South Fulton Police Chief Keith Meadows walked out of a community forum Thursday morning and drove away from reporters asking about a Sunday night police chase that ended with a horrific crash and three people dead.Just hours after the chief refused to speak, the Georgia State Patrol said it could be months before the identity of the dead could be confirmed.
The South Fulton Police Department has turned down repeated requests for information about why a city officer was pursuing a stolen Mercedes Benz when the cruiser collided with a work van, which caught fire. Three people in the van died on the scene and three others inside were injured, according to the state patrol, which is investigating the crash.
In a news release late Thursday, the state patrol said the identities of the people who died were still unknown because of the extent of their burns. The driver of the van, Gilmer Gomez-Lopez, 25, survived the crash and provided as much information on them as he could. However, DNA will be needed from relatives who may live out of the country to identify the dead, the state patrol said. One of the surviving victims also is still unidentified and the condition of the survivors is unknown.
The state patrol identified the officer who was chasing the Mercedes Benz as Deonte Walker, 25.
“Charges are pending the completion of this investigation,” a state patrol spokesperson said in an email Thursday.
South Fulton’s pursuit policy, obtained through an open records request by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, allows officers to chase stolen vehicles as long as the officer takes the public’s safety into consideration. Other metro Atlanta departments, such as Atlanta, Dunwoody, and DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, don’t allow their officers to pursue cars simply because they’re stolen. There must be another factor, such as suspicion the driver is actively violent, to lead officers to believe a driver presents more danger to the public than a chase does.
South Fulton officials have not said if there were other causes for the pursuit beyond the suspicion that the Mercedes Benz was stolen.
The state patrol is only investigating the wreck itself, which happened on Ga. 138 near the intersection with I-85 at about 10 p.m. Sunday in Union City. The state patrol and South Fulton police haven’t responded to questions about how fast the police cruiser was going at the time of the collision. The state patrol has said the van allegedly crossed into the cruiser’s path while trying to exit the interstate.
Thursday’s public forum held in the sanctuary of New Life Presbyterian Church was attended by about 50 city officials and residents of South Fulton. It was meant as an update about the city’s efforts to reduce crime, particularly along Old National Highway. But thanks to the department’s days of silence, the specter of the fiery wreck hung over the room.
During a question and answer session, a reporter asked about it, but Meadows quickly said he would only take questions about the general crime prevention presentation.
Across the room, City Manager Odie Donald II seconded the chief’s sentiment: “All on topic, all on topic,” Donald instructed.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard was in the sanctuary. As he walked out, he told the AJC he didn’t know the details of what led to the chase, but he expected to get a report about it from the state patrol. While speaking to the crowd earlier, Howard had mentioned a case where a Benz had been stolen in a fatal robbery, but he said that had nothing to do with the Sunday night chase.
Moments after Howard left, the police chief quietly walked out of meeting, pursued by two reporters and a TV cameraman. When a reporter with the AJC asked for the justification for the chase, Meadows was silent as he briskly traversed the rain-soaked parking lot and jumped into his car. He closed the door and drove out of the parking lot without a word.
Back inside, Mayor William “Bill” Edwards told the AJC he wasn’t aware of the police department’s justification for the pursuit.
“We’re not trying to be ugly, trying to dodge anything – we’re really not, but we don’t have the facts,” he said. “My concern right now is for those who lost their lives. Pending an investigation, we’ll know more soon.”
He added that as soon as the information is available, the city will release it because “everybody wants to know the answer to that question, even community people.”
Authorities have given no update on the condition of the injured, except for the officer. The mayor said the officer was saved from the cruiser, which also caught fire, by another officer. The South Fulton officer had scrapes and bruises, according to the mayor, and has been released from the hospital. The city has declined to say if the officer is on leave.
The dangers police pursuits pose to the public are well known. Innocent Georgians die every year while cops seek criminals. Back in 1987, 13 people died during police chases in the state, and two years later police officials from around metro Atlanta collaborated to craft policies that better protected the public.
Then-Gwinnett Police Chief C. Wayne Bolden said, when possible, he liked to trace a license plate number and let the driver go rather than endanger the officer and public. But others pointed out that it can be difficult to know exactly what the person you’re chasing is capable of, a complicated fact that still dogs police today.
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