Wild, wrong-way chase — Are these why cops are being monitored? (VIDEO)
The Bergen County Prosecutor's Office is now monitoring the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police — a move apparently brought on by police chases on the parkway spanning northern New Jersey and New York state.
"I think the number (of police pursuits) looked high" to the prosecutor's office, Palisades Interstate Park Commission Executive Director James Hall told New Jersey 101.5. And he said the prosecutor's office wants to make sure chases are being conducted in accordance with county and state guidelines.
He estimated there were about two dozen such chases in five years. He couldn't say how that compared to, for instance, the five years prior — but said since the police department only patrols a highway, they're likely to be involved in more chases than other police throughout the county.
Some of those chases have turned deadly, a report by NorthJersey.com noted. According to a report by DailyVoice.com, in May, a 33-year-old motorcyclist crashed and died after he sped away from pursuing PIP police; a companion on another motorcycle reportedly left the scene and was tracked down later. In July, NorthJersey.com reported, a man ran from police into the woods following a drug stop and fled when he fell down the Palisades cliffs.
But perhaps neither was as extraordinary of a sight as the spectacular 30-mile, often-wrong-way pursuit of an alleged murdered through New York and New Jersey in November of 2015. Police sped in and out of heavy oncoming traffic, possibly violating New Jersey Attorney General's Office guidelines in the process, as New Jersey 101.5 reported at the time.
"One one end of it, they caught the guy," Theodore J. Romankow, former Union County Prosecutor, told New Jersey 101.5 by phone in late 2015. "On the other end, they endangered the public and they endangered themselves."
Romankow — now an attorney with Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins — had been asked by New Jersey 101.5 to review dashcam footage from the Nov. 23, 2015 chase, released by the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police Department after a public records request.
PIPPD Chief Michael Coppola, reached by New Jersey 101.5 at the time, wouldn't answer questions about whether the pursuit was in accordance with state policy.
"What does it matter, if no one was hurt?" he said. "You tell me, what does it matter?"
He said questions about the pursuit suggested a "witch hunt" and said New Jersey 101.5 could file a complaint seeking an internal investigation if it so chose.
The PIPPD, in a statement on its website this month, acknowledged the monitoring agreement with the prosecutor's office and directed any questions to that agency.
In the 2015 incident, according to the PIPPD, New York State Police were already pursuing David Campos — accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend in Troy, N.Y. earlier that morning — after an NY State Trooper's automatic license plate reader picked up Campos' black Chrysler 200 on the New York State Thruway at about 9:40 a.m.
The chase continued into New Jersey, and several Parkway officers pursued. Dashcam videos from Officers Donald Liu and Timothy Conboy are seen here. According to the PIPPD, six of its officers were involved in the pursuit.
In the videos, Campos is first seen driving south on the Palisades Interstate Parkway, weaving in and out of traffic at speeds somewhere under 90 miles per hour.
It's what happens when Campos hits the Englewood Cliffs section of the highway that concerned Romankow the most when he spoke in 2015. Campos crosses into the highway's northbound lanes and drives into oncoming traffic at about 50 miles per hour, ducking vehicles as they come toward him. Police continue their pursuit through that as well.
The New Jersey Attorney General's Office's Vehicular Pursuit Policy — which applies to the Palisades Interstate Parkway police when they're operating in New Jersey — states no vehicular pursuits will be conducted "in a direction opposite to the flow of traffic on a divided highway."
Romankow said in 2015 it's lucky that, as police lights were flashing, most motorists heading northbound on the highway pulled aside to get out of the way.
"But I don't think they should get the benefit of that luck, just because the lights were on and it worked out," he said.
Campos returned to the right side of the road as he existed the highway onto Fletcher Avenue in Fort Lee. The chase continued onto Route 1 and 9 southbound, and then the New Jersey Turnpike. As surrounding traffic became more sparse, the speed of the chase picked up — a description by the northjersey.com says it hit as much as 110 mph — before Campos and the police hit heavy traffic near Exit 18E in Secaucus.
Eventually, it's the traffic jam itself that stopped the chase. Several officers surrounded Campos' car and apprehended him. According to Palisades Interstate Parkway Police, other law enforcement agencies assisted in the arrest. New Jersey State Police acknowledged being among them, but referred questions at the time to the PIPPD as the lead agency on the bust.
Campos eventually pleaded guilty to stabbing his estranged wife to death and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The vehicular pursuit policy asks police to weigh several factors when initiating or continuing a chase. Among them is the seriousness of the crime — and a first-degree offense such as murder certainly qualifies. It also asks police to consider the road conditions, the nature of the area, the amount of traffic, and the threat a chase might present to the public.
Police are further asked to consider whether a suspect's identity is known, and whether law enforcement might reasonably be expected to catch up with the suspect later.
Officers are told to break off a pursuit, according to the policy, "if there is a clear and unreasonable danger to the police officer or the public."
Romankow had told New Jersey 101.5 he doesn't understand why in the 30-mile, 20-minute chase, police didn't break off and call in a state police helicopter. The length of the chase gave the PIPPD plenty of time to make that request, he said. If they did so, it's not reflected in a description of the pursuit by the PIPPD.
He aid said the speed in heavy traffic might be some cause for concern, "but to me, to cross over into the other lane of traffic, that's what's really excessive."
"I don't like to be critical when they catch someone who's accused of a homicide, but on the other hand, people could have been seriously injured or even killed but for the grace of God on this one," Romankow said.
Hall said he welcomes the opportunity for the police department and the prosecutor's office to review guidelines and training. But he said he's not aware of any pattern of problems that would prompt it.
"I think we welcome the opportunities yo have an outside agency review where things stand," he said. "think some of it is where we are related to the county vs the attorney general's office (guidelines and supervision). To us, it was an opportunity to iron out some of those."
Reminded of the 2015 report, he said "I think given the number of pursuits, perhaps some review is helpful. it wasn't something that was high on the radar. Perhaps some more training was necessary as to help officers determine whether they should or shouldn't break off a chase."
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