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03-14-06, 09:54 PM #1
More police chase controversy, this time brought to you by Albany (N.Y.) P.D.
ALBANY -- Two Albany police officers have been served with disciplinary charges for a high-speed chase last September in which a bystander was critically injured as the suspect's car slammed into his pickup truck.
It is believed to be the first time that officers on the 340-member force have been punished for their actions in a car chase since the department revised its pursuit policy last year as police officials sought to curb pursuits that endanger the public.
"Two officers have been served with disciplinary charges," Chief James Tuffey said Monday, declining further comment. He said state civil service law prohibits authorities from divulging the details of disciplinary proceedings against police officers or disclosing the identities of the officers.
Department sources told the Times Union the disciplinary charges include a recommendation that the officers both be suspended. One officer was served with charges Friday, and the other over the weekend. The suspensions will not take place immediately if the officers challenge the measures through an arbitration proceeding, officials said.
If they seek arbitration, "the penalty doesn't take effect until an independent arbitrator hears the case or it's settled by a plea bargain," Tuffey said.
The crash took place at a time when city police had pledged to clamp down on officers who violated strict new pursuit policies designed to protect the public. Days after the crash, former Chief James Turley said he ordered an investigation to determine whether the policies were violated.
Officer Christian M. Mesley, president of the Albany Police Officers Union, said the union believes the officers followed departmental policies.
"We believe that the disciplinary charges against them are inappropriate," Mesley said.
"As a matter of public safety, we believe the public would support the need for us to pursue people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs."
Tuffey, who took over the department in December, said his intention is not to confuse the rank and file about when to chase a suspect. Rather, he said, officers and supervisors are expected to make sharp decisions on when to abandon chases and when they should continue.
So far this year, at least two pursuits in the city have been terminated. In one chase involving a stolen car, an assistant chief called off the pursuit and the suspect was arrested the following day as a result of investigative police work.
"Most every time the officers make good judgment calls," Tuffey said. "We're not trying to send a message to quell them."
The suspect in the pursuit last year that led to the internal charges, 34-year-old June MacMillan of Green Island, pleaded guilty Thursday in Albany County Court to a felony assault charge and driving while intoxicated. Under a plea agreement, she faces five years in prison at her sentencing next month.
The pursuit reached speeds of 80 mph as it wended from Arbor Hill into Loudonville, along Route 9 and onto Old Niskayuna Road. Authorities estimate MacMillan was traveling in excess of 75 mph when her car hit a pickup truck being driven by 41-year-old Charles Sims of Colonie.
In a lawsuit filed recently against the city, Sims accuses police of reckless behavior and negligence.
In an interview last week, Sims said his recovery has been difficult and that his goal is to be able to walk without a cane. He spent months in a wheelchair and on crutches after one of his legs was nearly destroyed from the impact. That afternoon, he was on his way to mow his mother's lawn, he said.
The incident began just before 2 p.m. Sept. 11 in West Hill. According to an account provided by police, Officer Michael Seney was responding to a gun-related call when he spotted MacMillan driving "erratically" in a gold Buick sedan. Seney was calling in MacMillan's license plate number to a dispatcher when she drove away against his orders.
Officer Pat Fox, who is a traffic safety officer and was driving a new police cruiser designed for high-speed pursuits, joined the pursuit and took the lead in the chase.
Just north of St. Gregory's, a private school on Old Niskayuna Road, MacMillan lost control on a curve as her car slammed into Sims' pickup.
"The real person to blame here is Ms. MacMillan," said Mesley, the union president. "It's her actions and her actions alone that caused the events on that particular day. It's her fault that Mr. Sims was injured and not the fault of the officers involved in this pursuit."
Two years ago, the department changed its pursuit and deadly force policies after a 24-year-old bystander was shot to death on New Year's Eve 2003 by an officer who opened fire on the car of a fleeing drunken driver.
The new policies require officers to balance the need to capture a suspect against the danger to the public. The rules also require officers to weigh several factors before and during a vehicle pursuit. They include the "seriousness of the offense," their ability to catch the suspect at a later time, and the potential for harm to the public or property during a high-speed chase.
In addition, pursuits are prohibited if the risk posed by the chase "outweighs the potential harm threatened by the escape of the suspect," the policy states.
The city's policy is far stricter than those of other area departments. In fact, State Police, many sheriff's departments and other area police forces routinely chase suspects at high speeds, often in pursuits that end in serious crashes.
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