One month after three young men died in a fiery wreck with an officer, the South Fulton Police Department has a new police chase policy the chief hopes will “honor” the dead.
Like officers with other police agencies in the metro area, South Fulton’s cops will no longer be allowed to chase stolen vehicles simply because they are stolen. Officers will instead need another justification to explain why the fleeing person poses more danger to the public than a high-speed pursuit would.
Authorities have said officer Deonte Walker, 25, was chasing a stolen Mercedes Benz on Nov. 11 when he collided with a work van, which burst into flames on Ga. 138. Three men inside the van died. The Mercedes got away.
Chief Keith Meadows said Tuesday he had already rewritten the city’s policy on police chases in September, but that the city council had not voted on it before the wreck occurred. The council voted to approve the new policy on Nov. 27.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a copy of the new chase policy through an open records request.
“We’re constantly taking a step back and reviewing our policies,” Meadows told the AJC, expressing relief at the council’s vote. “But when something like this occurs, I think it’s (especially) important to review. We had to honor the memory of the people who died in that accident.”
According to the van’s driver, Gilmar Gomez-Lopez, 25, the officer blew through a red light and hit the GMC van while Gomez-Lopez was turning on a green. Gomez-Lopez and two of his passengers were injured, while the three more inside the van died at the scene.
The accident remains under investigation by the Georgia State Patrol, which has said charges are pending the outcome of the investigation.
The chief didn’t criticize his officer, but said he’s been talking with others in the ranks and encouraging them to be more careful.
“We’re in the process of training for that (new) policy — not just leaving to chance that the police officers will read it,” Meadows said.
Many questions remain on the wreck. Officials have said DNA testing, which can take months, is needed to confirm the identities of the victims. GSP’s initial report identifies them as Clemente Flores, 22, Marcus Martin, 22, and Camerino Sanchez-Hernandez, 20.
The South Fulton officer told State Patrol investigators he had his lights and siren on, but Gomez-Lopez, a Columbus resident, said he didn’t see lights or hear a siren.
South Fulton’s pursuit policy, which the chief said wascopied from Fulton County Police when the city was created this year, already said an officer involved in a chase must have his or her lights and siren on. Acknowledging that the investigation is now in the hands of the State Patrol, the chief said he’s heard that at least one witness saw the Walker’s lights and heard the siren.
South Fulton’s policy also already said officers in a chase must come to a complete stop at stop signs and traffic signals to ensure it’s safe to proceed. Gomez-Lopez’s statement to police suggest Walker violated that rule.
Other than the clarity on stolen cars, the policy remains largely unchanged. But that simple tweak puts the city police more in line with major departments around metro Atlanta, including Gwinnett County, DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta, which all prohibit stolen car chases unless there’s another significant reason to pursue. Georgia has no statewide standard on chases.
“Most importantly, officers have to be trained when to engage, when not to engage,” said LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, who recently served as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “A pursuit in a stolen vehicle might make sense at 1 in the morning in a rural area. It might not make sense during 5 o’clock traffic (elsewhere).”
What started the chase is still unclear. GSP’s initial crash report suggests the men inside the Mercedes-Benz may have stolen a woman’s cell phone at the Raceway on Ga. 138. The city has not fulfilled an open records request for a report on the alleged phone theft.
When the cruiser hit the van, another South Fulton officer, Corey Blalock, who had been trying to catch up to the pursuit, saw a ball of fire. Blalock helped Walker from the car and has since returned to work, the chief said.
Walker and Blalock both came to South Fulton Police earlier this year after voluntarily resigning from the Fulton County Police Department, according to the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.
The city has repeatedly declined to say whether Walker has been on paid leave since the wreck, but Meadows confirmed Tuesday that he is on paid leave.
The AJC obtained Walker’s South Fulton personnel file, which shows no disciplinary issues.
The chief said whether Walker is disciplined for the pursuit will depend on the results of the state patrol’s investigation, as well as an internal one by the city.
Meantime, Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said he was pleased to hear South Fulton changed its pursuit policy, because chases can be so dangerous on metro Atlanta’s congested roads.
“It’s commendable the chief had the forethought to change the policy,” Rotondo said Tuesday. “It is regrettable the policy wasn’t implemented more quickly.”
Data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.