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Austin officials to review pursuit policy following deadly SXSW crash

Chief says the incident, which left two people dead and nearly two dozen injured, would have happened even if the officer declined to pursue the suspect

By Ciara O'Rourke
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN — Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said Thursday that officials will review the department's pursuit policy after a man he said was fleeing an officer plowed through a crowd of people who were on a street that was blocked off to traffic for South by Southwest.

But Acevedo said the gruesome incident, which left two people dead and nearly two dozen injured, would have happened even if the officer declined to pursue the suspect, who has been identified as Rashad Owens of Killeen.

"This was going to happen no matter what," Acevedo said. "This is a guy who made a decision. He doesn't care about human life. He only cares about himself."

Owens was arrested early Thursday morning and faces faces multiple charges, including capital murder, according to police.

The name of the officer who pursued Owens was not released Thursday, and a police official said the department cannot yet discuss any potential policy violations by the officer.

At 12:30 a.m., an officer in a patrol car who was assigned to look for drunken drivers turned on his lights to pull Owens over on the southbound Interstate 35 frontage road near Ninth Street, Acevedo said. Owens feigned like he was pulling over and turned into the Shell gas station on the corner there, the chief said, and seemed like he was weaving through the crowded parking lot to stop in a place where he was out of everyone's way. Instead, Owens drove onto Ninth Street and went the wrong way on the one-way street, he said.

As Owens neared Red River, the officer, who was in a bigger car that couldn't navigate as well as Owens' Honda, was still by the gas station, Acevedo said. It wasn't until after Owens hurtled past a barricade at Red River and the officer saw him hitting pedestrians that he turned on his siren and decided to pursue him, he said. Some witnesses said Owens was going as fast as 70 mph.

By 12:31 a.m., two people were dead at the scene. The chase spanned three blocks.

"This happened so fast," Acevedo said. "This happened in one minute."

Officers are allowed to pursue suspected drunken drivers. Not letting them do so is an "invitation to chaos," Acevedo said. "Imagine a policy where drunk drivers in this city knew, 'Hey, if I run, they'll never chase me. I'll get away.'"

The department's policy states that the immediate apprehension of a suspect is generally not more important than the safety of the public and pursuing officers, but other factors officers must consider include the safety of the area where the pursuit is happening and whether the suspect is a serious threat to public safety.

Acevedo said his focus on this case starts with Owens, "the person who acted with an abandoned heart, with no regard for anyone else but himself." Then, he said, his focus will shift to looking at if and how the department should change its policies on street closures and pursuits.

Copyright 2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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