Thank you to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (@journalsentinel) reporter Jesse Garza (@JJGGarza) for taking time to learn about our mission and for putting together a terrific story.
A father who lost his innocent bystander son in a police chase criticizes Milwaukee billboard campaign
Jonathan Farris has never been able to make sense of his son’s death.
Paul Farris was 23 when the taxi he and his girlfriend were in was struck by an SUV being chased by a Massachusetts state trooper after a traffic violation.
“If Paul was killed as a result of a violent felony … where a person’s life was put at risk, we could understand that,” Farris said. “But Paul was killed as a result of a guy making an illegal U-turn.”
Now, 11 years later, Jonathan Farris can’t make sense of new billboards warning four-wheeled lawbreakers of the consequences of fleeing Milwaukee police.
“Does anyone actually believe that a few billboards will have ANY impact on Milwaukee’s criminal driving problems?” Farris, founder of Madison-based Pursuit for Change, asked this week in an open letter to Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales and the city’s Fire and Police Commission.
The national organization advocates for safer police pursuit policies, more pursuit training for officers and technology that helps reduce the need for pursuits.
“Criminals could care less what is printed on a billboard,” Farris said.
The cost of the billboards is even more perplexing to Farris since Mayor Tom Barrett and the Common Council approved funding for expanded GPS tracking technology for new police vehicles.
“If you’re going to spend money, put it back into things that help reduce pursuits,” Farris says in the letter.
Morales has said the billboards serve as a reminder of the reckless driving initiative launched by Milwaukee police, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office and the State Patrol earlier this year.
He added that the initiative is bolstered by his department’s pursuit policy, which was revised a year ago to allow officers to chase drivers suspected of nonviolent felonies such as drug possession and reckless driving.
The department had tightened the policy in 2010 after four bystanders were killed by drivers fleeing police. The policy then stated that officers could not chase for misdemeanor offenses, such as drug possession, or nonviolent felonies, such as burglary.
Morales was unavailable for comment Thursday and Friday, but a police spokeswoman said the reckless driving initiative has resulted in about 2,500 traffic-related citations and the seizure of a significant amount of drugs and illegal money.
“Our priority is to keep the streets of Milwaukee safe,” Sgt. Sheronda Grant said, also noting a 21% drop in fatal crashes.
On June 7, Milwaukee Police Officer Charles Irvine Jr., 23, was killed when the squad he was in crashed on the city’s northwest side during a pursuit of a reckless driver. His partner, Officer Matthew Schulze, was driving and was injured in the rollover crash.
The suspected fleeing driver, Ladell Harrison, 29, has been charged with 11 felonies.
Thousands of bystanders killed, injured
Nationally, from 1979 to 2015, more than 5,000 bystanders and passengers — including Paul Farris — were killed and thousands more injured during police pursuits at high speeds and in hazardous conditions, often for minor infractions, according to an analysis by USA TODAY.
Paul Farris was born in Milwaukee, grew up in Minneapolis and earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, in 2006.
He was the lead singer of an indie rock band called theMark, was working as an insurance adjuster and had just completed law school entrance exams.
“He was an outgoing, active, smart, engaged young man,” his father recalled.
“He had a lot of best friends.”
Early on May 27, 2007, Paul Farris and his girlfriend were in Somerville, Massachusetts, in a taxi driven by Walid Chahine, 45.
Shortly before 1:30 a.m., Javier Morales, then 29, fled a trooper attempting to stop him in nearby Everett for a traffic violation in his Mercury Mountaineer.
Morales led the trooper on a high-speed chase through Everett, Medford and finally Somerville, where his SUV slammed into the taxi, fatally injuring Farris and critically injuring his girlfriend and Chahine.
Chahine died several days later.
Notified of his son’s death by an emergency room doctor, Farris was not aware a police pursuit preceded the crash until after he arrived in Massachusetts to claim his son’s body.
“The State Patrol never contacted us,” he said. “I learned about what had happened from a reporter.”
Javier Morales was charged with two counts each of manslaughter and motor vehicle homicide and sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison.
State Police later overhauled the agency’s chase policy, placing greater emphasis on assessing potential risk to the public.
Jonathan Farris sought solace by connecting with the families of other pursuit victims and began researching pursuit policies and fatalities.
This led to “activism as therapy” and his eventual founding of Pursuit for Change.
He now travels the country promoting safer pursuit policies among lawmakers, law enforcement agencies and the media and has helped craft legislation to reduce unnecessary pursuits.
“My son would expect this of me, and I’m confident that if it had happened to me he would have done the same thing,” Farris said.
“The only way change ever occurs is if some people get mad enough and something gets done.”