Speed Freaks

Minneapolis police are involved in too many dangerous high-speed chases, according to a local civil-rights attorney. He says the city needs to take steps to protect bystanders and do something about its "cowboy" officers.

AS CIVIL-RIGHTS attorney Bob Bennett discusses the case, he covers the expanse of the conference room at his law office. Gathering steam, he paces, sits down, stands up, fiddles with his pen, rolls up his sleeves, and leans forward in his chair to punctuate his point. He's gone up against this cop before, Bennett says, and his charity has run out.

Bennett's latest case began on the afternoon of August 11, 1996, as Officer Bradley Jon Simonson was working out of the traffic division of the Minneapolis Police Department. While patrolling the Phillips neighborhood, Simonson spotted a 1962 black Ford Galaxie that fit the description MPD dispatchers had just given out of a stolen vehicle. Police believed that the suspect had taken the car for a test drive the day before and never returned. The owner had willingly given up the keys, and there was nothing in his complaint to police suggesting the suspect was armed or dangerous.

Here, Bennett looks up from the police report, shakes his head in disgust, and resumes reading: Simonson, a six-year traffic-division veteran, made a U-turn on Lake Street, and followed the black Ford for several blocks. On Park Avenue, the driver pulled over, even though Simonson hadn't turned on any warning lights or sirens. Simonson approached the car with his gun drawn and ordered the driver, Darren Shannon, to get out.

Kristine Heykants

"Fuck you," Simonson quoted Shannon as replying before speeding off. The cop jumped in his squad, called for backup, and began to chase Shannon northbound on Portland Avenue. From there the two cars raced through neighboring streets, going the wrong way on three one-way streets, at speeds that Bennett says reached 50 miles per hour.

Approximately 10 minutes after the chase had begun, Shannon drove up a freeway exit ramp, and into oncoming traffic. At this point, says Bennet, Simonson was joined by three other squads driven by officers Robert Glasrud, Kim Johnson, and Matthew Blade. According to MPD vehicular-pursuit policy, with the exception of when the suspect is known to be armed and dangerous, only two squad cars are allowed to be involved. "It's not as if this was some bad-ass crime," Bennett interjects. According to a witness, the pursuing squad cars "fanned out" across the freeway, forcing oncoming vehicles to swerve out of the way.

A 38-year-old Richfield native named Brian Feist, meanwhile, had the bad luck to be heading eastbound on Interstate 94 in the '91 Lincoln Town Car he drove for a local limousine company. Traffic was beginning to slow to a stop and Feist, who was in the right-hand lane, braked hard and swerved onto the shoulder to avoid hitting the car in front of him. At that very moment, Shannon, who had been driving on that same shoulder in hopes of eluding the police, slammed into Feist head on.

"I think he died immediately," says Bennett, who has filed a wrongful-death suit against the four police drivers on behalf of the Feist family. "At least I hope so. It took two hours for a crew to extricate him from the wreck with the jaws of life." Shannon and his passenger both ended up with broken legs, while Simonson didn't suffer so much as a scratch.

The first time Bennett went up against Simonson was in 1991, when the lawyer won $500,000 for a man who claims he was chased and beaten by Simonson. According to Bennett, in the early-morning hours of August 8, 1990, his client Mike Olson and a buddy were driving around in Olson's father's 1988 Chevy Camaro. Olson and his friend where in the vicinity of Bloomington and Franklin avenues when Simonson and his partner spotted the Camaro.

Simonson then contends that Olson rolled through a stop sign, and when he flipped on his lights, Olson panicked and fled. "I just had an instinct that this vehicle may have been stolen," the cop later testified. The chase concluded on northbound Interstate 35W when Olson slammed on the brakes to avoid a Mounds View Police roadblock. The car landed in a ditch.

Simonson testified under oath that Olson hit the windshield, broke it, and then bent the steering wheel in half, thus acquiring injuries that forced him into ICU for three days. A subsequent investigation, however, revealed that Olson wasn't injured by the crash, which in fact left his windshield intact. Bennett contends that Simonson and another officer approached the Camaro, pulled Olson out through the driver's side window, and beat him viciously. Neither was the car stolen nor had Olson committed a crime, says Bennett. Simonson attacked Olson, he maintains, because the cop's adrenaline got pumped up by the chase, and by the time he reached Olson, his rage was out of control. The city settled that suit out of court for $500,000.

"He fancies himself the best stolen-vehicle officer on the force, and he's testified that he sometimes has as many as 12 to 15 chases per month," says Bennett. "He's a cowboy. He's testified that there's an adrenaline rush during a high-speed chase, and it's exciting because you're driving fast."

Simonson's supervisor, however, says such assertions are "preposterous." "Statements like these are part of police subculture," says Lt. Edward Scott. "They're either hearsay or bravado." The truth is next to impossible to determine, he adds. While the MPD collects information about each pursuit--last year Minneapolis cops were involved in 220 chases--the department doesn't track them by officer, he says. "We just compile the data and forward it to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension."

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