Several witnesses have told D.C. police that officers were not chasing the driver of a car moments before the speeding vehicle struck and killed two young children Saturday afternoon in Northeast Washington, police officials said yesterday.
Another witness, a 35-year-old management consultant, told The Washington Post yesterday that police were not chasing the car before it hit Christopher Suydan Jr., 7, and Octavia Suydan, 8.
Police officials' preliminary assessment that officers acted properly before the siblings were killed was met with skepticism by some residents and community leaders, who did not give much credibility to the unidentified police witnesses.
The car's driver, Eric Palmer, 19, of the District has been charged with two counts of second-degree murder and was being held pending an initial hearing today in D.C. Superior Court.
Police officials said that Palmer also supported officers' contention that they were not chasing him. The suspect told investigators that he did not see any officers pursuing him and blamed the crash on faulty brakes, police said.
Investigators do not believe that the brakes on Palmer's Honda Accord were defective, police said. It was unclear yesterday whether officers had closely inspected the vehicle, and police officials cautioned that their investigation was only in its infancy.
Palmer's statement and witness accounts are at odds with what others described seeing Saturday afternoon. One witness told The Post on Saturday that police were speeding only 10 feet behind Palmer's car before he hit Octavia and Christopher as they crossed Florida Avenue at 12th Street NE.
The crash has highlighted a brewing debate in the District about whether tight restrictions on police chases should be relaxed.
In general, D.C. police are not allowed to chase suspects unless they believe a violent felony has been committed or a pursuit is necessary to prevent harm to the public.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said he was making arrangements to meet with family members of the victims. "My heart is broken, as are the spirits of my family and many in this city," Williams said. He would not comment on the status of the investigation into the deaths but said that the "real culprit is the person who evaded the police."
Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey would not say whether officers acted appropriately but placed blame for the deaths squarely on the fleeing driver.
"He was driving like a maniac," Ramsey said. "There are no excuses for a guy to drive like that."
The children's relatives said they were not assigning blame and were looking forward to getting more answers.
New details emerged yesterday about what led Palmer to bolt from police as they tried to arrest another man during a drug sting.
Police said an undercover officer purchased drugs from a man standing next to Palmer's car in the 600 block of Orleans Place NE before noon Saturday.
As officers in a marked and unmarked car swooped in to arrest the man, Palmer gunned the engine of the Accord and hurtled from the area, police said.
Palmer almost ran over an officer and struck a patrol car as he fled, according to police.
Another officer in a patrol car briefly pulled behind the Accord and turned on the cruiser's flashing lights and sirens in an attempt to pull it over, police said. But the driver refused to stop, police said.
At that moment, a lieutenant got on the police radio and ordered a halt to the pursuit, police said.
The patrol-car officer turned off his lights and stopped the chase, police officials said.
About four blocks later, Palmer barreled through a red light at Florida Avenue and 12th Streets NE, hitting the children. Family members said the children, who lived in Temple Hills, were with their father, Christopher Suydan Sr., and were crossing the street several steps in front of him.
Police said they have questioned several witnesses who saw the crash.
Those witnesses, including an off-duty police officer, told investigators that officers were not chasing the car, police officials said.
After hitting the children, who were thrown about 50 feet, Palmer's vehicle crashed into another car driven by a 17-year-old. She was not seriously injured.
He popped out one of the Accord's windows and fled on foot, authorities said. He was later arrested by police.
David Benson, a 35-year-old management information specialist, said in an interview with a reporter yesterday that he was working on a computer on the second floor of his rowhouse in the 1200 block of Florida Avenue when he heard a loud crash. He looked out his window and "saw two little kids rolling down the street."
"The police were not out there," Benson said. "I saw the guy out there. He got out of the car and started running down the street."
More than a minute later, he heard sirens and spotted police arriving at the scene, Benson said.
But others described a different scene. Tiffany Rorls, 20, who lives in the 1100 block of Florida Avenue, told The Post on Saturday that police were about 10 feet behind the speeding car. "They didn't stop chasing that car," Rorls said.
Last evening, Rorls stood by her account. "I was standing right there on my front porch," she said.
She said that other witnesses may have seen the police cars that flooded the area after the crash, but not the cruiser, which she said was less than two car lengths behind Palmer's Accord.
"Once it happened, they started coming from everywhere," Rorls said. She added that she had not been approached or interviewed by police.
The Rev. Paul Gaskins, bishop of Christian Conquest Fellowship Church, did not see the crash but saw the children lying on the road.
"You can't be chasing anybody out here, because it is too congested," he said. "I really think this was a problem with the police chasing the guy."
Police said witnesses might be confused because the incident happened so quickly and was so traumatic and because officers arrived at the scene soon after it occurred.
Investigators are trying to track down people who described the chase to reporters. They said they had not yet found anyone willing to contradict officers' version of what happened.
An expert on police chases, who is not involved in the investigation, said the short distance and time between the initial stop and crash were facts in the department's favor in assessing blame for the accident.
The driver "was getting away, regardless of what happened," said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina who has written extensively on police chases. "I don't see what the cops did wrong."
The issue of police chases has been a heated one in the District and nationally. Residents in some city neighborhoods have become so frustrated with juvenile auto thieves that they are pressing legislators to ease chase restrictions. Police union leaders say that the restrictions hamper officers' ability to curb crime, particularly auto thefts.
In response to the juvenile auto theft problem, two members of the D.C. Council recently introduced legislation to relax the department's pursuit restrictions.
Yesterday, one of those sponsors, Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), said it would be more difficult to pass such a measure in light of Saturday's tragedy.
"We have these kiddie car thieves who drive by and taunt police officers because they know there is nothing the police can do," Chavous said. "That can't stand."
"I think the balance may come down to training officers about alternatives to high-speed chases and making better use of creative means like barricades and helicopters," Chavous added. "That would be a whole lot better than just having the police throw up their hands."
Police officials have consistently said that relaxing the chase policy would be a mistake and that it is not worth risking the lives of innocent people to stop someone for stealing a car. Nationally, about 100 bystanders a year are killed in police chases, according to a recent study by the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle.
Those deaths account for about one-third of fatalities linked to police pursuits, the study found.
Staff writers Matthew Mosk and Eric Rich contributed to this report.