Mother and son hit in police high speed chase have questions

Policies collide in Madison and surrounding communities

By: - November 29, 2023 5:45 am
Emergency lights on a us police cop car arrest

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Late in the morning on Aug. 10, 2023, Michelle Drea, who works as the city assessor in Madison, was driving her 16-year-old son Chase to a friend’s house. Drea was approaching a green light on Seminole Highway when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a car speeding toward her. The car, going 125 miles per hour on the Beltline, hit a median strip at the Seminole Highway exit and rocketed into the air, flipping over and landing on top of Drea’s car. It bounced off her hood, knocked over a tree and flipped again before it came to rest upside down.

“Airbags go off, there’s steam everywhere. It smelled terrible,” Drea recalls. “And then, within minutes — not even, it felt like seconds — there’s a police officer running into the intersection with her weapon drawn, yelling … ‘Get the f— out’ … you know, yelling at the guy in the car.”

Drea and her son crouched in the wheel well of their totaled vehicle, fearing they would be caught in the line of fire. The whole experience, she says, was “terrifying.”

Michelle Drea and her son Chase
Michelle Drea and her son Chase | Photo courtesy of Michelle Drea

Later, as emergency vehicles arrived, the police officer who gave chase came over to tell Drea that the man who crashed into them had guns and drugs in his car, “but you’re safe now,” Drea says the cop told her. “She was very nice to my son.”

Drea and her son felt fortunate to be released from the hospital with only minor injuries.The driver of the other car also was released after being treated for non-life-threatening injuries and was booked into the Dane County jail.  

“I thought: Wow, we really dodged a bullet there,” Drea says. “And I was grateful in the moment for [the police officer’s] help.” She even tracked down the officer’s name and address at the Village of Maple Bluff Police Department and sent her a thank-you note.

But now, Drea says, “I wish I could take back the thank you.”

Conflicting high-speed chase policies

Over the next few days, Drea watched for local news stories on the accident, but saw nothing. “I made a story up in my head that maybe this is about drugs, and they’re trying to use this guy to get a bigger fish.” Later, after talking to her colleagues in Madison city government, she learned more about broader context around the incident. The Maple Bluff police department had been participating with police departments from other surrounding communities in a county-wide group exercise to track stolen vehicles. The Maple Bluff officer initiated the high speed pursuit when the driver of a car moving erratically refused to stop. The guns and drugs were not discovered until the chase was over.

Michelle Drea's wrecked car
Michelle Drea’s wrecked car at the scene of the accident | Photo courtesy of Michelle Drea

“We were so close to death that day,” says Drea. “If it were something like you’re doing a drug bust and it was big and maybe he was hurting somebody, you feel a little bit better … at least I could wrap my head around it.”

“But then to learn that this was just an exercise that they’d done for stolen vehicles, that he was driving erratically,” Drea adds, “it’s devastating. You know, the willingness that they have to risk my and my son’s life for something as small as erratic driving. Like the arrogance of that … it does not sit well with me.”

“She has a right to be upset,” Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes says of Drea. “She should not have been injured because of a car fleeing after a traffic violation.”

Although they were conducting a joint exercise, the different departments were operating under different rules for when to initiate a high-speed chase. Maple Bluff’s policy, which has generated controversy among residents of the Madison suburb, allows officers broad discretion in initiating high speed chases, including for traffic violations. Madison police follow a practice recommended by national policing experts that restricts high speed chases to serious threats involving people who have committed or are about to commit a violent felony.

Barnes has been working with a group of chiefs in Dane County to try to reach an agreement on a consistent plan across the different local departments that are deputized to chase people into Madison. 

“We have to come to some consensus: If you’re in someone’s jurisdiction, you should play by their rules,” Barnes says.

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Drea says she and her son were lucky. They were protected by their heavy-duty Toyota 4Runner — “it’s like a tank,” says Drea. Also, she hadn’t quite entered the intersection at the moment of the collision. Had she been driving a lighter vehicle, or had she reached the intersection just a few seconds sooner, she says, “We’d be dead.”

A tweaked nerve in Drea’s elbow that causes her fingers to go numb is the only physical reminder of the accident. Chase, her son, has suffered some psychological after effects. Shortly after the accident he became “hypervigilant,” Drea says.

 “When we approach intersections while driving,” Chase says, “it’s like, there’s always a thought in the back of my mind, like at any moment we can get T-boned.” Although he’s old enough to get his driver’s license, he’s putting it off. “The fear of getting hit again, that’s just scaring me,” he says. “I’d rather bike. I think it’s safer.”

Costs versus benefits 

Drea has been advised not to sue for damages, even though she estimates that buying another car, increased insurance costs and her medical copays add up to about $50,000. (The driver of the car that hit her was uninsured.) Courts in recent years have sided with police in lawsuits involving high speed chases.

But that could change, says Barnes. “Police departments around the country have wiped their hands of liability for vehicle pursuits. And it’s true recent court cases and the Supreme Court have said if you’re killed in a vehicle pursuit, that’s on you,” Barnes says. “But we don’t know if that’s gonna change. One thing you never want to do is make case law.”

In Milwaukee, Antoinette Broomfield, whose son was an innocent bystander accidentally killed by police in a high-speed chase, has filed a lawsuit against the department. Her lawsuit, Wisconsin Watch reports, comes amid a 20-fold surge of police chases in the years since Milwaukee loosened restrictions for pursuits — leading to a parallel surge in injuries and deaths. 

A spike in reckless driving drove the policy shift in Milwaukee to more high-speed chases. The Milwaukee police department engaged in 1,028 chases in 2022, up from 50 in 2012, according to Wisconsin Watch

Madison, a smaller city with fewer reckless driving incidents, has gone in the opposite direction. The Madison Police Department logged only 20 pursuits in 2022. Barnes is proud of his department’s reduction in high speed pursuits. “We put a lot of energy into prevention,” he says. “We also review every pursuit to make sure the officer is following traffic laws and exercising due regard.”

“People can call it a liberal or a progressive policy — but it’s a common-sense, empirical-based policy,” he says. “Our community deserves to be safe. Sometimes it’s best to de-escalate.”

Dr. Shon Barnes (official portrait)
Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes (official portrait)

“We’re gonna catch ’em,” Barnes says of dangerous criminals. His department relies on detective work and tracing license plates as well as putting down spike strips. “But if we put our public at risk, pursue for reasons that are nonviolent, there’s a good chance they’ll be out of jail before an innocent bystander who gets hurt is out of the hospital. That’s not justice.”

Maple Bluff had 43 vehicle pursuits in 2022, according to the department’s draft operational overview — more than twice as many as Madison, a city with a population of 270,000. 

“I just wonder if they consider the cost,” Drea says. “On the one hand, you can say you’re gung ho and you want to go after criminals. But in that same instance, if you’re authorizing this kind of hot pursuit, inherent in that is a judgment that collateral damage — meaning killing people —  is OK. I am curious how [Maple Bluff Police Chief Tanner Nystrom] would justify that.”

Nystrom did not return a series of calls from the Examiner requesting comment on the issue. But in mid-November he presented a draft “Operational Overview” to the Village board that directly addresses the question. In the draft, Nystrom specifically criticizes the most recent Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report on high speed chases — the very report about which Madison Chief Barnes says, “Our policy conforms almost to the letter with their recommendations.”

Taking issue with ‘the sanctity of human life’

Specifically, Nystrom takes issue with PERF’s statement that “the guiding principle driving an agency’s vehicle pursuit policy should always remain the sanctity of human life.”

“The statement could be interpreted as suggesting that the preservation of life should supersede all other considerations, including the rule of law,” the Maple Bluff document states. “However, the rule of law is a fundamental principle that ensures justice and social order. If law enforcement agencies were to prioritize life preservation to the extent that they neglect their duty to enforce the law, it could lead to a breakdown of social order.”

Maple Bluff, a mostly white, upper-income hamlet of fewer than 1,400 residents surrounded on all sides by a more racially and economically diverse city, has virtually no crime. Although there has been a surge of concern about potential dangerous crime among some village residents, data don’t show a recent uptick in the crime rate.

Village of Maple Bluff
Village of Maple Bluff entrance | Photo courtesy Village of Maple Bluff

The Village of Maple Bluff does include several blocks along North Sherman Avenue, a busy thoroughfare that is mostly in Madison. That is where most of the police department’s high speed chases originate. Most of them end in Madison.

In his draft operational overview, Nystrom argues with what he calls “anti-police narratives” in the PERF report. These include the assertion that “if a driver is not reckless when the police initiate a traffic stop but takes off in a reckless fashion,” the police are the ones causing the reckless driving. 

This theory undersells the “personal responsibility” of drivers, as well as the responsibility of police to uphold the law, the Maple Bluff document states.

“I would never criticize another chief,” Barnes says. “He has to be accountable to his community. But we’re not talking about his community. We’re talking about Madison — the community I’m accountable to.”

“We’re also living in a time when officers in small departments are looking for some diversity in their work,” says Barnes. “Chiefs want to keep them, give them some relief from boredom. They don’t want to implement policies that are seen as liberal or not pro-police, because they don’t want to lose people.”

Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney who chairs the village board’s police subcommittee, has raised questions about potential liability for accidents caused by high speed chases. “I think it’s an issue that we need to study,” he says.

Nystrom “has made a good argument” that a less restrictive chase policy “keeps bad people off the street,” says Wittenwyler. “We have to weigh that against the increased liability to the Village.”

Recently a large number of residents showed up at a Village board meeting to object to what they see as an unwelcoming and unhealthy preoccupation with crime.

“For 18 months we heard from a group of residents that have a very strong belief that we need to be more aggressive in policing,” says Wittenwyler. “Now, beginning in November, we’ve heard from a group of residents questioning whether those are the best philosophies for the police department. And now we’re going into a period where the board will weigh both sides of the argument and see where we go from there.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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