ROCKPORT, Maine — A December high-speed chase involving a veteran, part-time town police officer that preceded a violent car crash in Union that killed two teens may have violated state and town policies regarding police pursuit.
Benjamin Gideon, an attorney for the mother of the passenger who died in the crash, said he intends to sue the officer and the town for negligence.
He accused the officer of violating the town’s policy and accepted police practices by engaging in the high-speed chase.
“I’m not saying the teen driver was not at fault, but the officer and the town share in the responsibility,” Gideon said.
Rockport police Chief Mark Kelley defended Officer Craig Cooley, however, and said Cooley acted appropriately when he pursued the speeding teen driver from Route 17 in Rockport onto Wotton’s Mill Road in Union.
A copy of police cruiser dashboard camera footage obtained by the BDN the shows that the police pursuit on Dec. 5 lasted about four minutes before the 2001 Subaru Outback, driven by 17-year-old Caleb Byras of Litchfield, crashed into a tree and split into two pieces on Wotton’s Mill Road. Byras and a passenger, 16-year-old Kara Brewer of Rockland, died at the scene. Another passenger, Emily Vitale, 17, of Warren, survived with injuries to one of her ankles.
Kelley said Cooley was traveling 70 to 80 mph along Route 17 and broke off the chase when he got onto the more narrow, winding Wotton’s Mill Road. The surviving passenger told police Byras was traveling about 110 mph just before the crash.
The speed limit on Route 17 along the 6-mile path of the chase varies from 40 to 55 mph. On Wotton’s Mill Road, the speed limit is 40.
Gideon, who represents Brewer’s mother, said he has 180 days from the crash to file a notice of intent to sue against the town Rockport, in order to preserve the opportunity to file a lawsuit. He plans to do so, he said, once an executor for Brewer’s estate is appointed by a probate judge.
Gideon said Cooley’s pursuit of Byras violated Rockport’s policy on police pursuits. That policy was adopted in September 2013 and is the same as the model recommended for all police departments in the state by the board of trustees of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
The policy states that only full-time law enforcement officers may participate in a high-speed pursuit.
Cooley is not certified as a full-time officer but as a part-time officer, according to John Rogers, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
Chief Kelley and Rockport Town Manager Richard Bates said Cooley has been a full-time employee with the local police department for nearly 20 years as a part-time officer and part-time administrative assistant.
Kelley did say Cooley has had emergency vehicle training put on by the Brunswick Police Department and yearly meets standards to work as a reserve officer.
The police policy also states that a law enforcement officer “shall not engage in high-speed pursuit if the operator is known” to the officer unless there is “a serious indication of further violent actions if not immediately apprehended.”
Further, it states that an officer “shall not pursue vehicles for Class D and E crimes or traffic violations, unless the conditions surrounding the pursuit are conducive to safe operation, management and due regard for the safety of the officer, the public, and the person or persons in the vehicle being pursued.”
In this case, Cooley had stopped Byras about an hour before the crash as Byras was driving alone heading into Rockland on Route 17 in Rockport. Cooley issued a speeding ticket to Byras for driving 74 mph in a 55-mph zone.
Then, about an hour later, Cooley reported spotting Byras and two passengers speeding along the same road heading in the opposite direction. During the second encounter, the cruiser dashboard camera video shows Cooley following the car and then Byras’ vehicle initially pulling over into the breakdown lane. But the car does not fully stop, and then with the cruiser’s flashing lights still illuminating the scene, it suddenly pulls back out into the road and takes off.
No audio can be heard on the video, but according to a transcript of the conversation between the dispatcher and Cooley, the officer recognized it was the same vehicle he had stopped an hour before.
The chase lasted four minutes 13 seconds from when Byras sped off to when Cooley came upon the crash scene in Union, according to a review of the cruiser camera video.
As the chase unfolds along Route 17, the cruiser stays mostly in sight of Byras’ car, though the Subaru extends the distance between the two vehicles at times and even passes another car at one point.
As the cars approach Wotton’s Mill Road, Byras’ Subaru slows down to make the sharp left-hand turn, and the cruiser narrows the gap. Then the cruiser also slows to make the turn, and the Subaru again continues to gain ground before the camera loses sight of it.
One minute after losing sight of the tail lights, the dashboard camera shows the cruiser coming upon the crash scene.
“I’m on Wotton’s Mill. I’ve lost, I’ve lost him now,” Cooley tells the dispatcher just moments before the crash, according to a transcript of the radio communication. “I’m just going to continue along cause the way he is ac … operating … yeah, I’ve got him right here in the trees.”
An independent investigation by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office concluded that excessive speed by Byras was the reason for the crash.
“It is the opinion and conclusion of this officer that speed was a major factor in the crash. If [the driver] had not been operating at a high/reckless rate of speed this crash would not have occurred,” Knox County Sheriff Deputy Paul Spear stated in his report. The report did not look into the officer’s pursuit other than noting that there was never any physical contact between the cruiser and pursued vehicle.
Retired South Portland police Chief Robert Schwartz, who is executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said the model policies put together by the association and the state criminal justice academy are only suggested. Individual departments do not have to adopt them.
He said violations of policies are issues to be handled by the individual departments. He said the policies are just that, and are not state law.
Schwartz, who was chief for 11 years, said he required that any of his officers call in and get approval from a supervisor before getting involved in a chase. He said the factors to consider are many that include time of day, amount of traffic, weather conditions, road conditions and reason for the pursuit. But in the end, he acknowledged, officers sometimes have to make a judgment call and have a lot of leeway.
“Sometimes when an officer gets involved in a chase, you get kind of wrapped up in the moment,” Schwartz said, which is why supervisors in his department had the authority to call off any chase.
Camden police Chief Randy Gagne said in his second year as chief, he amended the department’s pursuit policy to require that an officer get approval from a supervisor before engaging in a high-speed pursuit. He said in his experience as a supervisor he has not seen a need for a high-speed chase.
Schwartz said different communities have different views on the use of part-time officers. He said he used reserve officers, but they were not allowed to drive cruisers and would accompany another officer. The number of reserve officers used by his department declined during his 11 years as chief until it was down to just two when he retired.
The chiefs association executive director said the difference between a full-time and part-time officer in Maine is the amount of training. All officers must have completed at least a 100-hour course offered by the criminal justice academy. A full-time officer must complete an 18-week course.
That 18 weeks of training includes a weeklong course on emergency vehicle operation that Rogers of the academy says is very intensive. The course includes day and night driving education.
But Schwartz said even the 18-week course only scratches the surface and that on-the-job training under the supervision of more experienced officers is important.
Kelley and Bates have declined to comment on whether an internal investigation also was conducted or whether any administrative action was taken against Cooley.
Cooley has not responded to an email request for comment.