The High-Speed Chase That Wasn’t; Oakland Teacher Meets OPD Reality

Friday August 08, 2003

It would seem that Oakland police have begun to develop the uncanny ability to see a driver violate a traffic law, follow as the driver speeds away, either observe the ensuing accident from a distance or miss the accident altogether, and arrive just in time to either capture the suspect or secure the offending vehicle.  

The important OPD contention to be noted here is that while Oakland police are actively working to keep our streets free of reckless drivers, the police are not responsible for any intervening automobile crashes.  

At least, that’s what you will believe if you take Oakland Police at their word.  

This was the police department’s contention in the deaths of Oakland residents U’Kendra Johnson a year and a half ago and Breeona Mobley last spring, both in deep East Oakland. Now it’s come up again, in the recent North Oakland injury accident of Oakland schoolteacher Judi Hirsch.  

Hirsch says she was waiting to make the turn from Lawton onto 51st Street—a residential area two blocks from Emerson Elementary—on a weekday morning in early June when a late model Buick sped up 51st, tried to make the turn at Lawton, lost control, and slammed into Hirsch’s car.  

Hirsch says she closed her eyes just before the crash and when she opened them again, the Buick was gone, her car was totaled from two direct hits to its front and rear sides, and she felt lucky to have escaped “with only a broken rib and a lot of fear.”  

Hirsch remembered one other significant detail of her accident. Just before she closed her eyes, she saw a police car following the racing, out-of-control Buick, “so close, all I could see was the string of lights on top of the police car.”  

The emergency lights weren’t activated and she heard no warning siren, she says, or else “I might have pulled to the side, thus saving myself and my car.”  

And what disturbed Hirsch as much as the accident was that the police officer left the scene as quickly as the other driver, not stopping to check on her to see the extent of her injuries, not even calling an ambulance.  

So as soon as she began feeling better, Hirsch started making inquiries with the Oakland Police Department.  

She found out that the Buick had been carjacked in the parking lot of the Pleasant Valley Drive Safeway only moments before the accident and that the carjacker abandoned the Buick shortly after the accident, without being apprehended.  

Hirsch also learned that, contrary to what she had observed, police are contending that there was no police chase immediately preceding the accident.  

In mid-June, Hirsch wrote OPD Chief Richard Word, describing the incident and asking why an OPD officer was conducting a high-speed chase in a residential area, without warning lights or sirens, and why he didn’t stop to check on her condition after the accident.  

Hirsch says she never heard back directly from Word, but instead got a call back from a representative of Word, who insisted that there had been no police chase at the time of the accident.  

She also got more details from an email written by Deputy Police Chief Pete Dunbar, who replied to Councilmember Nancy Nadel’s inquiries about the accident. Dunbar wrote that Officer R. Williams “noticed the suspect vehicle at a high rate of speed in the area of 49th Street and Broadway. After following the vehicle [Williams] noticed that the driver failed to stop at a stop sign on 45th Street.”  

Dunbar says that Williams activated his emergency equipment and stopped the vehicle, but then “the suspect vehicle fled,” and Williams called in to headquarters that he was “not in pursuit.” (The official OPD Hirsch accident report tells a slightly different story, stating that “Officer Williams never activated his emergency lights or sirens.”)  

“Officer Williams informed me that at the point the suspect vehicle fled, he was only aware of the traffic violation and would not engage in a vehicle pursuit for traffic only,” Dunbar continued in his email to Nadel.  

Williams “continued to search the area” and finally located the abandoned vehicle on 41st Street. It wasn’t until Williams found the abandoned vehicle, Dunbar wrote, that Williams was informed of the carjacking.  

Significantly, there is nothing in either Dunbar’s email or the OPD accident report about where Officer Williams was when Hirsch’s car was hit, and the exact sequence of events between the carjacking and the crash.  

A frustrated Hirsch says she is going to continue her inquiries about the “phantom” police car following the vehicle that struck her, including bringing the matter to Oakland City Council. Convinced that a high-speed police chase led to her accident, she finds herself both furious and frightened.  

“There were children on the street when the accident happened” she says.  

“And I shouldn’t be afraid to get back in my car and drive.”