By Eric Stevick and Rikki King Herald Writers
EVERETT — For the second time in two weeks, a local police department is planning an internal review after a pursuit ended in the death of an innocent bystander.
On Friday night, it was a Lynnwood man, 72, whose van was hit broadside after a drug-impaired driver allegedly blew through a series of red lights during a police chase.
Shellie Rose Becker, 42, was arrested for investigation of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. The Bothell woman, also known as Shellie Rose Collins, was handcuffed to a wheelchair during a brief hearing Tuesday in Everett District Court. Her bail was kept at $250,000.
Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Tobin Darrow said Tuesday that he is considering charging her with first- or second-degree murder.
The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet released the identity of the victim.
Earlier this month, Rachael Kamin, 40, was killed in downtown Everett as she drove home from a late-night workshift. In that case, officers from Bothell followed a stolen pickup truck from south Snohomish County into downtown Everett where the driver allegedly smashed into her car. Joseph Strange, 33, is being held for investigation of first-degree murder. Kamin, a registered nurse, died in a Seattle hospital the next day, leaving behind her husband and two teenaged sons.
As Lynnwood police continue to investigate criminal allegations in connection with Friday night’s crash, they’re also examining the pursuit itself.
“We review every single pursuit,” Lynnwood police spokeswoman Shannon Sessions said.
In this case, Lynnwood Police Chief Steve Jensen wants the department’s Major Incident Review Board to look into what happened. The panel is used when there is a pursuit involving an injury, death, property damage or multiple jurisdictions. The committee will include the deputy chief, two commanders, a training sergeant, another supervisor not involved in the incident and two officers of the same rank as the pursuing officer.
Lynnwood police were involved in 10 vehicle pursuits in 2012 and nine the year before. They average about 10 a year.
“We do the best job we can in protecting public safety, but we don’t always know the outcome,” Sessions said. “We are upset how this ended and wish that it turned out differently, but the facts are these are career criminals and the driver is being investigated for being under the influence of drugs. She made bad choices along the way and unfortunately it ended up with her colliding with an innocent third party.”
Becker’s passenger, 53, suffered a broken arm.
The recent deaths in Snohomish County “very tragically illustrate the danger of high-speed chases,” said Doug Honig, a spokesman for the ACLU in Seattle.
High-speed pursuits should be limited to instances where public safety and officer safety is at risk, Honig said. Just because someone is suspected of breaking the law doesn’t mean it is wise policy to give chase, he said.
“High speed chases are by their very nature dangerous and the possibility of someone involved or an innocent bystander getting hurt or killed is just too great,” Honig said.
Everett police in 2004 adopted policies restricting officers from pursuits under most circumstances.
The changes came around the same time as a number of high-profile chases in the county and region ending in crashes resulting in injuries or deaths. As Everett’s policy was being drafted in 2003, a 19-year-old man fleeing from a Washington State Patrol trooper crashed into another car, killing the driver, Michael Waterman. The victim, 29, was on his way home from work at Sears at the Everett Mall.
The man who hit Waterman later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
The Lynnwood pursuit Friday night began with a plainclothes officer who was conducting surveillance of the man and woman involved. They were believed to be involved in drug activity at a mobile home park in the 6200 block of 202nd Street SW. He knew them both from previous arrests. The man had a felony warrant for a previous drug-related arrest. The woman had misdemeanor warrants for theft and drug possession.
The officer followed their van through a parking lot in the 19900 block of Highway 99. He turned on his emergency lights as they approached 196th Street SW. The van then cut through a parking lot and accelerated onto the major east-west thoroughfare.
Another officer in a fully marked police car joined the pursuit with flashing lights and a siren.
Along 196th, the van reached speeds of 80 mph in the 35 mph zone. It swerved around traffic and blew through a red light, according to police reports.
To avoid congested traffic, the van cut through an automotive shop parking lot and headed south onto 44th Avenue W. Reports released so far don’t say whether police followed the same route.
The chase continued south, with the fleeing van racing through a red light at 200th Street SW and just missing a car. It went through a red light at the I-5 off ramp at 44th Avenue W. and again nearly crashed into another car.
The pursuit ended when the van ran a red light at 212th Street SW and T-boned the victim’s vehicle. The driver died later that night at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
An officer trained in recognizing drug impairment said Becker appeared to be under the influence of drugs. A blood sample also was taken.
She allegedly told a police officer that she never saw any pursuing police and she thought her companion was driving. She also acknowledged smoking crack cocaine earlier in the day, according to a police report.
Her passenger told police he was in the back of the van and that he tried to get her to stop.
Becker has a history of drug abuse and traffic offenses. She was convicted of vehicular assault in Clark County in 2004. She also was convicted of driving under the influence in 2011 in Snohomish County.
Also, in 2011, she was arrested for investigation of drug possession after a Mill Creek doctor removed a rock of cocaine that was stuck in her ear, court papers said.
Between January 2010 and spring 2012, at least eight people died in the state during police pursuits, according to data kept by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. Three were not involved in the chase, but were hit by a driver fleeing police.
Tony Shapiro is a Seattle attorney who’s handled a number of cases where innocent people were hurt or killed as a result of police pursuits.
In one case, Snohomish County and Sultan paid a settlement of $600,000 in a wrongful death claim regarding Matthew Acheson, 25. Acheson died in 1996 in a head-on collision on U.S. 2. An oncoming driver had crossed the center line while fleeing from police.
Many departments discourage pursuits unless the suspect is wanted for a felony, and in most cases, a violent felony, Shapiro said.
Departmental policies are designed to overcome an officer’s initial rush of adrenaline and immediate desire to make an arrest, he said. Officers must be trained to weigh road and weather conditions, the time of day or night, and how many other people and vehicles are in the area.
In many cases, officers have other ways to apprehend the offender, he said.
More police departments have adapted stricter pursuit policies over the years, said Mitch Barker, executive director at the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Policies tend to be stricter in cities than in rural areas.
“Overall, most agencies now have general pursuit policies that really require the officers and supervisors, if they’re on shift, to continually evaluate the risk versus the reward of apprehension,” he said. “Generally speaking, more and more over the years, it’s moved toward not pursuing.”
The changes have come along with more crowded roads, expensive lawsuits and a shift in thinking, Barker said. Some agencies also have banned pursuits of stolen cars.
Still, stricter policies can be controversial, and aren’t always popular with officers, he said. People who don’t pull over when officers initiate a traffic stop already are flouting the law. People fleeing from the cops usually keep going for some distance, even if officers stop pursuing them, he said.
“Police don’t start the pursuits,” he said. “Violators, the criminals, are the people who start these things, and they generally are the ones who crash into people even after pursuits are terminated.”
Diana Hefley contributed to this story.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, firstname.lastname@example.org