Police departments named in fatal shooting
The driver of a white Chrysler minivan led police on a chase from Beaver Meadows to Franklin Township Tuesday evening. COPYRIGHT LARRY NEFF SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
The two officers involved in a scuffle that ended with the accidental shooting of a Florida man following a cross-county chase in December were from Lehighton Borough and Palmerton Borough police departments.
Names of the departments involved in the scuffle and firearm discharge were recently released by the Carbon County District Attorney’s office following a Right To Know request by the Times News.
The shooting, ruled accidental by Carbon County District Attorney Jean Engler in January, occurred following a 17-mile chase that ended in Franklin Township.
“There were numerous witnesses including one main civilian eyewitness who were interviewed during the investigation,” Engler said in a recent interview. “All of the witnesses were very consistent in all of the major points of their interviews, and that was a major reason for the determination of an accidental shooting. It was really the totality of all of the evidence that led to the ruling.”
Chiefs of both Palmerton and Lehighton police departments said they would not comment on the shooting.
Details of the chase
According to the report, at approximately 5 p.m. on Dec. 18, Beaver Meadows police Chief Mike Moressi was alerted to a white van driving erratically.
He located the vehicle and tried to activate a traffic stop, but after stopping briefly, the van sped away along Route 93.
The chase continued through Packer Township, Nesquehoning, Jim Thorpe and ended along Route 209 in Franklin Township.
The occupants of the van threw out several items during the pursuit, with the van clocked at going over 90 mph. The items were later retrieved and determined to be stolen bank checks.
Spike strips were deployed in the area of the Thomas J. McCall Memorial Bridge in Lehighton, which damaged the van’s tires, causing the driver to slow down and finally stop in the northbound lanes of Route 209 in Franklin Township.
The van was surrounded and the occupants ordered to get out of the vehicle.
When the middle seat occupant on the driver’s side, identified as Danny Washington of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, failed to comply with commands, the report says, an officer removed him from the vehicle. The two then struggled.
During the struggle, the pair collided into an assisting officer, whose weapon discharged, the report continues, wounding Washington.
He was transported by helicopter to St. Luke’s Allentown Campus, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy showed the cause of death was a single gunshot wound.
Pennsylvania State Police conducted an independent investigation, and tests on the officer’s gun were conducted.
“Based on a careful review of the copious evidence gathered during the investigation … my formal ruling is that the shooting was accidental,” Engler said in January. “Consequently, there is no basis to file charges against the officer whose weapon discharged and none will be filed. It is unfortunate that Mr. Washington lost his life during this encounter, but it is also abundantly clear from both civilian and police eyewitnesses that Mr. Washington’s own conduct in failing to comply and physically struggle with the officers contributed to his being shot and killed.”
Criminology professor weighs in
Dr. Richard A. Ruck Jr., instructor of sociology, social work and criminal justice at East Stroudsburg University, followed news of the incident in the press and recently weighed in on some of its key points.
Without knowing the identity of the officers, it is unknown if they were employed on a full- or part-time basis and also how many years of experience they had on the job.
“When you have smaller police departments, sometimes they don’t have the training opportunities of some of their larger counterparts,” Ruck said. “That is through no fault of their own. Police officers are generally not trying to go outside the legal boundaries during a high-pressure, deadly force incident, they just are not equipped with that training or experience. These are not common events.”
Police pursuits in general are not common in Carbon County. This incident was one of just seven pursuits in Carbon for 2018, compared with 13 in 2017, 19 in 2016 and 14 in 2015, according to a state police database. So far in 2019, there have already been 12 police pursuits in Carbon. Washington is the only suspect killed during a pursuit in the past five years.
Of the seven pursuits in 2018, one was initiated from suspected driving under the influence, one from a misdemeanor criminal offense and five from “other traffic offenses.” Twice officers made the decision to terminate the chase. In one other instance, the violator successfully eluded police. The four other pursuits ended with an apprehension of suspects.
“The majority of pursuits start as simple traffic infractions,” Ruck said. “Police officers will almost always say the ends justify the means. They will take the position that we know there were mistakes, we know innocent people may have been injured, but we apprehended bad people in the community. Officers may have a hard time finding that self control and calling themselves off without some type of supervision over the whole chase.”
Municipal officers are required to spend between 80-100 hours in both firearm and de-escalation training administered through the state police. Following that, they are to spend no less than 12 hours of annual update training.
“Those 12 hours pale in comparison to what police officers need,” Ruck said.
Following her ruling that the shooting was accidental, Engler said she would not release the names of the officers involved.
“When we investigate anyone, including non law enforcement officers, and don’t file charges, we wouldn’t release the name of that person,” she said.
Ruck said he doesn’t take a firm position on the naming of officers in that type of situation.
“The officers did nothing legally wrong, but you have to weigh that against the need for transparency,” he said. “They are public employees paid by the residents. The officer and their family need to be protected. There is value in being transparent, but I understand the other side as well and, if you can, you need to find some middle ground.”
A former police officer himself, Ruck said incidents like this shooting stick with those involved for a long time.
“I’ve been involved in several critical incidents as an officer, and I can tell you it affected my sleep, my mood and my physical demeanor,” he said. “It’s challenging in the immediate aftermath to lose sight of that incident. In the past I think there was a sense that police officers were supposed to take on a macho persona and just brush things like this off. I think we’re more aware now of PTSD when it comes to police officers.”
Four other people who were in the van and did get out the other side have also been arrested and charged.
Mitchell Knight, Creshaun Caldwell, Cedric Cason and Tyrone Parker, all from Florida, faced multiple counts of receiving stolen property for the stolen checks.
Knight, who was the driver, is also facing charges of fleeing and eluding police.
Caldwell pleaded guilty to one count of receiving stolen property and was sentenced to time-served (146 days) to one year in prison and 25 hours of community service.
Parker pleaded guilty to one count of receiving stolen property and was sentenced to six months to one year in prison and 25 hours of community service.
Knight and Cason are due back in Carbon County Court on Aug. 20.