The police pursuit of a 21-year-old driver headed the wrong way on Sixth Avenue was handled according to department policy, an internal Altoona police review has concluded.
Jordan T. Graham, 21, of Altoona died instantly after the Honda sedan he was driving crashed into the side of a garbage truck just after 4 a.m. Feb. 8. A review of the chase found that Altoona Patrolman Derek Swope followed protocol during the incident that spanned 19 city blocks but only took about three minutes, Deputy Chief Robert Seymore said.
While police await toxicology findings and the final report from reconstructionist Cpl. Dan DeAntonio, the preliminary findings gleaned from dash cam footage and witness statements showed Graham was speeding the wrong way down the one-way Sixth Avenue and meant the pursuing officer could not break off the chase because it was imperative he use his lights and siren to help alert oncoming traffic, Chief Janice Freehling said Friday.
"He was going the wrong way on a major roadway," Freehling said.
Seymore said police investigators have talked to witnesses who pulled off Sixth Avenue because of the police lights.
After the crash, a witness, Dave Duncan, told the Mirror it was the lights of an oncoming police car that prompted him to try to pull off Sixth Avenue just before 17th Street, where Graham ultimately crashed.
Police said the investigation indicates Graham had been drinking that night and had taken the Honda, which belonged to a friend, without permission after a physical altercation. Police also noted that contrary to some witness accounts, mechanical data from the car shows the vehicle's headlights were turned on.
Seymore said the incident began when Swope, who was on patrol in the city's East End, saw Graham driving erratically on South Lloyd Street. Seymore said Swope followed Graham and watched as the driver swerved over the center line several times starting in the area of East Second Avenue, prompting Swope to turn on his emergency lights to stop the car. At one point, Graham nearly hit an oncoming vehicle head-on and when Graham approached East Fifth Avenue, he turned right toward Kettle Street but did not stop for the officer.
Graham failed to stop at a stop sign and turned left onto Kettle, police said. At East Sixth Avenue. Graham turned left and began driving the wrong way down the one-way, two-lane road, blowing through four traffic lights and passing several oncoming vehicles, Seymore said.
Seymore said Graham accelerated to roughly 57 mph and maintained that speed with Swope following a safe distance behind with his lights and siren activated. At 12th Street, police said Graham accelerated again and started to pull away from Swope, hitting a speed DeAntonio said exceeded 60 mph.
Police said Graham hit his brakes just before hitting the garbage truck, but at that speed, it wasn't soon enough to even leave skid marks.
Pamela Bennett, 21, said she was with Graham that evening along with other friends and said Graham was talking to her on his cellphone just before the crash. She said he sounded calm and wasn't slurring his speech, but he did say he didn't know why the police were chasing him.
Bennett said Graham had been drinking that night and had fought with friends who tried to keep him from taking the car and driving home.
Freehling pointed out the outcome of the incident was tragic and something police never want to see. She noted officers of any rank can call off a police pursuit at any time should it become too dangerous, and in the case of Graham, it would have been too dangerous to allow him to drive the wrong way down the busy roadway without trying to give oncoming vehicles some warning.
Graham's cousin Thad Graham said the family had nothing further to say about the crash other than Jordan will be missed.