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After Fatal Thanksgiving Crash, DA Calls For Standardized Police Chase Policy

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said the deaths of three people in a car who were struck on Thanksgiving by a fleeing suspect could have been avoided if the police departments involved went about it differently.

An East McKeesport police officer pulled 22-year-old Demetrius Coleman over following an alleged traffic violation and learned he was wanted on a felony drug offense. As the officer processed the arrest, Coleman allegedly sped away, possibly reaching 100 miles per hour.

The effort to avoid arrest ended when the suspect’s car struck another, killing a family of three.

Zappala said the incident highlights the need for a uniform police chase policy that includes the use of technologies that prevent drivers from fleeing.

“I’m serious about using this stuff,” Zappala said of using tools such as Stop Sticks, which deflate tires if a suspect tries to drive away. “If you don’t and if… death results, you better expect you’re going in front of at the very least an investigating grand jury to take a look at whether or not you’ve created a crime.”

Zappala said his office would purchase the $140 Stop Stick devices for departments that do not have them.

Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA
90.5 WESA
A Stop Stick, which can deflate a car tire making it impossible for a suspect to flee in a car, sit on District Attorney Stephen Zappala's conference table.

He said he cannot enforce any standard policy, but will continue to speak to police departments about the need for such devices and clear chase policies.

“This is my expectation,” he said. “You will not pursue unless it’s a violent felony. You will not pursue unless a child or some hostage situation is in play. If you’re going to make motor vehicle stops, I want to know why you’re not using this type of technology.”

Zappala said he’s not currently pursuing criminal charges against the officers involved, but said there is legal precedent to charge officers with involuntary manslaughter if they are reckless during chases that result in death. He said he doesn’t think the officers were reckless in this case.

An East McKeesport officer made the initial traffic stop. The police chief of that department has not commented on the municipality’s chase policy.

Zappala said he would also like to see the position of Watch Commander created at the county level to manage multi-jurisdiction chases. The commander would be in touch with all first responders near a chase with the goal of moving officers into path of the fleeing suspect rather than just chasing from behind. That recommendation has not been implemented by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who did not comment for this story.

Then District Attorney’s office has purchased drones to help with investigations that Zappala said could also be useful in monitoring chases.