The city has been sued twice over claims that the same Wichita police officer drove dangerously on duty, leading to the death of a 12-year-old girl in one instance and resulting in serious injuries to a motorist in another.
On Tuesday, a lawyer representing 23-year-old Juan M. Santiago filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging negligence by Officer Atlee Vogt and another officer in a high-speed chase where a fleeing driver ran a red light and struck Santiago, leaving him with internal injuries and fractured bones.
Although it appears from preliminary information that Vogt was driving with emergency lights and sirens, a high-speed chase wasn’t warranted and was too risky for the circumstances, said Santiago’s attorney, Blake Shuart of Wichita.
“Wichita is a heavily populated urban area, not the Wild West,” Shuart said.
Sharon Dickgrafe, chief deputy city attorney, said Wednesday she couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
According to the claims made in two lawsuit, Vogt’s actions have been called into question in three separate incidents in less than two years: a September 2011 collision involving Vogt; the girl’s February 2012 death; and the June 2012 crash that injured Santiago.
Vogt couldn’t be reached for comment; the Police Department declined to comment. According to the Wichita police website, Vogt is a third-shift patrol officer on the city’s east side.
In December, the parents of 12-year-old Suhani Bhakta filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Vogt and the city, saying he was speeding while driving without lights and sirens when his patrol car struck the girl as she was darting across South Broadway near her home just before 7 p.m. Feb. 12, 2012. She died from her injuries.
Four months after her death, Vogt was the main officer involved in a chase that resulted in Santiago’s injuries, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday. Santiago’s lawyer, in the lawsuit filed in state District Court, gives this account: About 12:15 a.m. June 23, 2012, Vogt and another officer, identified only as “Froese,” responded to a report of a suspicious person near Gilbert and Washington streets. After Vogt spotted a vehicle with two people, the vehicle took off going south. The dispatcher said the vehicle was stolen, and Vogt began to pursue it.
Vogt “had no reason to believe that the suspects he was pursuing had a committed a violent felony offense or posed an imminent threat — only that the vehicle had been stolen,” the claim says. Vogt “then initiated a high-speed pursuit of the vehicle as the ‘primary’ pursuing officer. Officer Froese was the secondary officer ‘calling’ the pursuit.”
The chase continued toward Harry and Hydraulic streets at speeds of 65 mph or faster, the lawsuit says.
At the same time, Santiago was exiting northbound I-135 at Harry and was driving appropriately when the fleeing vehicle ran a red light at Harry and crashed into him at a high speed, the lawsuit says.
The impact caused Santiago to suffer a ruptured diaphragm, lacerated spleen, contusions to his large bowel, pancreas and kidneys, fractures to his arm, collarbone, pelvis and ribs and a concussion.
“He’s fighting hard to recover from his injuries,” Shuart said.
The chase endangered lives in ways that violated state laws and Police Department policies, Shuart claimed in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks “in excess of” $75,000, the minimum amount required by the court; the lawsuit will seek specific damages later.
The other lawsuit, involving the death of the girl and filed earlier this year, cited a report from the Kansas Highway Patrol that Vogt’s patrol car was going between 39 and 51 mph in a 30 mph zone, with no sirens or emergency lights.
The city, in its response filed in the lawsuit, denied that Vogt was speeding or negligent.
According to court documents filed this week by the girl’s family, Vogt previously violated the Police Department’s policies and procedures on Sept. 4, 2011, in a situation involving the use of emergency lights and sirens that resulted in a collision. The document doesn’t elaborate about the 2011 incident.
In the lawsuit, Suhani’s family contends that the city was negligent in implementing policies and negligent in training, supervising and retaining Vogt.
Wichita police have said that the officer was on his way to a burglary occurring at an automotive business and that he was following policy in such situations by driving without emergency lights or sirens. Police said investigators were looking at whether an SUV traveling on Broadway obstructed the officer’s view and said the officer braked hard before hitting the girl.
Police Department policy says officers can speed only if they have activated lights and sirens, which are reserved for certain emergencies.