CHICAGO – A tragic chain of events that led to the death of a retired elementary teacher in Chicago started when a police officer confronted a man in a West Side alley. After issuing a call for help, the officer could be heard over the police radio screaming, “Drop the gun!”
Three minutes later and just two blocks away, two police vehicles speeding to the officer's aid collided at an intersection, one catapulting the other onto a sedan taking 84-year-old Verona Gunn home after a family cookout. She died hours later on an operating table.
That crash last year and another this month that killed a young Chicago mother highlight a police reform issue that hasn't received as much attention as the use of excessive force: The hundreds of deadly crashes involving speeding police that occur nationwide each year.
Audio obtained exclusively by The Associated Press of police radio transmissions before Gunn was fatally injured reveals that a dispatcher told responding officers over and over to reduce their speed because the suspect had been disarmed.
“Slow down,” she says firmly. She repeats that order at least five more times over two minutes.
Police are more likely to speed through minority neighborhoods, said Gunn’s son, Dwight Gunn, who is a pastor. He said he sees police racing past his church all day in the predominately black Austin neighborhood, where his mother raised her three kids and where the accident took her life.
The problem, he said, should be seen in the context of the push for far-reaching police reforms in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.
He and other advocates want stricter department policies limiting scenarios in which police can speed.
“Biases,” Gunn said, “show up in every aspect of policing, including this one.”
The crash that took Verona Gunn's life happened around 10 p.m. on May 25, 2019, shortly after she left a cookout to celebrate a family member’s college graduation. Her daughter at the wheel heeded police sirens and stopped at crosswalk lines.
Oncoming police either didn’t heed or didn't hear the dispatcher canceling the call for assistance.
After her last order to slow down, the dispatcher suddenly seems confused by a garbled transmission from an officer radioing in from the intersection and sounding distressed.
“We have multiple people shot,” the dispatcher says haltingly.
“We do not have multiple people shot,” an officer at the scene of the crash responds, cursing. “It’s a … car accident!”
“We have officers hurt,” he adds. “We have civilians hurt. We have children hurt.”
Gunn’s daughter, a family friend in the passenger seat and the friend’s 9-year-old grandchild next to Gunn in the back were injured, as were 10 officers. All were treated and released.
The audio was provided to the AP by the Gunn family's lawyer, Andrew M. Stroth. He received it as part of ongoing civil litigation from Chicago's Office of Emergency Management.
A jury last year awarded $21.3 million to the family of Maria Carrion-Adame, a 37-year-old mother of five who was killed by a suspected minivan thief trying to shake police. Lawyers said officers continued the chase on the South Side even after a boss told them to stop.
The city has lost in court or settled suits in 62 police-pursuit crashes over a decade, the Chicago Sun-Times reported last year.
Movies have helped create a perception that high-risk, dare-devil police chases are vital for catching bad guys and rarely have dire consequences for officers or bystanders.
Statistics suggests otherwise.
Crashes during law enforcement pursuits killed more than 7,000 people nationwide between 1996 and 2015, or 355 annually on average, according to the last comprehensive report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on the issue in 2017. Nearly 30% of the people killed were in vehicles not involved in pursuits, 4% were bystanders, 65% were suspects and 1% were officers.
The June 3 crash on Chicago’s North Side that killed 37-year-old Guadalupe Francisco-Martinez happened as police chased a shooting suspect who prosecutors say hit speeds of 100 mph (160 kph). Video shows the police car striking Francisco-Martinez’s SUV with such force that both vehicles appear to explode.
A police oversight body is investigating the crashes that killed Francisco-Martinez and Gunn.
Chicago police policy requires that officers use a balancing test to determine whether the need to catch a suspect outweighs the dangers created by speeding through city streets.
A study in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin in 2010 said some officers can’t stomach allowing a suspect to drive off, even if it's the safer option. Researchers also said chases produce an adrenaline rush impairs officers’ motor skills.
Technology has been available for years that offers alternatives, including magnetized GPS devises that can be flung onto a suspect’s car, enabling police to stop and track the signal.
In a letter sent Sunday to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Dwight Gunn said Francisco-Martinez's death demonstrates the urgent need for tighter rules about when police can speed.
The Gunns' attorney said he hopes he'll be able to look back and see Verona Gunn's death as a catalyst leading to new speeding protocols, adding, “It can’t be that her life was taken in vain.”
Dwight Gunn said in a phone interview that he takes solace in knowing his deeply religious mom was in good spirits at the gathering before the crash, talking with and embracing friends and family.
“It was almost like she knew she was leaving and she was saying goodbye,” he said.
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mtarm