SWAINSBORO, Ga. - Small red flags still mark the area off Lambs Bridge Road where Tracy Allen and LaShunda Freeman lost their lives June 4 during a motorcycle chase with Swainsboro police.
Velda Allen frowned as she looked at the flags Tuesday. It was the first time she had been to site of her son's death.
"I just didn't want to see it," Mrs. Allen said. "I couldn't take it at the time."
In the eight weeks since the incident, Mrs. Allen and other family and friends of the victims continue to question the chase, which began when patrol Officer Lanier Griswold clocked the motorcycle Mr. Allen was driving at "66 mph in a 35 mph zone."
A Swainsboro Police Department internal investigation cleared Officer Griswold of any major wrongdoing.
"He was doing his job," Chief F.J. Shuman said.
An investigation by The Augusta Chronicle, however, indicates the officer might have been overzealous, violating the department's policy regarding pursuits. Family members say this disregard led to the death of their loved ones.
In the department's Standard Operating Procedures manual, the introduction to the section on Vehicle Pursuit Actions states: "... Pursuit is justified only when the officer has reasonable grounds to believe the violator presents a clear and immediate threat to the public or the officer; has committed or is attempting to commit a serious felony; or when the need to apprehend the violator outweighs the level of danger created by the pursuit."
An attorney hired by the families of Mr. Allen and Ms. Freeman said a chase should not have happened over a misdemeanor offense.
"It clearly appears that circumstances did not justify a high-speed chase," said Mitch Warnock, a partner in the Dublin firm of Tapley & Warnock. "First, there was a passenger on the motorcycle. Second, neither the driver nor the passenger were wearing helmets, and third, there's no indication that the driver was committing a felony.
"Law enforcement agencies across the country recognize that you do not engage in high-speed chases unless under extraordinary circumstances, particularly where there's a passenger involved."
Meanwhile, family members are still waiting to hear from authorities about what happened that night.
"Ain't nobody said a word to us," said Claudie Tillman, Ms. Freeman's grandmother. "Nobody even come and said how she was hurt. Nobody told us where she was hurt at. Nobody even said nothing to us."
Likewise, Mrs. Allen said.
"I had to find out through other sources," she said. "They still haven't told me anything."
Emanuel County Coroner Jeffrey Peebles said that in all the confusion he couldn't say whether he had contacted the families. Chief Shuman said he would be "tickled to death to contact the families at their request."
What happened that night began innocently enough, according to family and friends, even though Mr. Allen violated state law early on by operating the motorcycle without a license and by not wearing a helmet.
Mr. Allen had borrowed the 1983 Yamaha and taken children in the neighborhood off Lambs Bridge Road for rides most of the day, said the bike's owner, Hurlon Wadley. Mr. Wadley had bought the bike five days earlier, showing a receipt for a $400 payment, the first installment to pay off the $750 note.
The two had become close since Mr. Allen's release from prison in January, and Mr. Wadley said he'd noticed a big difference in his friend.
"He said he wanted to change," Mr. Wadley said. "He didn't want to go through those procedures no more."
Ms. Freeman, who had celebrated her 20th birthday only six days before the accident, already had made a big change in her life. She'd recently received her certification from Swainsboro Technical Institute as a nursing assistant and was going to start a job at a local nursing home that night.
The family had just come home from Bible school at Smith Grove Baptist Church about 10 p.m. when they spotted Mr. Allen giving bike rides, Mrs. Tillman said.
"He went back and told her he was going to give her a ride ...," Mrs. Tillman said. "She said, 'I got to go to work.' He said, 'I'm just going to go right down there, turn around and go back, and you can get ready to go to work by 11."'
Mrs. Tillman said he took Ms. Freeman a few blocks past a nearby milling company. As she waited in the house for her granddaughter to return, Mrs. Tillman said, several children called for her to come outside, shouting that the police had gotten behind the motorcycle.
Shortly after, Mrs. Tillman said, she heard the sirens of emergency vehicles.
Chief Shuman wouldn't speculate on why Mr. Allen didn't stop for the officer. But when a reporter asked whether it might have been because of his previous run-ins with the law, the chief said, "You're probably real accurate in your thought process."
Mr. Allen, 27, had been in and out of jail since 1990 on offenses ranging from cocaine possession to theft of a motor vehicle part. He was released on parole Jan. 29 from Ware State Prison, where he'd been serving time for a burglary offense.
But Mr. Allen's past is not what concerns the victims' families. What haunts them is how the events unfolded June 4.
"Why did they have to chase them way out of city limits?" Mrs. Tillman asked. "... I don't care if they're two dogs, you don't chase them until they're dead."
High-speed chases have long been a source of controversy and a serious problem for the public and for law enforcement. Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at the College of Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina who has taught pursuit training to police departments for 15 years, said chasing a motorcycle is something that should be avoided.
"Chasing a motorcycle is something we discourage in our training because it's very likely the motorcyclist will either get away or get killed," Dr. Alpert said. "Rarely do you see a positive outcome in a motorcycle chase."
The number of fatalities caused by high-speed chases is debatable, he said. The latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that in 1999 there were 318 cases in which someone was killed while trying to elude the police. In Georgia, that number was 24; in South Carolina, it was 11.
"It's embarrassingly low because (police) don't report some of them," he said, adding that the reporting system police use allows them to state whether an incident involved a chase.
Dr. Alpert estimates that 600 to 1,000 deaths annually stem from police chases.
In the Georgia State Patrol report on the June 4 incident, excessive speed, loss of control of vehicle and driving too fast for conditions are cited as the contributing factors for the wreck.
When questioned about the incident, Chief Shuman initially said it wasn't a chase because Mr. Allen didn't realize an officer was behind him. He later conceded that there was a chase but said it couldn't have lasted longer than about 30 seconds.
In the Swainsboro police internal report, one of the members involved in the investigation questioned the chase because it involved only a misdemeanor offense.
"It must be further noted that in the deliberations and efforts of the Investigation Committee, a dissenting opinion was offered as to the specific adherence to Standard Operating Procedures in regard to continuation of pursuit in the absence of a felony," the report states.
The only policy Officer Griswold was found to have violated, according to the report, was informing the police chief of the incident instead of his immediate supervisor, Assistant Police Chief Maj. Clifford Young.
The report was compiled by Swainsboro City Councilman Bob Williams, Chief Shuman and Maj. Young. Mr. Williams said he was not the dissenter. Chief Shuman wouldn't comment but has stated that the officer did the right thing. That leaves Maj. Young, who also wouldn't comment about the investigation.
Mr. Williams, the council's liaison with the police department, said Officer Griswold was justified in pursuing the speeding motorcycle because it posed a danger to the public and the riders themselves.
"The clear and immediate threat to me was the speed of the vehicle and (that) the occupants didn't have the proper safety equipment," said Mr. Williams, a former deputy with the Emanuel County Sheriff's Department. "Once he got the necessary information (tag number), he started backing off and did not pursue at high rates of speeds."
However, Officer Griswold, who was suspended with pay for about three weeks during the internal investigation, said in his statement to the State Patrol that he did pursue the motorcycle at high speeds. The statement does not say anything about him discontinuing the pursuit at any point.
"As we got about 2 miles (outside city limits) the subject was all over the roadway," Officer Griswold said in the State Patrol report.
"We approached the sharp curve just south of Spring Hill Baptist Church, the offender tried taking the curve at too high of a rate of speed and went down into the ditch and struck several trees. ... At the time of the wreck, we were running about 80 mph."
Last month's incident isn't the first time Officer Griswold has been involved in a high-speed chase that led to a wreck.
On June 2, 2000, he totaled his patrol car in a chase after he spotted a man who he knew was driving with a suspended or revoked license, Chief Shuman said. The officer, who the chief said has been with the department about seven years, was later given an oral reprimand.
"He was reprimanded for not using enough sense to call it off," Chief Shuman said. "He knew who he was chasing and had him identified and could have gone back and taken warrants for it."
The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue of high-speed chases in 1998. The high court ruled that officers could be held liable only for activities that "shock the conscience," according to a story in the June 8, 1998, issue of U.S. News and World Report.
The decision involved a Sacramento motorcyclist who fled after refusing to obey police orders to stop. A 75-second chase reached 100 miles per hour before the bike crashed, and a 16-year-old passenger fell and was killed by the police car, according to the magazine.
A lower court said police could be sued for "reckless indifference to life." But Supreme Court Justice David Souter said that ruling failed to take into account the need for split-second decisions by officers, the story reported.
Account of events
The Swainsboro incident began about 10:07 p.m., according to Officer Griswold's statement.
The officer was on routine patrol heading north on Lambs Bridge Road when the motorcycle passed him going in the other direction. He turned around to stop the "offender" and radioed to another officer for help.
"I advised him I had a motorcycle trying to elude me," Officer Griswold said in his statement.
The incident ended about two minutes later, when Mr. Allen lost control on a sharp curve. Mr. Allen and Ms. Freeman were pronounced dead at the scene from multiple blunt force trauma, Mr. Peebles said.
Chief Shuman placed the blame for the fatal accident on Mr. Allen, who he said should have pulled over once the officer turned on his blue lights and siren.
"It is (Officer Griswold's) duty to try to apprehend traffic violators," Chief Shuman said. "That's what he's supposed to be doing. ... A person going that fast at night is endangering himself and others all over the place. The ideal thing is that you run up behind them, turn on your blue lights and they pull over.
"To work traffic, you tell me if there is another way to do that."
The six-member city council agreed with the chief by accepting the report's findings at its July 16 meeting. Councilwoman Rita Faulkner was the only member not to vote approval - she abstained from voting. Mrs. Faulkner, one of two blacks on the six-member council, refused to say last week why she abstained.
Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 823-3218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.