Austin Police on Monday said that after an initial review, it appears that police pursuing alleged car thief Reynaldo Victor Hernandez, Jr., did so within the limits of the department's pursuit policy. But would 32-year-old James Williford have lived had the police chosen not to pursue Hernandez as he fled Barton Creek Square Mall on June 15?
That question that has sparked controversy on the radio and in online forums in the wake of Williford's killing, directly caused by Hernandez's decision to speed through a red light at the intersection of West Ben White Boulevard and Pack Saddle Pass as he led police on a high-speed chase in South Austin.
According to police, eyewitnesses on Friday afternoon called 911 to report seeing a Silver Ford F-250 being burglarized in the mall parking lot. The burglary turned to theft after those witnesses reported seeing someone return and take the vehicle. As the man, later identified as Reynaldo Victor Hernandez, left the parking lot, witnesses called dispatch to fill police in on which way he was heading, Assistant Chief Sean Mannix said during a Monday afternoon press conference. Thus, it didn't take long for police "to locate and get behind the F-250" as it sped away from the mall and onto Capital of Texas Highway heading toward Ben White Blvd. As he fled in the truck, police say that Hernandez put on the gas, speeding along at roughly 80 mph while making erratic lane changes (without using his turn signals) and driving on the shoulder in an effort to get ahead of traffic. He ran through at least one red light, Mannix said, before tearing through another, where he struck James Williford's white Mitsubishi Lancer, killing him. Hernandez then fled the vehicle on foot, running into a nearby store where he was caught while trying to change his clothes. In all, the incident lasted roughly 90 seconds from the time Hernandez got behind the wheel of the stolen truck to when Williford, an "innocent bystander," was struck and killed, Mannix said.
Indeed, according to Mannix, Hernandez was driving so fast and so dangerously that he was already getting far enough ahead of the police pursuit by two officers that the officers were within seconds of calling off the pursuit altogether. While Hernandez may have been able to play fast-and-loose with traffic laws, Mannix noted, officers are not allowed to do so, regardless whether they're involved in a pursuit. In fact, Hernandez was able to put enough distance between himself and the officers that the police in-car cameras did not record the collision; the pursuing police didn't know the crash had happened until they came upon the scene in the Pack Saddle Pass intersection. As such, Mannix said, it was clearly Hernandez, and not the police, who caused the fatal collision. Hernandez now faces a murder charge, among others.
But was the tragic outcome exclusively Hernandez's fault?
That's the question that has sparked debate on the airwaves and in online comments about the story. Critics suggest that had APD allowed Hernandez to flee it could later use other tactics – intersection cameras or cameras at private businesses, for example, or the police radio communications system to radio with other officers along the route Hernandez was taking – in order to catch him later. (Mannix said at the Monday press conference that police can wait and obtain arrest warrants at a later time when they know a suspect's identity, but that in the case of Hernandez, who is suspected of being responsible for multiple car thefts, police didn't know who he was and needed to catch him to ID him.) Indeed, there may be some evidence to back up the idea that a chase merely begets a chase. According to data compiled in a March 2010 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, one of every 100 police chases ends in a fatality; 42% of the time those are "innocent third parties who just happened to be in the way." In a National Institute of Justice-funded study that included interviews of suspects who'd fled from policy, 75% said they were "willing to slow down when they felt safe" – that is, once they were away from the lights and siren, or approximately two blocks ahead while driving in town, and 2.5 miles ahead of police on the highway. The same study revealed that 32% of suspects who flee from police were driving stolen vehicles at the time and 28% had a suspended license; 27% fled a crime scene or to avoid arrest.
In the current situation, Mannix said police have made their preliminary review of the fatal June 15 police chase and have determined that the officers pursuing Hernandez acted within the parameters of the APD's 12-page pursuit policy. The incident will be subject to an extensive "pursuit critique" by the officers' chain of command and will also be subject to a use-of-force review board, staffed by officers outside the chain of command. Police Chief Art Acevedo told KLBJ-AM morning show hosts that the APD's policy is in fact one of the most strict in the country, allowing police only to pursue in cases where a felony (including car theft) has occurred or is occurring (conversely, according to the FBI LEB, the majority of pursuits across the country involve a stop for a traffic violation). Moreover, Acevedo and Mannix have countered, to have a "no pursuit" policy essentially offers criminals a get-away-with-it pass.
In the end, Mannix told reporters, it was Hernandez, not the police, who caused Williford's death. "Our hearts, collectively, go out the the family of Mr. Williford," he said, "the innocent person who was killed as a result of Mr. Hernandez's actions."
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