By Laura Bollin
The family of a Chicago teenager who was killed in 2010 when an Evergreen Park squad car traveling 90 miles an hour struck the vehicle he was driving has been awarded $2.5 million in a wrongful death settlement.
Brian DeWitt, of Chicago’s Morgan Park neighborhood, died Oct. 5, 2010 after the squad driven by an Evergreen Park police officer pursuing a speeder on 95th Street crashed into his car at the thoroughfare’s intersection with Central Park Avenue. The speed limit on 95th Street is 35 mph.
DeWitt’s mother, Deborah, had reportedly sued the department and the officer who was driving the police car. She has also sent a letter to the Evergreen Park Police Department asking for changes in the department’s policy about police pursuits.
Other area police departments have a no-pursuit policy, or ask officers to consider the safety of other drivers and pedestrians before starting a pursuit. The Oak Lawn Police Department’s policy states the “immediate apprehension of the subject is generally not more important than the safety of the public and pursuing officers,” and notes that pursuits can only be conducted while a police car has its lights and sirens activated. The Oak Lawn policy also has officers stop a pursuit if speeds have become “unreasonably unsafe.”
The squad car involved in the fatal crash in Evergreen Park was reportedly unmarked and did not have its lights or sirens activated.
In Hickory Hills, the only crimes for which police officers are allowed to pursue suspects are “forcible felonies” such as armed robbery or homicide. Lt. Tim Stevens said traffic offenders are not pursued.
“It has to be a serious offense against a person where there is the threat or harm or there has been great bodily harm,” Stevens said. “But if it’s 3 p.m. and there’s a burglary and the person is refusing to pill over, we will gather license plate information and identify the person later.”
A similar policy exists in Chicago Ridge. Police chief Robert Pyznarski said pursuits must meet two criteria: if the person presents a danger to human life or may cause serious injury; or if the alleged crime is violent, like a person with a gun shooting someone at a bank or convenience store.
The Palos Hills Police Department has a no-pursuit policy.
Deborah DeWitt could not be reached for comment for this story. Pursuit SAFETY, a California organization dedicated to changing pursuit policies and reducing the number of deaths from police pursuits has been working with the DeWitt family, said Candy Priano, the organization’s founder. Priano’s 15-year-old daughter, Kristie, died in 2002 when a police vehicle crashed into the family’s car on the way to a basketball game.
“Families are told it doesn’t happen that often, which doesn’t make us feel good,” Priano said. “It’s like we drew the unlucky lottery number. Our organization is not about ending pursuits. That would be an unrealistic goal. Our goal is to change the policies and reduce the deaths.”
Priano met with the DeWitt family in April 2011, and said Brian’s mother is now volunteering with the organization.
“We want to help the families and have the police catch these suspects another way, especially when they are not posing an immediate threat,” Priano said. “We would like to see police pursue people for violent crimes and only violent crimes, or immediate threats, like where someone is shooting a gun out of a car window. If they’re not an immediate threat, why should they do a chase? It puts civilians and police officers at risk.”