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East County Thursday, May 12, 2022 1 month ago

Fatal crash illustrates pursuit's difficulty

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This particular accident was quite different in nature.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

The May 1 car accident resulted in death, and a short story for our website's readers, but it eventually hit me hard.

The lead of my story noted, "A 55-year-old Manatee County man died early Sunday morning (1:50 a.m.) in a one-car crash after the pickup he was driving east on University Parkway left the roadway and struck a tree."

Actually, I write these kind of stories much too often, but anyone who lives in our region understands the roads are a dangerous place to be.

Then I found out this particular accident was quite different in nature.

One of our readers called me to see if I had any additional information about the accident. He is an Uber driver who was making a delivery about 1:45 a.m. and was coming up to University Parkway on a side street. He said a dark colored pickup that was hauling a dark colored trailer ran a red light and almost "T-boned" his car.

He said the truck swerved to avoid him and then continued driving down the wrong side of the road. A few seconds afterward, he said, two police cars passed, one with its lights on and neither with a siren blaring. He said those cars were "kind of chasing" the pickup.

The caller said it seemed very odd because the driver obviously was a danger on the road.

I looked back to the Florida Highway Patrol report to see that the man driving the pickup eventually crashed at University Parkway just west of Medici Court. He drove off the roadway into the center median where he hit the tree and his truck was engulfed in flames. The man was pronounced dead at the scene.

FHP informed me that it was an open investigation and that therefore they couldn't provide any additional information.

Because the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office was involved with the case and shutting down the road afterward, I contacted its public information officer to see if I could get more details.

"At 12:30 a.m. May 1, Sarasota County Sheriff's Office deputies were notified by the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office of a black truck traveling northbound on Interstate 75. The driver had made indications he might be a danger to himself or others, so Sarasota County Sheriff's Office deputies attempted a traffic stop to check his welfare (on I-75)."

Unfortunately, the driver didn't stop and continued northbound into Manatee County, where he exited the interstate.

The information from the public information officer continued, "The driver did not stop and continued northbound into Manatee County where he exited the interstate. In an abundance of caution, SCSO deputies canceled the pursuit while maintaining visual contact from a safe distance with assistance from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. The driver eventually reentered Sarasota County, however when he began traveling northbound on Tuttle Avenue from Bahia Vista Street just after 1:30 a.m., SCSO deputies completely stopped following and were no longer involved. For actions taken by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, please contact their PIO for details."

OK, so I then called Manatee County Sheriff's Office Public Relations Officer Randy Warren, who sent me the following email.

"MSO’s Aviation tracked the driver allowing ground units to safely follow at a distance without endangering others west on SR 70 past U.S. 301. The vehicle ran several red lights without slowing as well as straddling lanes. After crossing U.S. 301, the vehicle made a U turn by jumping the curb and then proceeded south on U.S. 301 into Sarasota County. The vehicle continued reckless driving and running stop lights without reducing speed. At no time was a MCSO vehicle in pursuit or had blue lights activated. As MSO’s aviation unit followed, the driver continued to drive recklessly by running red lights without slowing, erratic lane changing and pulling in front of vehicles."

At this point, I thought about writing a column about the difficulties in obtaining information about accidents, especially those that obviously endangered anyone on the roads at that time. I know some law enforcement agencies tip-toe through laws that prevent them from issuing basic facts and simply are prevented from telling reporters like myself things they would love to reveal to the public.

Of course, some use current privacy laws to completely shut down the flow of information.

But then I started thinking about the law enforcement supervisors who had to make decisions about whether to chase down a suspect in cases similar to the May 1 incident. Wow.

I thought I could go right to the law enforcement officers themselves, but FHP and the Sarasota Sheriff's Office didn't have time for an interview.

Thankfully, Warren wanted to help. He put me in touch with Lt. Brad Johnson, who said he has been the supervisor who has had to make such a call many times.

He first talked about how pursuits had to be evaluated through policy and tactical evaluations. Decisions are made in what is determined to be minimal risk to public safety. As a supervisor, Johnson said, you have to collect as much information as possible from deputies at the scene.

"Do we allow it to continue or do we shut it down?" he said. "For us, we don't chase anything other than a felony. It has to be something much more serious. Then it involves time of day, the volume of traffic, is there a school zone? If we know who it is, we call it off so we can go after him or her in another way."

The "Watch Unit" or helicopter is one other way and that strategy was deployed by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office on May 1. Once the helicopter had eyes on the reckless driver, the mobile units backed off.

"If it is reckless driving, we are going to terminate," Johnson said. "Our folks encounter that all the time."

But what if a driver lets it be known they intend to injure themselves? It is a decision I certainly wouldn't want to make. How do you know the driver won't pick out another motorist, such as the Uber driver, and cause a head-on? How do you know it is less of a risk to close in? In the case of the May 1 incident, the driver died. Could he have been saved? Could you imagine having to live with those kind of decisions? Thank you, Lt. Johnson.

"We don't know what he or she is going to do," Johnson said. "We can't foresee the future. We take an educated guess. You err on the side of caution.

"Afterward, we do a lot of Monday Morning Quarterbacking. We do pursuit reports. It can weigh on you, but when I make a decision, I know I did it to try to save lives."

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