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Local editorial

Police were not to blame for crash

However, it is appropriate that the officers' actions are reviewed

No one should be confused about who is to blame for the tragic Feb. 11 vehicle crash in downtown Medford. A young man ' apparently drunk and driving at speeds reportedly of up to 100 mph ' ran a red light, killing himself and an innocent father of three and seriously injuring two others.

The fault is his. There is no other way to cut it.

The incident began when a Jeep Cherokee driven by 17-year-old Kevan Thatcher-Stephens passed by a Phoenix police officer who was out of his vehicle on a traffic stop. The Cherokee was traveling at a high speed and its occupants yelled and honked at the officer as they passed by. After hearing a radio alert, a Talent police officer on break in Medford and a Jackson County sheriff's captain responded and pursued the Cherokee north on Riverside Avenue.

At the intersection of Riverside and Jackson Street, the Cherokee ran a red light and broadsided another vehicle, killing 26-year-old Charles Bench of Shady Cove, the father of three young children. A passenger in Bench's vehicle suffered injuries that may be with him for the rest of his life, and a passenger in the Cherokee also was injured.

Many people are asking why, given the nature of the crash, are police actions of that night being questioned? Is this an effort to shift blame from the teenager to the officers who were attempting to stop his wild ride?

Well, for some, it may indeed be that. Too often, people are willing to assume the worst about authority. If the police had not pursued the vehicle driven by Thatcher-Stephens, they suggest, perhaps the accident wouldn't have happened. That's a presumptuous argument. Perhaps, instead, he would have hit someone else and killed even more innocent people. We will never know.

— We do know the fatal crash was not the police officers' fault. However, that doesn't mean the police officers' actions should go without the sort of review that's being conducted right now. The primary issue is whether the officers participated in a high-speed chase that was not warranted by the circumstances.

The investigators certainly have more information than we have access to, but we would be surprised if they found any major fault on the officers' part. We agree with Sheriff Mike Winters when he says police would have been criticized if they had not attempted to stop the speeding vehicle and it had been involved in a crash.

It also appears both police cars slowed their pursuit as they approached the busy city center, beginning near 10th Street and Riverside. They backed off, but Thatcher-Stephens sped away and struck Bench's vehicle several blocks later.

State law addresses officers' latitude in pursuing vehicles and essentially allows pursuit above the speed limit as long as it is carried out ... with due regard for the safety of all persons. (ORS 820.300)

Virtually all police agencies, including the Jackson County Sheriff's Department and the Talent Police Department, have their own rules for pursuit. Jackson County's and Talent's are similar to the state law, allowing pursuit as long as it doesn't create a hazard.

So it is entirely appropriate that the officers' actions are investigated. That doesn't mean they are guilty of anything, only that the agencies are ensuring their rules were followed.

There are two issues here. In the first, a teenager drove recklessly and killed two people, destroying or damaging the lives of several families at the same time.

The second is whether the two police officers followed established rules. They are not to blame for the accident, but investigators are doing their job in attempting to ensure that the officers did their jobs professionally on that sad, tragic night.