NORWALK, Conn. — A lawsuit alleging that a Norwalk Police officer’s car pursuit in 2017 caused Vincent Fowlkes’ death and severe injuries to Shawn Bowman has been dismissed.
The chase was “discretionary” and therefore subject to governmental immunity, Judge Charles Lee ruled Thursday, granting the motion for summary judgment filed by Norwalk Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffry Spahr.
Bowman, 22, and Fowlkes, 19, were visiting Colonial Village on Jan. 26, 2017, “cruising around in their narcotics-filled car” when Norwalk Police Special Services arrived in search of a “local drug prince” who had four outstanding arrest warrants on him, Spahr wrote in the June motion. The suspect ran, and the radio broadcast about the foot pursuit brought Officer Ramon Tejada to the scene.
Tejada was nearby on an extra duty assignment, Spahr wrote. As he headed for Colonial Village, “he engaged the lights and sirens of his police cruiser (which fortunately worked given the fact that the vehicles used for ‘extra duty jobs’ were tired and retired vehicles that had been pulled from ‘active duty’).”
Tejada parked his cruiser across the housing complex’s exit as a blockade, with the lights flashing, but as he started to get out of the car he saw Bowman and Fowlkes barreling toward him in a black Honda Civic, Spahr wrote.
“Clearly,” they were attempting to escape and Tejada judged that they were fleeing the police activity, Spahr wrote. Fowlkes drove the car over the curb and sidewalk, squeezing past the cruiser and speeding up Scribner Avenue. Tejada struggled to keep up due to the winding nature of the road and its hilly topography, losing sight of the Civic altogether at St. Matthew’s Church.
Bowman and Fowlkes, stepbrothers, crossed Richards Avenue onto Geneva Road, “going full speed over the small rise,” Spahr wrote. A woman driving in the opposite direction saw the car go a bit airborne and she drove into a front yard to avoid being hit, and another driver wondered if they’d be able to safely navigate the turn down the road, given how fast the car was going.
They did not. The Civic “ran off the road, struck a rock with the front left tire and became airborne. It came to a rest when it struck a tree and a planter” next to a driveway, Spahr wrote.
“Scattered about the wreck were bags of heroin on the ground,” Spahr wrote. “Additional bags of heroin were found in the car along with bags of marijuana found under the legs of Bowman. Here was the reason why the Plaintiffs had fled. They were on probation, were selling drugs, and had their inventory with them.”
Bowman “was even wearing his State-issued ankle monitor at the time,” Spahr wrote. “The Colonial Village project was known as an open-air drug market and a place where drug dealers and affiliated members of the ‘Crips’ gang hung out. Fowlkes and Bowman were in their element.”
The plaintiffs alleged that Tejada was negligent in the pursuit, Lee wrote in his decision. Tejada was accused of:
- Violating the Norwalk police pursuit policy
- Disregarding the plaintiffs’ safety when he operated his vehicle
- Failing to terminate the pursuit
- Failing to obtain authorization for the pursuit
- Starting the pursuit without a legitimate basis
- Ignoring the roadway conditions including the density of the area
- Chasing the plaintiffs’ vehicle at an excessive speed and at an unreasonably close range
Tejada “tried to keep the fleeing felons in his view – he was not always successful,” Spahr wrote in June. “By the time he got onto Geneva Road they were once more lost from his sight. At that point he began to cruise by each residence, peering down their driveway to see if the getaway car was cooling it tires there. Clearly, the manner in which Officer Tejada conducted his effort to trail this vehicle was discretionary in nature.”
The pursuit route covered only 1.2 miles and lasted a little over a minute, Spahr wrote. A State Police investigation found that Fowlkes had been going an average 63 miles an hour in a 25 mile and hour zone. Ring video from a resident’s house showed that Tejada’s “ancient cruiser was lagging behind by a full 11 seconds.”
Even if the plaintiffs’ version was true, governmental immunity is the issue, Lee wrote in the Thursday decision.
A recent Supreme Court decision focused on an officer’s decision to engage in a similar pursuit, rather than how it was conducted, he said. And, “In Connecticut, the law regarding a city’s governmental immunity for the negligence of its employees’ discretionary acts is well settled.”