Thursday, December 14, 2017
Public safety

Video shows chase that Clearwater police say didn't happen

TAMPA — Clearwater police officials insist one of their officers ended a high-speed chase of Keith Williamson before the motorcyclist was killed in a Feb. 20 crash on the Courtney Campbell Parkway.

"When it was evident that the vehicle was not going to stop, (the officer) called it off," Clearwater police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts told the Tampa Bay Times in a Feb. 22 story.

On Friday, Watts reaffirmed, "This was not a chase."

But the dashboard video in the unmarked Clearwater police car that tried to stop Williamson shows Officer Nicholas Giordano was right behind Williamson with his car's flashing blue lights and siren engaged just a second or two before the fatal crash.

The video appears to contradict statements by Clearwater police to media outlets in the days after the crash and shows that the chase may have violated the department's policy on ending pursuits that do not involve violent felonies.

The chase, exceeding speeds of 120 mph in an area with a 60 mph speed limit, began on the Clearwater side of the causeway but ended in Tampa.

Williamson's motorcycle hit the back of a Florida Highway Patrol cruiser that moved into the roadway as Williamson approached, killing the 27-year-old Dade City resident and severely injuring his passenger, Jenna E. Scott, 24.

FHP has said its cruiser was working a construction zone and was uninvolved in the chase.

The dashboard video did not record the actual crash that killed Williamson, who worked as a chef for a catering service. The video ends just 500 feet from the crash scene, according to a Clearwater police report.

"I disengaged from the attempted stop after a short distance, shutting off my in-car video as … there was no traffic stop taking place anymore," Giordano said in his report.

That explanation doesn't make sense to Williamson's father, Dannie Williamson, also of Dade City.

"Why would he turn it off right before the crash?" Williamson said Friday, noting the time between the last frame of the video and the crash occurred in a veritable blink of an eye. "I don't get that."

The video was released by Clearwater police to attorney John Trevena, who represents Williamson's family. Clearwater police and FHP declined substantive comment for this story because an FHP investigation into the crash is ongoing.

Clearwater policy allows officers to chase vehicles only if following a suspect in a violent crime, such as a homicide or aggravated assault, Clearwater police told the Times after the crash.

Williamson and other motorcyclists he rode with that night were not wanted for any violent felony.

Trevena said he believes the officer, by continuing a dangerous chase, caused the crash.

"There is no question that this was a police pursuit as seen in their own video," the attorney said. "There should never have been a chase to begin with."

• • •

Giordano, driving an unmarked Chevrolet Camaro with tinted windows, was patrolling the Clearwater side of the causeway when a group of about 10 speeding motorcyclists passed him at about 10:30 p.m.

The riders were friends returning from a motorcycle show in Pinellas and heading to an Ybor City club.

The video shows the officer pulled behind the group and accelerated to catch up. He overtook and passed several of the motorcyclists and then engaged his flashing lights and siren when he caught up to the two riders at the head of the pack. As the officer turned on his emergency lights, two of the motorcycles he had overtaken passed him on the right, one nearly hitting him.

The four motorcyclists pulled away, speeding up quickly. Giordano turned his lights and siren off, though he accelerated again to catch up.

"So you are not pursuing?" a dispatcher radioed the officer.

"No," he answered. "I've got fleeing charges."

That comment might have been a reference to the fact that the motorcyclists could only be charged with fleeing and eluding, which isn't a violent felony warranting a chase under Clearwater police policy, Trevena said.

The motorcyclists and Giordano entered Hillsborough County. Some motorcyclists fell back. At the crest of the bridge in Tampa, Giordano engages his lights and sirens again. This time, three of the four motorcycles slow down.

Finally, only Williamson is in front of the officer's car, still traveling at high speed. Williamson's top speed, as measured by Giordano's radar, was 126 mph.

The last frame of the video shows the cruiser a few hundred feet from the crash scene, its lights and siren still on.

• • •

Williamson's father said he knows his son sometimes rode his motorcycle too fast. His son was arrested in 2006 on a felony fleeing and eluding charge. His driving record contains license suspensions and at least seven speeding violations, including a 2007 stop in Pasco County for driving 111 mph in a 70 mph zone.

His son's Suzuki GSX-R 1000 was capable of speeds in excess of 180 mph.

"By the look of things, it was a bad time and a bad place with a lot of bad judgment being used by a lot of people," Dannie Williamson said of the crash. "The officer might have pushed things a little too far. He was supposed to be the professional. He should have backed off and caught him another day."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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