2013 pursuits

Of the 119 pursuits by the North Charleston Police Department last year:

Outcome

46 percent resulted in arrests

29 percent were terminated

25 percent in which suspect got away

Injuries

2 resulted in officer injury

7 suspects were injured

1 uninvolved person was hurt

Time of day

46 percent between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

35 percent between 3 and 11 p.m.

19 percent between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m.

A flash of blue lights and a blast of sirens overwhelmed the three men who had just left a friend's home in North Charleston.

Pursuit policy

Key provisions of the North Charleston Police Department's pursuit policy that was revised Jan. 1:

.Officers will not establish roadblocks.

.Pursuits will be limited to the number of vehicles needed to safely and effectively pursue the fleeing vehicle as determined by the supervisor monitoring the pursuit.

.Supervisors may direct other units to the perimeter if they feel that additional units are needed.

.Officers will end the pursuit if ... they lose extended sight of the fleeing vehicle.

.The division commander will forward all reports to internal affairs to determine whether any specific training needs or methods should be addressed.

.Senior supervisor will conduct an annual analysis of pursuits and report findings to the chief.

Nearly a dozen police cars trailed a white-and-gray Lexus outside the apartment complex off Otranto Road. Other cruisers lurked on the outskirts of the action.

Driving a white Toyota with two passengers, Olajuwon Wolfe didn't know what to do. The 23-year-old had nowhere to go, he thought, so he stopped.

What happened next in those early morning hours of Feb. 22 left Wolfe injured and frustrated by the North Charleston Police Department, and it prompted a former agency consultant to question whether the caravan-style vehicle pursuit, an apparent violation of the department's own policy, led officers to wrongly target Wolfe and his friends.

Documentation obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests depicted officers' actions in the recent chase and revealed a stance that past pursuits have not given police supervisors cause for concern. Two of the men also provided accounts of what they went through.

Wolfe saw the suspect's Lexus barrel back toward him. It hit two police cars and rear-ended his Toyota. The cars came to a halt.

Policemen from the first few cruisers focused on the Lexus. Its driver had hit 110 mph as it evaded them for 20 minutes.

A half-dozen officers toward the back of the caravan, though, thought Wolfe's car was the suspect's. They pointed their guns, and the bewildered men inside said they threw up their hands.

One officer hit Wolfe's window until it broke. The lawmen grabbed Wolfe and stood him up.

"I thought I was about to be killed," Wolfe said. "I just got hit by a vehicle, but they didn't come to help me."

The officers realized their mistake when co-workers yelled, "Wrong car!" They blamed the slipup on the cars' similarities and on an officer's sport-utility vehicle blocking their view of the suspect.

For Wolfe, the error could have been avoided if the police had noticed key differences between the cars.

But the sheer number of police cruisers in the chase and the likelihood that the officers who targeted Wolfe hadn't seen the crash might have played the biggest role, according to the professor who helped the department devise its pursuit policy.

These police-car caravans have been employed in the past by the North Charleston police and the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, and their use has persisted despite safety concerns.

"If it's a serial murderer, then you're going to have more cars," said Geoff Alpert, who teaches criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. The suspect from the Lexus was wanted on misdemeanor arrest warrants.

"The question is: What's going to happen next time?" Alpert said. "That's why you correct this up front."

North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers later spoke with Wolfe's mother, though Wolfe and his friends said they expected a more profound apology. Police spokesman Spencer Pryor said no one has filed an official complaint, though the department is conducting a standard review of the chase.

Pryor declined to answer specific questions because of a possible lawsuit.

"As is the case with every pursuit," he said, "the department as well as its employees takes the safety of the public seriously."

The chase

Pfc. James Ryan was patrolling Remount Road around 1 a.m. when he saw the two-tone 1997 Lexus ES3 sedan with a blown license plate light.

Its driver was Johnathan Clayton, a 34-year-old with a history of drug and firearms convictions.

The Lexus pulled into Pappy's Restaurant on Carolyn Street, where Clayton told Ryan that he was someone else, the officer's report stated. That other person, though, was wanted for disorderly conduct.

Clayton had an outstanding warrant for misusing 911. He also didn't have a license, only a beginner's permit, and he was alone.

When Clayton tried to roll up his window, Ryan said he hit Clayton with a Taser. The car lurched forward, then jolted into reverse.

Ryan and another officer jumped back as the Lexus backed between their cars, a video from one of the cruisers showed, but it didn't appear as though they were nearly hit.

"Suspect ... almost ran over officers," Ryan said into his radio.

The Lexus reached 110 mph near the Target store on Rivers Avenue. Officers set up spike strips.

A sergeant trying to get into position to set up spike strips briefly went the wrong way on Otranto Road and hit another officer's spikes, blowing two of his cruiser's tires.

Seconds later, the Lexus drove over them too.

"He shouldn't have much left," a policeman soon radioed about the tires on the suspect's car.

By then, 11 police cars were on the suspect's tail. Others were stationed nearby.

The Lexus hit a parked car, then wound over the streets outside the Fairwind-Oakfield Apartments. Its wheel rims kicked up sparks.

The caravan of cruisers slowed as the Lexus turned and doubled back. Patrolman Dominick Coleman passed Wolfe's 2000 Toyota Camry and pulled around one of the cruisers, stopping in the oncoming lane.

Clayton's Lexus careened around a curve and struck the back passenger side of Coleman's car. It clipped another cruiser and crashed into the Toyota, popping its trunk.

Patrolman Daniel Green was leading the chase then. To catch up, his Chevrolet Tahoe had reached 125 mph on Rivers Avenue. K9 handlers like him play a key role in pursuits because their dogs can be used to stop a driver from running away.

But this suspect was a big man - Clayton weighs 325 pounds.

"He's not going to be running," an officer said over his radio, "so that shouldn't be a problem."

'Wrong car'

The Lexus stopped after the collision, and Green followed protocol for a felony traffic stop by ordering Clayton to come out with his hands up.

The suspect walked backward toward Green and a few other officers with their guns drawn. They handcuffed him.

Green scolded Clayton and suggested that he could be charged with trying to kill officers with his own car. He was arrested only on charges of violating his beginner's permit, failing to stop and lying to the police.

"You realize what you've done," Green said, "what you did to these poor people over here?"

Green was talking about Wolfe and his friends, who had ventured out to buy some drinks at a gas station.

Jeremy Perrineau, 31, sat next to Wolfe as Clayton's Lexus slammed into their car. In the back seat, his uncle, Quasim Bakiniddin of Mount Pleasant, felt the impact more than anyone.

To his right, Perrineau saw policemen pointing their pistols at the suspect's Lexus.

To his left, more officers had their handguns trained on him and Wolfe.

Seconds later, Pfc. Bradford Molina smashed Wolfe's window with a baton. Molina had seen other officers focusing on the Toyota and its occupant failing to comply with commands, he later wrote in a report, so he broke the glass.

"Get out!" an officer yelled. "Get the (expletive) out!"

Wolfe's door opened, and someone grabbed him by the collar and pulled him out. He was searched.

"You've got the wrong one!" another officer shouted. "You've got the wrong car!"

The officers eased up.

Perrineau suffered cuts on his side when the police broke Wolfe's window. Wolfe got shards of glass in his eyes. Wolfe said Molina's baton also had caught his jaw, dislocating it and causing a hairline fracture.

Paramedics took all three men to Trident Medical Center. After getting a quick exam and some painkillers, they said police officers ushered them out.

They walked to a convenience store and called for a taxi ride home. Wolfe's car would be declared a total loss.

'My bad'

Wolfe and Perrineau took offense to how they said the police expressed their remorse at the scene.

"My bad," one policeman said, according to the men. "You know how it is."

Perrineau viewed the remark as a reference to his own criminal history. He has convictions for unlawfully carrying a gun and drugs. He served probation for failing to stop for police six years ago.

"I'm not a saint," Perrineau said. "But what happened was not our fault. ... They treated us like we were running. I wasn't running this time."

The trio is considering a lawsuit. Their attorney, Tiffany Spann-Wilder, said she was waiting for further information before taking that step.

For the president of the North Charleston chapter of the NAACP, their ordeal also raised concerns about police intimidation.

Ed Bryant and others were critical of former North Charleston Chief Jon Zumalt's aggressive patrol efforts in high-crime, mostly black neighborhoods. He plans to meet with Zumalt's successor, Eddie Driggers, to address what he saw as the issue's resurgence.

"Police officers are pulling guns on people for no apparent reason," he said. "I thought we put that to rest."

Certain observations could have prevented the case of mistaken identity, Wolfe and Perrineau said.

The Toyota was occupied by three men, but officers already were told in dispatch communications that the suspect's Lexus contained only one.

The Lexus had lost its tires. The tires on Wolfe's Toyota were intact and inflated.

The lower portion of the Lexus was dark gray, and the upper portion was a lighter color. The Toyota was all white.

Ryan, who had initially stopped Clayton, was one of the officers who pulled his gun on the Toyota.

Alpert, the college professor, said closer adherence to policies also can prevent such pursuits from going wrong.

Zumalt called on Alpert to help the department draft a policy seven years ago. It limits cruisers involved to a number needed to "safely and effectively" pursue a suspect.

For most agencies, Alpert said, that number is two: one leading the chase and one backup officer who gives updates over the radio.

That's the case for the Sheriff's Office. But in January 2012, Sheriff Al Cannon's pursuit of a reckless driver in Mount Pleasant got about 25 cruisers involved. It ended with a minor crash between two of them.

Cannon apologized for later slapping the suspect, but he expressed no misgivings for how his deputies handled the chase, despite a scathing report by the State Law Enforcement Division.

In June, several North Charleston police cars chased a traffic violator into West Ashley. As that pursuit ended, a deputy ran to the suspect who had his hands up and punched him.

"It's ridiculous that these departments continue to violate their own policies," Alpert said. "The risk seems a lot higher than the benefits.

"Someone could get killed."

In a review of North Charleston's 119 pursuits in 2013, the department's internal affairs captain, Greg Gomes, reported injuries to only one bystander. Two officers were hurt.

Almost half ended in arrests. Officers terminated 29 percent of the pursuits, and 25 percent of the suspects got away.

But after writing those numbers in a report to the police chief, Gomes said he found no patterns in the pursuits that demanded a change.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.