown. Stoff was traveling 71 mph in a 45 mph zone after the chase was officially taken off an emergency status.

The Star on Wednesday obtained video from the dashboard cameras of two sheriff’s deputy vehicles showing the crash.

Reed had a strong case for a lawsuit, according to Kennedy, who has worked in criminal justice for more than 35 years, including as a Florida police officer. The deputy’s actions would be difficult to defend, he said.

“This is going to cost someone a lot of money,” Kennedy said.

When he was told deputies had already attached a GPS tracker to the fleeing vehicle, Kennedy responded: “That makes it worse.”

“This one just gets better and better,” the professor said.

Deputy Raashid Brown, the Jackson County sheriff’s spokesman, told KMBC-TV last year that suspects would not be able to run far thanks to the technology. When they follow suspects, he said, deputies “don’t necessarily need to be right up on them in a pursuit.”

Though the chase was taken off emergency status, Stoff continued driving at high speeds, according to highway patrol reports. When Stoff’s vehicle struck the passenger’s side of the Caprice driven by Reed, the impact spun the Caprice “violently in a counterclockwise fashion,” the highway patrol said.

Reed’s mother was following her son just before the crash. She can be seen in the video frantically searching for Reed in his car before realizing he was thrown to the other side of the street.

Alpert compared pursuing a suspect through a red light to playing Russian roulette. But doing so without emergency lights or sirens, giving no warning to the public, is like “playing Russian roulette with all cylinders full,” he said.

The co-author of a book on pursuits, Alpert said police cars are not considered emergency vehicles without some sort of caution, such as lights or sirens. This case was simple, he said: The wreck could have been avoided if the deputy did not run the red light.

Backing off pursuits reduces collateral risk, research shows. Interviews with people who have fled from law enforcement has shown once a suspect thinks they have gotten away, they slow down to try and blend in with the rest of traffic, Kenney said.

As of Thursday, the Jackson County deputy had a valid Class A peace officer license in Missouri.

Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said the regulatory program responsible for licensing peace officers was aware of the wreck.

The department’s director does not have the discretion to suspend or revoke an officer’s license by herself. That process involves a standards and training investigation that is brought to the Missouri Attorney General’s office. A complaint may then be filed with an administrative commission, which would conduct a hearing to determine if the director, Sandy Karsten, has cause to discipline.

Brett Burmeister, Reed’s attorney, said he was initially concerned the deputy would not face criminal charges, which Alpert called a legitimate worry. But many prosecutors would agree Stoff’s actions rose to the level of a crime, Alpert said.

“This is clearly inappropriate behavior,” Alpert said.

If convicted, Stoff could be sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to pay a $2,000 fine.

Kenney, the New York professor, said he would be shocked if Stoff did not violate departmental policy, which was unclear as of Thursday.

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Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.
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