Speed Freaks

Kristine Heykants

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.

"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."

Minneapolis gives cops complete discretion on whether to chase. Additionally, supervisors are required to monitor the chase as it unfolds, and have the authority to call it off should they feel lives are in danger. But, claims Bennett, pursuit statistics from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension show that cops and their supervisors rarely stop a chase. And since the MPD has repeatedly failed to rein in its cops, says Bennett, Feist's family is suing the city of Minneapolis as well.

Bennett blames the problem in part on Minnesota's lack of clear-cut guidelines as to when it's alright for police to give chase to a fleeing suspect. The primary factor is "officer discretion": A cop can initiate a chase with no suspicions other than that the driver committed a minor traffic violation.

All off which suggests that Simonson and the MPD went overboard in sending four squad cars careening down residential streets in pursuit of a beater being driven by an unarmed man. "Mind you," Bennett complains, "the suspect had the owner's keys, recently obtained with permission, there was no violence involved, and there was no report of guns or weapons. It's not as if this as if this was a car-jacking, bank robbery, or murder."

On December 9, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a high-profile California case that mirrors Bennett's. At the center of the debate is a case involving two teenagers on a motorcycle and the Sacramento Police. The young men hadn't committed a crime, but they weren't supposed to be riding the bike. When an officer spotted them, they sped away. Only 75 seconds into the chase, 16-year-old Philip Lewis fell off the motorcycle, was run over by a Sacramento cop, and died.

A U.S. District Court judge initially dismissed a lawsuit filed by Lewis' parents, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals revived the suit. The Supreme Court's ruling, says Bennett, may force police departments to change their policies in order to avoid future lawsuits. While nearly every state in the country relies on officer discretion as the primary guideline for initiating a pursuit, civil-rights activists have long contended this "carte-blanche" system gives cops permission to chase even the most nominal offenders while endangering the lives of others. In states like California, says Bennett, high-speed pursuits have become a fixture of everyday police practice. One result is that courts are increasingly clogged by lawsuits. As Bennett sees it, the way to fix this is to implement stricter guidelines. Police departments, however, contend that officers should be shielded from such "second-guessing" lawsuits and should concentrate on apprehending suspects.

Minneapolis, meanwhile, sees nothing wrong with its pursuit policies. "Although I obviously can't comment on this case," says Jim Moore, one of the attorneys defending the city in the Feist suit, "improper pursuit is not an issue [within the MPD]."

Simonson did not return City Pages' phone call, but his MPD supervisor agrees. "Personally, I wouldn't want to be involved in a chase," says Lt. Scott. "And I know he would tell you that a chase is the last thing [an officer] wants. He has a wife and two small kids at home." In an interview for this story, Scott said he didn't know Simonson had been involved in a previous lawsuit over a high-speed chase. But, he argues, cops are forced to operate under a "damned if you do, and damned if you don't" system. "Decisions like these are made in seconds," he contends.

Bennett, now slumped in an office chair, responds that that's simply not good enough. "Brian Feist was killed for a $1,700 car," he snarls. "And even if the car had been stolen, [Shannon] wasn't going to go to prison. It's completely senseless."

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