City to review fatal police chase

Lawrence official promises thorough probe of events, pursuit policy

City Manager Mike Wildgen said Thursday the city wouldn’t “gloss over” questions raised after a Tuesday night police pursuit turned deadly.

Wildgen plans to meet today with Police Chief Ron Olin to review whether officers followed department rules during the chase across Lawrence. And the city manager and his staff will review whether the department’s policy on pursuits is appropriate or needs to be changed.

“If there are questions that are unanswered, we’ll get them answered for us,” Wildgen said. “It won’t just be glossed over. It’s going to be thoroughly reviewed.”

Lawrence resident Judith Vellucci, 56, was killed Tuesday at the intersection of 31st Street and Nieder Road when a driver on the run from police, 19-year-old Nam Ouk Cho, of Lee’s Summit, Mo., slammed Vellucci’s car square in the driver’s side. Cho was charged with second-degree murder Thursday in Douglas County District Court. Judge Pro Tem Peggy Kittel set Cho’s bond at $150,000.

Not dissatisfied

Olin said Wednesday all officers involved in the chase followed department policy to the letter, and police officials say they think their policy is adequate. Wildgen said he was not dissatisfied with those statements — he just feels a responsibility to sit down with the chief and conduct his own investigation.

“I haven’t asked the questions that have to be answered yet,” he said. “I don’t review incidents by reading the newspaper stories.”

Police have said Cho was driving dangerously even without their pursuit — for example, by driving in oncoming lanes of traffic in the 1400 block of Massachusetts Street. They say that before striking Vellucci’s car, Cho sped off when an officer tried to stop him while westbound on Ninth Street, ripped through traffic signals at full speed, and swerved around spikes police had placed in the street near 22nd Street and Kasold Drive.

The department’s policy requires officers to call off a chase “if the safety concerns clearly override the necessity of the pursuit.” However, it does not contain specific examples or scenarios that might stop a chase.

Across the nation, advocates are pushing for more specific chase policies — for example, to pursue only violent felons and not traffic violators — but Lawrence Police say no listing of scenarios would be able to cover the real-life situations an officer encounters.

“I feel that it’s self-explanatory the way it’s said in the policy,” Sgt. Mike Pattrick, a department spokesman, said Wednesday.

Pulling the reins

Wildgen said he had received e-mail messages from people telling him he should “rein in” the department, given the outcome of the chase. The Journal-World received many of the same sorts of messages. But Wildgen said it was difficult for members of the public to imagine themselves in officers’ shoes.

“What if we’d just said, ‘Well, we’re not going to try to stop that guy’ and the same thing happens?” Wildgen asked. “Don’t tell me that we wouldn’t have been criticized in some way for just the reverse.”

He wouldn’t speak in detail about what questions he would ask Olin, and said the meeting would not be open to the public because it involved an internal staff review.

To put the inquiry in context, Wildgen cited examples of two police-related issues he has reviewed this year that are on a similar scale: the firing of an officer accused of lying to a judge to obtain a search warrant, and a lawsuit filed by the department’s sergeants claiming they were being denied overtime pay. But he said he also reviewed more trivial issues every day that the public never hears about.

“I’m doing what I normally do,” Wildgen said.