ROCKPORT, Maine — The town has hired a firm that specializes in police operations to review the town’s policies concerning high-speed pursuits in the wake of a Dec. 5 chase that ended with a car crash in Union that killed two teens.
Rockport Town Manager Richard Bates said Wednesday that the town’s attorney Melissa Hewey of Drummond Woodsum has hired the consulting firm of Municipal Resources Inc. of Meredith, New Hampshire, to review the police department’s policies and make recommendations as a result of those findings.
The town manager said this review is the result of the chase and crash in December and the questions raised about whether Rockport police Officer Craig Cooley adhered to the pursuit policy.
Cooley pursued a car driven by 17-year-old Caleb Byras of Litchfield after the teen failed to stop for Cooley on Route 17 in Rockport. The chase lasted about four minutes before the 2001 Subaru Outback driven by Byras 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.
Cooley had issued a ticket to Byras about an hour earlier for driving 74 mph in a 55-mph zone on the same road.
Benjamin Gideon, an attorney for Brewer’s mother, said earlier this month he intends to sue the officer and the town for negligence. He has 180 days from the date of the crash to submit a formal notice of intent to sue.
He accused the officer of being negligent and 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 earlier this month.
Rockport police Chief Mark Kelley defended Cooley, however, and said Cooley acted appropriately when he pursued the speeding teen driver.
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 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.
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.”
According to a transcript of the conversation between the dispatcher and Cooley, the officer recognized Byras’ car as it drove through Rockport the second time and noted it was the same vehicle he had stopped an hour before.
Further, the policy 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.”
The chase began after Cooley said he saw the Subaru speeding back through Rockport about an hour after he had first issued a speeding ticket to Byras.
Cooley pulled out behind the Subaru and a dashboard camera in the cruiser captured video of what happened next. The video obtained by the BDN 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. 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- [sic] … operating … yeah, I’ve got him right here in the trees.”
Cooley has not responded to an email request for comment.
There is no timetable for the outside consultant report to be completed.