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Police were ordered off pursuit before fatal crash, union says

Baltimore police are conducting a criminal investigation into whether officers followed orders to end their pursuit of a sedan before it was involved in a fatal crash this week, a police union attorney said Friday.

Michael Davey, the lawyer representing the officers who were in a unmarked car that was attempting to stop the sedan, said they acted appropriately and obeyed orders as soon as they received them. Three people died in the fiery accident early Tuesday at Northern Parkway and York Road, and another was critically injured.

"When they were notified to break it off, they did," he said. "We've also heard information coming from the department that the officers were told to break it off. We're sure that will be investigated, and ... we believe the officers were acting within policy, based on the information they had in hand."

Police confirmed that a criminal investigation into the conduct of two officers is underway. Lt. Eric Kowalczyk, a police spokesman, declined to discuss whether any orders were given to the officers. He said police do not want to "taint" the inquiry, in which city prosecutors are also involved.

The Baltimore Police Department's policy prohibits officers from chasing suspects in vehicles except under "exigent circumstances," such as when officers believe that failing to pursue could lead to injury or death. Before police can engage in a high-speed pursuit, agency policy says, officials must consider whether the hazards to pedestrians and other drivers are outweighed by the importance of catching the suspect.

Officers are supposed to communicate with supervisors before they begin a pursuit, remain in contact and use their lights and siren. Police are looking into whether the officers followed those protocols, Davey said.

Angel Chiwengo, 46 of Resisterstown was one of three people killed in the crash when the sedan slammed into a Jeep she was riding in. Relatives say she was on her way to see her pregnant daughter, who gave birth later that day. Her brother-in-law, Nathan Franklin, declined to comment on the new details, saying he would reserve opinions until he had more information.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who represents the Northeastern police district where officers first encountered the vehicle, said police must "make sure that everybody is following their orders."

"Just the fact that we had people die in this incident, for me, makes it a high priority," Scott said. "Every rock needs to be turned over to make sure that every process was followed to ensure the safety of not just the victims who unfortunately passed away, but of everyone else on the road that night."

Just past midnight on Tuesday, plainclothes officers from the Northeastern District were in a rental car when they observed what police described as "suspicious activity that was criminal in nature" near Harford Road and East 25th Street.

Police said they tried to stop a Honda carrying two men. The car fled, and the officers "followed," police said. The agency has declined to say whether the officers were in what police would describe as either a pursuit or chase.

The Honda collided with the white Jeep about four miles north, at York Road and Northern Parkway. The crash also killed both passengers in the Honda: Devell Johns, 26, and Terrell Young, 28. The Jeep's driver, 54-year-old Andrew Baker Jr., was critically injured.

The fiery crash closed the busy intersection for 10 hours while police launched an intensive probe that included repeated landings by a police helicopter carrying crash investigators.

Police say the officers involved were Adam Storie, a two-year veteran, and Warren Banks II, a five-year veteran.

Christopher Henard, a three-year veteran, was also involved, but Kowalczyk said "he is not part of the review that we asked the state's attorney to conduct." Kowalczyk did not return an email asking what role Henard played in the pursuit or why prosecutors weren't asked to criminally investigate him.

Davey said supervisors did ask the officers to halt their pursuit — and that the officers complied.

"That is what we've been told," he said, "and that is what our officers did."

Davey said he is aware police are investigating the crash to see whether officers committed any crimes, whether they should face administrative sanctions and whether the department or officers could face any lawsuits.

He has advised his clients not to speak to investigators until he knows more about the police probe. He said one of the officers has been asked to speak to internal investigators but declined, and the two others have not been asked.

Davey called all three good officers and said the Fraternal Order of Police stood firmly behind them.

"It's a horrendous incident," Davey said. "None of them ever wanted to be in a position like this. Whether it's them or some other police officer, they have to make decisions in a split second that other citizens don't have to make."

Kowalczyk said tapes of radio chatter prior to the crash, which are usually public record and could shed light on what took place before the crash, are being withheld pending the investigation based on a request from the Baltimore City state's attorney's office.

"We're going to be as careful and as meticulous and as diligent in this investigation as we have to be to make sure we protect the integrity of it," he said.

The early-morning crash brought a huge response to the scene. Among others, Maryland State Police confirmed that Baltimore police requested about 2:45 a.m. that the state police's crash team respond to the accident. Two state police crash team members arrived at the scene about 4 a.m.

"When they arrived, they were told by BPD their assistance was not needed, so they left," said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, in an email. "MSP was given no information about the incident."

Davey said a prosecutor from the state's attorney's office was also at the crash site as part of the investigation.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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