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NYPD Admits Error in Pedestrian Death, Says Chases Off-Limits

schmeer.jpgKaren Schmeer. Image: New York Times

The NYPD is no longer denying its involvement -- or error -- in the January 29 car chase that ended with the death of Karen Schmeer on the Upper West Side. At a meeting of the 24th Precinct's community council, Deputy Inspector Kathleen O'Reilly laid out the police's official line: that an officer improperly started a chase and that his supervisor, according to policy, called it off.

In response to a number of questions from concerned citizens at the meeting, Inspector O'Reilly clarified some of the details that have been missing so far. The chase began on the southbound side of Broadway, she said, while Schmeer was eventually killed on the northbound side (a fact that correlates with an account posted by a Streetsblog commenter). A call had gone out over the police radio with a description of a car fleeing the scene of a burglary. The offense was actually shoplifting; the original call was in error.

O'Reilly said that when an officer handing out traffic summonses on Broadway saw that car go by, he gave in to "the absolutely natural instinct to follow." O'Reilly did not deny that the officer began a vehicle pursuit.

According to O'Reilly, that pursuit never should have occurred. The NYPD Patrol Guide states, "Department policy requires that a vehicle pursuit be terminated whenever the risks to uniformed members of the service and the public outweigh the danger to the community if [the] suspect is not immediately apprehended."

O'Reilly gave her interpretation of the rule: "You'd have to have someone -- probably a cop -- shot right in front of you to pursue in Manhattan." Even then, she added, a pursuit probably isn't worth the danger it causes. "We've got ballistics. We've got evidence," she said. "We'll track them down."

O'Reilly also claimed that the chase was called off by the officer's supervisor once he realized what was happening. "Being trained, the sergeant realized the harm and called off the pursuit," she said. The harm was already done, however. Karen Schmeer is the only victim of a homicide in the 24th precinct this year, according to CompStat data [PDF].

There's still a lot that we don't know about Schmeer's death. Another Streetsblog commenter says she saw the police pursue the shoplifters until Schmeer was hit. If true, it sits uneasily with O'Reilly's claim that the chase was called off. No witnesses came forward at the meeting to offer accounts of the crash. O'Reilly also did not indicate whether the officer who began the pursuit was reprimanded for violating precinct policy.

What we do know is that a top officer in a police department which had previously denied that its pursuit contributed to Karen Schmeer's death, and denied involvement in other high-speed chases, has now admitted that an officer began a chase on the Upper West Side, violating protocol and putting citizens in danger.

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