NORWALK, Conn. – There are no plans to change the Norwalk Police pursuit policy, Chief Thomas Kulhawik said Wednesday, contradicting a statement made Tuesday by Common Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B).
Bowman, in explaining comments made at last week’s Health, Welfare and Public Safety Committee, quoted Kulhawik as saying the policy is open to review in the wake of the death of 22-year-old Vincent Fowlkes, which was originally thought by the public to be the result of a police pursuit.
“I was very clear at the meeting that there was no reason for us to adjust our policy as a result of this incident and that I had no plans to make any changes at this time,” Kulhawik said in an email.
Fowlkes died on Jan. 26 when the car he was driving hit a tree on Geneva Road. His brother, Shawn Bowman, 19, was seriously injured and is still in a coma, Council member Travis Simms (D-District B) said Tuesday. A Norwalk Police officer was following the vehicle but an internal police review, done with the Stamford State’s Attorney’s Office, found that the officer acted properly.
A state police investigation is still pending.
The incident stems from an attempted arrest at Colonial Village; the suspect ran and this was broadcasted over the police dispatch radio. An officer working an extra duty assignment nearby got in his patrol car and blocked the Colonial Village exit, police say. Fowlkes was not the suspect police were looking for but sped past the officer, driving up onto the sidewalk to get around the patrol car. The officer then followed him, according to the police account.
The police investigation used a Geneva Road resident’s surveillance video to establish that the officer was 12 seconds behind Fowlkes, the release said, mentioning that a large quantity of narcotics was found in Fowlkes vehicle.
Attorney Darnell Crosland represents Fowlkes’ family.
“We are adamantly against the position that any police officer would find it necessary to engage in a high speed pursuit through our city streets putting the public at risk of bodily injury or death,” Crosland said Wednesday night.
Simms said Tuesday that he thought the police press release was offensive, an attempt to publicly humiliate Fowlkes. Police should have some sympathy, he said.
“It’s a life that we are talking about. This young man had nothing to do with what was taking place over there at Colonial Village. As far as I am concerned, I think the police should have had a little more consideration and not made it so public and personal about the kid, and make it an attack,” Simms said. “…I think we need to be a little more sensitive. I thought it was pretty nasty that the police would come out and say he had drugs in the car, police record and things like that. What does that have to do with his life?”
“To say we were attacking anyone or attempting to humiliate anyone is ridiculous and I take offense to those comments,” Kulhawik said. “In fact I tried to be respectful of the family in seeking to meet with them to discuss my findings and answer any questions they may have prior to making them public in our press release. However, they declined to meet or speak with me. The reference to the presence of a large amount of drugs in the car is a simple point of fact that I felt important as it may go towards the reason they fled in the first place. It is plausible that they may have thought officers were there for them or somehow involved in the other incident that was taking place in the area.”
Bowman said she held a moment of silence last week for Fowlkes out of respect.
“I thought it was appropriate to recognize the young man’s life. He was a Norwalk native and a graduate of Norwalk Public Schools. So, in that regard we want to always recognize that there was a life lost. We never want to see a life lost,” Bowman said.
Kulhawik, at last week’s Committee meeting, said the Norwalk Police pursuit policy is more of a state-wide policy.
NancyOnNorwalk was not at the meeting but obtained a recording.
“What you don’t want is for the pursuit to be more dangerous than if the person got away,” Kulhawik said, explaining that officers evaluate the circumstances, the likelihood of traffic, the weather and the offense the person fleeing is suspected of in determining whether a police pursuit is worth the risk.
Every pursuit is reviewed and a spreadsheet keeps track of incidents, even slow pursuits or pursuits that last a few seconds, he said.
“Very few are long,” he said.
Last year there were 14 pursuits, and “the vast majority were terminated immediately” or were slow speeds on a midnight shift with little traffic.
Some departments don’t pursue suspects, he said.
“I am not a fan of that because I think you are sending a message to flee,” Kulhawik said.
Most pursuits are in the evening or overnight hours, and can be as slow as 20 miles an hour, he said.
“You see that with some DUI’s,” Kulhawik said, in response to a question from Council member Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large).
Simms asked about probable cause; Kulhawik explained that the definition of probable cause is an action a person can be arrested for.
Police might pursue a suspicious vehicle, but that’s not probable cause and is justified only under the right conditions, Kulhawik said.
Simms was driving at a reason why Fowlkes was pursued.
“The suspect didn’t take off because of the police trying to stop him,” Kulhawik said, speculating that Fowlkes panicked and ran when police arrived because of the drugs in the car.
While technically, there was a pursuit, “The officer never was truly in pursuit, like right behind the vehicle,” Kulhawik said.
The pursuit was just over 60 seconds and the surveillance video was shot from a driveway 280 feet from the crash, he said. The 12 second time gap between Fowlkes car and the patrol car was a “great distance,” he said.
The video is not available to the public yet, Kulhawik said.
There are a lot of assumptions, Bowman said.
State police have reached out to the family but they won’t talk, Kulhawik said.
“Is there anything in the policy that you think should be a little bit stricter or changed?” Bowman asked.
“No, but we look at that all the time,” Kulhawik said. “We are always looking to improve so to say that it won’t be changed, I won’t say that. … It’s an evolving document, I am sure there will be changes over time but as I sit here today, I don’t contemplate a change right today.”
“Is there any steps that you are taking to prevent situations such as this fatality?” Simms asked.
“I can’t control the actions of others,” Kulhawik said. “In this situation, I don’t know if there’s anything we could change other than the actions of the driver of the car. If people are going to drive in a manner like that, I can’t prevent that. Nor could an officer, nor could a policy prevent that.”
Council member Steve Serasis (D-District A) asked how fast the cars were going, in the video.
“You see the suspect vehicle go past the driveway and it’s a blur. When the officer approaches, you can actually see and read the police car,” Kulhawik said.
There are also two other cars in the video, and you can see them going at a normal speed, he said.
The state police report should be out in two months, he said.
“There’s only six crash investigators for the entire state,” Kulhawik said.
On Tuesday, Bowman said, “In terms of the pursuit and exactly what happened, the important thing is we don’t know yet what happened.”
The state police have not weighed in yet and the Norwalk Police explanation “begs a lot of questions,” she said, and “I thought until the state came back with their results the Norwalk Police Department wasn’t supposed to be talking about it.”
“This is very strange as I thought this was all addressed at the Health Welfare & Public Safety Committee meeting last week as well as in the joint press release Supervisory States Attorney Colangelo and I issued at the conclusion of our internal review,” Kulhawik said Wednesday in an email.
“Basically, there were two separate investigations. We investigate whether there were any policy violations regarding what occurred prior to the crash, and we asked the Connecticut State Police to investigate the crash itself. We completed our investigation and determined that there were no policy violations and I had my findings reviewed by SSA Colangelo as an independent review and to assure transparency. He also concurred with my findings. The State Police report on the crash itself will take some time as they have a large number of crashes that they are investigating and it takes time for them to finalize their reports and complete the full write ups. I advised that once that was completed and forwarded to us I would make that public as well.
“…Finally, I was very clear at the meeting that there was no reason for us to adjust our policy as a result of this incident and that I had no plans to make any changes at this time,” Kulhawik said. “I did make a broad statement at one point in the meeting that we always review all our policies as a matter of course to assure that we are in compliance with best practices. Accreditation standards also require that we review our policies as well as designate specific situations when we must review specific policies as well.”