BRIGHTON, Colo. (KDVR) — A criminal who was speeding away from Brighton police officers in September 2021 died after crashing into a Thornton Police vehicle and rolling the car he was driving down a hill.
The crash was the first of three during a seven-week span involving a Brighton police officer in which someone was either killed or ejected from a vehicle following the pursuit.
In each of the three incidents, internal affairs investigators found problems with either how the police chase started or how it ended.
According to a confidential memorandum describing an internal affairs investigation into the September incident, the pursuit “should never have been authorized.”
“I thought I was going to die,” said Lizbeth Sanchez, a passenger who suffered a head injury during the crash.
Sanchez said she kept asking the eluding driver, her then-boyfriend Jonathan Santibanez, to stop, but he would not.
Brighton PD’s policy for police chases
Santibanez was wanted for stealing his father’s vehicle and attempting to “strike a Brighton Officer with a motor vehicle” on the previous day, but a follow-up investigation found “that action was historical, not imminent.”
The pursuit policy at the time said that officers, “shall not initiate or participate in a vehicle pursuit unless they reasonably believe they are attempting to apprehend a person or persons whom they know or reasonably believe would present an imminent danger to human life or cause serious bodily injury,” according to a report signed by Al Sharon, a former commander of professional standards at the Brighton Police Department.
While he said the pursuit should not have been authorized, Sharon reported that the sergeant’s supervision of the unauthorized pursuit was “superior.”
“(Sergeant Moore) monitored the event and properly terminated the pursuit as the fleeing vehicle starting (sic) endangering other vehicles then left our jurisdiction,” he said.
The pursuit, he documented, lasted “almost 24 miles over a 19-minute period,” but when Santibanez “attempted to drive at and crash into police vehicles and drive at oncoming traffic,” the sergeant terminated the pursuit.
“After the pursuit was terminated, all of the Brighton officers stopped their vehicles and gathered together out of their vehicles when they heard a loud crash. About 1.5 miles away from where Brighton officers had terminated the pursuit, the suspect vehicle crashed head on into a Thornton Police vehicle.”
The Thornton vehicle was destroyed, but the officer was ok.
Sharon’s assessment of the September pursuit wasn’t fully completed until November because his computer “repeatedly crashed when attempting to watch” the videos.
“Police pursuits are regarded by the courts as a use of force,” he wrote in the final report. “We must take extra care to improve training and accountability regarding pursuits. Consideration should be given to adopting a stricter pursuit policy given our present environment.”
A separate acting commander, Monce Portillo, reviewed the findings and said he felt the existing police policy provided conflicting definitions about when officers should or should not initiate a pursuit.
He recommended the policy be clarified and suggested that under a different “lens,” perhaps the pursuit could have been found to be within policy.
2 ejected during Oct. 25 crash
In October, police engaged in another chase, resulting in a rollover crash that started a fire and ejected two people from a stolen truck.
A police review of that chase determined some officers reached speeds of more than 100 mph and that “the actions of the supervisor and officers involved during the pursuit placed an unnecessary risk to the public by not terminating the pursuit when the driver’s actions became reckless and dangerous.”
Dash camera footage obtained by the Problem Solvers showed the eluding driver was driving on the wrong side of the road while other traffic was nearby.
Dr. Dennis Kenney, a criminal justice professor at City University of New York, reviewed the footage. He said he also witnessed officers traveling at high rates of speed simply to catch up to the chase and get involved.
“That would appear to be a violation of the policy as well,” said Kenney, who described a problem with adherence to the department’s policy rather than with the pursuit policy itself.
“Policies only matter if the organization holds you accountable to follow it,” he said. “I think what they did in response to the violations matters.”
An internal report found “officers were authorized to engage” in the nine-minute, 9.5-mile chase, but “the pursuit was not properly supervised or terminated.”
Brighton PD adjusts pursuit policy and discipline
On Oct. 27, the day following the deadliest crash, the police department issued a general order “further restricting the circumstances where a police pursuit would be authorized to in-progress or just occurred violent felony crimes against persons involving the known death known life threatening injury of another person and acts or actions that represent grave, imminent danger to human life,” according to Matt Domenico, the deputy chief of the Brighton Police Department.
That chase began when a member of the department in an unmarked vehicle tried a pinch maneuver.
The order also prohibited “pinch tactics, boxing-in, or any other similar maneuvers” except in cases in which an in-progress or “just occurred” violent felony involved a known death or life-threatening injury of another person or if there is grave imminent danger to human life.
The order also prohibited the use of unmarked police vehicles for those tactics.
“This general order was put into place while the department evaluates the policy that was in effect at the time of these pursuits. This evaluation process is ongoing, and the general order will remain in place until any changes determined necessary are made to the department’s existing policy,” said Domenico in an email.
Meanwhile, some form of discipline or counseling was recommended for some of the officers involved in some of the incidents.
The department gave written reprimands to two officers and suggested counseling about the dangers of police pursuits for a third.
Experts review adherence to department policy
“If this department is continuing to produce these types of outcomes, from very similar processes, it indicates to me that there is probably an issue there, and we need to work to resolve it,” Dr. Paul Taylor, a former police officer and assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver whose studies focus on police decision-making, said.
“It is concerning, and it is something to start looking at for sure, particularly since all three resulted in tragic outcomes,” he said.
“We probably need to start looking at the training behind these issues. We need to look at the supervisors’ role in these issues,” Taylor said.
According to Kenney, the CUNY criminal justice professor who has been researching police and their tactics for more than four decades, Brighton Police Department’s pursuit policy is “pretty good” and standard for many departments.
“The problem seems to be their adherence to the policy,” he said.
Kenney said training is important.
“It’s important that the officers actually know what the policy is and that they know how to make the decisions,” he said.
“As with all use of force, most of the training is put on the application of force – not the questions of when and when it’s appropriate to use it in the first place. So, training in that sense matters. Beyond that, it’s enforcement of the policy that is the key. Accountability matters,” Kenney said.
He said accountability can refer to discipline, but it can also involve re-training.
“I think what they did in response to the violations matters,” he said.
Taylor recommended that the Brighton Police Department look internally to determine how its own processes allowed for errors in multiple pursuits. “Even if it is not our processes, how did we hire somebody and get them to this point where they were still making those decisions?”