In pursuit of safer streets
A Chico mother whose daughter was the innocent victim of a police chase advocates for better policies
Candy Priano walked through her comfortable, large Chico home and settled on a couch surrounded by sports memorabilia, two computers and photos of her family. She was dressed conservatively, her outfit accented by a gold heart around her neck with a picture of her two children etched on its surface.
One of those children, Kristie, is no longer with us. Almost eight years ago she was the victim of a police car chase gone bad when a fleeing driver collided with the Priano family’s van at about 50 mph.
Two years ago, Priano started the nonprofit Voices Insisting on PursuitSAFETY in her daughter’s honor.
“It’s too easy for a crime victim to be dismissed,” Priano said. “It wasn’t an accident—someone made a choice to flee from the police. We blame 100 percent the fleeing driver. But because the fleeing driver does not care about public safety, the burden falls on law enforcement to change its policies.”
PursuitSAFETY is effectively both a vehicle for education about police chases and their victims and a place for family members and friends to go when they’ve lost someone under similar circumstances. As executive director, Priano also is working on legislation, dubbed Kristie’s Law, to change policies—of police officers and the laws that protect them—as well as create stricter penalties for those who flee from the police.
“They have immunity,” Priano said of the police. She and her family filed a wrongful-death suit against the city of Chico and the Chico Police Department, and it was thrown out almost immediately. She has talked to dozens—hundreds, maybe—of other family members around the United States who have had similar outcomes.
In fact, Priano’s nonprofit has gained national attention, and she gets phone calls and e-mails from people not just from the United States, but from all over the world, as well. Most of the calls come from family members of those killed during police pursuits. Others are from scholars, police officers and students who want to help her cause. She also speaks at locations across the U.S., telling the stories of people she knows, as well as her own.
On the evening of Jan. 22, 2002, the Priano family—father Mark driving; Candy in the passenger seat; and 15-year-old Kristie and 16-year-old Steve in the back—were on their way to Kristie’s basketball game. She played for her school, Champion Christian. As they were crossing the intersection at Fifth and Palm avenues, their van was T-boned by a car driven by a 15-year-old girl.
Mark and Kristie were taken to the emergency room via ambulance. Candy and Steve went in a police car. With Mark in the ICU, a doctor came and gave Candy news she couldn’t quite fathom: Kristie probably was not going to make it.
Minutes later, she said, a police officer came up to her and her son and told them he had some questions for them. Without a shred of compassion about the state their family was in, Priano said, he began questioning Steve.
“How fast was your dad driving?”
“What were you doing in the car?”
These questions worried Candy, whose state of mind was anything but clear. Now, looking back, she feels they were completely inappropriate.
“The thing that saved me was that, thank God, when we were at the crash site, I walked to the corner and saw that the other driver had had the stop sign,” she said. “But, had I not done that, based on the officer’s tone, what would I have thought?”
It wasn’t until the next morning, when she picked up the newspaper, that Priano learned that the crash that had put two of her loved ones in the hospital was caused by a police pursuit. They were chasing a girl who had taken her mother’s car without permission. They had her name and address, and until they turned on their sirens, she had apparently been obeying traffic laws. Afterward, she sped up and started running stop signs, intermittently showing signs of pulling over, even flashing her turn signal, according to CN&R reports following the incident. After about 10 minutes, her vehicle collided with the Priano van.
“It was absolutely preventable,” Priano said of the crash.
Police Chief Mike Maloney, who was a captain at the time, told the CN&R in February 2002 that an internal investigation revealed the officers involved had done nothing wrong—they had followed protocol. Priano disagrees, arguing that verbiage in the Chico PD’s pursuit policy specifically indicates a pursuit is unnecessary when the driver of the vehicle and his or her address are known, which was the case here.
The girl who caused the crash pleaded guilty to vehicle theft, evading a police officer causing injury, and vehicular manslaughter. She served a year in juvenile hall.
While Priano’s story is shocking and sad, she is the first to point out that Kristie’s death is one of many—the statistic quoted on PursuitSAFETY.com is 390 a year—caused by police pursuits. And of the innumerable families who have reached out to Priano in their time of need, she has heard some of the same stories over and over. Most of them hear about the police chase in the media, some having to watch it—and the crash—on television, not knowing until after that they’re watching their mother or daughter or grandmother being killed.
What bothers Priano more than the lack of communication following these crashes, however, is that most of them, in her mind, are unnecessary. She spoke of other incidents, including a pregnant woman who was killed after being hit by a fleeing driver who had just stolen a vacuum cleaner from a mall in the Northeast.
“Chases are the only time when the police knowingly put the public in harm’s way,” she said. “We’re the people they’re here to serve and protect.”
Priano was sure to point out that she is not anti-law enforcement. In fact, the opposite is true. She has great respect for our men and women in blue, and has had conversations with officers across the United States about pursuit policy. What she and PursuitSAFETY are advocating is for stricter rules regarding the circumstances that would warrant a pursuit. When a vehicle is stolen by force, for example, that person is a threat to public safety. When a vehicle is stolen by a family member, however, it is less likely that person will behave recklessly, she said.
“There is no reason to chase someone for a property crime,” she said. “Human life is so much more precious.”
Maloney said in a recent interview that he does agree, at least in part, with that philosophy.
“I was at the scene [of the Prianos’ crash],” Maloney said. “I understand the grief that’s prompted Candy Priano to action. I understand and actually support the idea that pursuits should be safe.
“But I frequently get the sense that there’s a disconnect between the way the anti-pursuit advocates believe things should be and the way things actually are in the real world with police officers dealing with violators. The challenge for us all is reconciling that disconnect.”
Each year, Maloney said, the Chico Police Department does training on pursuits and goes over its policies. They were last updated in January 2009.
“Anecdotally we probably pursue much less often than we did seven or eight years ago,” Maloney said. “That’s in part because of the Priano incident coming so close to home, but the timing of that in relation to the national discussion has really served to heighten awareness.”
Priano has heard the pros and cons from just about everyone. She’s not unaccustomed to hearing viewpoints like Maloney’s—in fact, she welcomes discussion on the matter.
“It’s a controversial cause,” Priano admitted. “But all causes started because someone decided that to be silent would be worse.”