Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

’It happens way too often:’ Attorney says trooper crash points to dangers of high-speed pursuits

Crashed vehicle
The scene of a multi-car collision at the intersection of Memorial Parkway Southwest and 12th Street Southwest, just north of Apache Mall, on Saturday, May 18, 2024.
Maya Giron | Post Bulletin

We are following new charges against a Minnesota state trooper who struck and killed 18-year-old Olivia Flores and injured five others in Rochester in May.

Trooper Shane Roper was following a vehicle for a petty traffic offense at 83 mph in a 40 mph zone without his lights or sirens activated. Flores was in another vehicle.

The Olmsted County Attorney’s Office has now charged trooper Roper with criminal vehicular homicide, second-degree manslaughter and five counts of criminal vehicular operation.

Records show that four times earlier that day, his squad car had reached speeds over 99 mph without its lights or sirens on.

This is not the first time we’ve seen high-speed driving by law enforcement coincide with the death of a civilian. In 2021, a Minneapolis police officer struck and killed Leneal Frazier after running a red light at over 90 mph in pursuit of a stolen Kia.

Jeff Storms, the attorney for the family of Leneal Frazier, joined MPR News host Nina Moini to share his perspective on this latest case.

Editor’s note: In the audio interview, the guest mentioned that trooper Shane Roper had a ride-along passenger at the time of the crash. MPR News has confirmed that information. Read more at the link below.

Related story: Minnesota state trooper faces multiple felony charges after fatal Rochester crash

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] NINA MOINI: This is Minnesota Now. I'm Nina Moini in for Cathy Wurzer. We're following new charges against a Minnesota state trooper who struck and killed 18-year-old Olivia Flores and injured five others in Rochester in May. As you heard Matt Sepic report a minute ago, Trooper Shane Roper was following a vehicle for a, quote, "petty traffic offense" at 83 miles per hour in a 40-mile-per-hour zone without his lights or sirens activated. Flores was in another vehicle.

The Olmsted County Attorney's office has now charged Trooper Roper with criminal vehicular homicide, second-degree manslaughter, and five counts of criminal vehicular operation. Records show that four times earlier that day, his squad car had reached over 99 miles per hour, also without lights or sirens on. This isn't the first time we've seen high-speed driving by law enforcement coincide with the deaths of civilians.

In 2021, a Minneapolis police officer struck and killed Leneal Frazier after running a red light at over 90 miles per hour in pursuit of a stolen Kia. Jeff Storms is the attorney for the family of Leneal Frazier. He joins us now. Thanks for being with us this afternoon, Jeff.

JEFF STORMS: Hi, good afternoon. Thanks for having me.

NINA MOINI: I understand you're not representing the Flores family. But when you hear about this case in Rochester and what happened to Leneal Frazier, what does this evoke for you? What similarities do you see?

JEFF STORMS: Well, it's a similarity that plays out way too often. So there was a study, the first of its kind, done recently by the San Francisco Chronicle. And it reported that between 2017 and 2022, 54 Minnesotans were killed in police chases, and about half of those killed were either innocent bystanders or passengers of the vehicles that were being pursued. So we're seeing a pattern where it's not someone suspected of any criminal conduct who-- of individuals who are dying far too often as a result of these chases.

NINA MOINI: And Leneal Frazier, who was a bystander, his death was three years ago. And since then, the POST Board here in Minnesota has released updated model pursuit policies. For those who don't know, they're principles to help officers make decisions on whether or not to pursue vehicles, considering the civilian risk. The most recent policy released earlier this year included advising officers to consider terminating, stopping pursuits for nonviolent offenses. Do you think those recommendations or guidelines need to go further?

JEFF STORMS: Well, we should start with just making sure that they're followed. And because they really-- I think that the studies are showing that many of these pursuits are still occurring as a result of basic traffic infractions and not the type of extreme conduct that may potentially warrant a chase. But ultimately, I believe that we should have a very, very narrow window of circumstances where high-speed police chases are warranted. And that is certainly not to mean that we think we should stop trying to police crime.

But we live in a generation now where we have a number of different tools available to pursue individuals who are suspected of crimes. There's more surveillance available. You have the availability of drones. The technology is not what it was 50 years ago, and we should not be chasing individuals the same way officers did 50 years ago to the extent that was ever acceptable.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. And when you talk about when a pursuit would be justified, in that same policy from the POST Board, it says, quote, "when the need for immediate apprehension or the risk to public safety outweighs the risk created as a result of the pursuit." So in their own language, do you think this pursuit was justified?

JEFF STORMS: Well, certainly if we're talking about the Frazier or the Flores pursuits, absolutely not, from what I know from my limited understanding of-- and I shouldn't call it the Flores pursuit, but the pursuit by Roper that resulted in this young woman's death. Certainly not either of those pursuits were not justified based upon my understanding thus far of Mr. Roper's conduct. And so we're not talking about life-or-death situations in either of those cases.

And given the extreme risk for death and serious injury when police chases occur-- because make no doubt about it. Officer, or Trooper Roper's car was referred to as a rocket, right? These are sending very fast, substantial pieces of equipment that can cause serious harm and death down streets where innocent bystanders can't avoid them striking them. And so we need to have extremely limited circumstances where these chases occur.

NINA MOINI: And there are charges now. The Olmstead County Attorney saying that Trooper Roper, quote, "violated his duty." And the state patrol colonel, Christina Bogojevic, saying in a statement that, quote, "it does not align with the state patrol's core values." So the POST Board has recommendations. But what can individual agencies like the state patrol, or Minneapolis Police Department in Frazier's case, do to make sure this doesn't happen again?

JEFF STORMS: Well, it starts with the enforcement. There are a host of different ways that private entities across the country enforce the speed of their employees operating the vehicles. And so if Trooper Roper were speeding on a regular basis, someone should be monitoring that and asking questions.

And if it doesn't fall within policy, there needs to be as to why Trooper Roper would have been exceeding those speeds when he was. Then someone needs to be acting on that in a serious fashion, not a slap on the hand. And so it starts with enforcing what we have. And then I think we need to continue to study these policies and go further.

Additionally, it's critical that the courts hold officers and troopers accountable in these situations. For far too long, the standards have been too lenient for our officers and troopers driving and killing innocent bystanders with respect to federal law. And it's imperative that courts allow federal constitutional actions occur in civil cases where officers and troopers and other state actors are killing innocent bystanders while violating criminal law themselves.

NINA MOINI: And it sounds like you've done a lot of research around this, obviously, for your case with Mr. Frazier's family. What do you make of in this case in Rochester with Trooper Roper, his lights and sirens being off, the fact that he'd been speeding four times earlier that day without lights or sirens? Do you think there needs to be some sort of real-time monitoring of that behavior going on, some staffing around that?

JEFF STORMS: There certainly can be and should be. And I think there's a critical element of this that I've read. And again, I have not done my own investigation, but I've read that there was a ride along that was part of this, a 20-year-old individual riding along. And I can tell you from my experience over the years, whether it's traffic and chase situations or force situations, bad things often happen during ride alongs because I think there is additional pressure implicitly put on the trooper or officer to make the ride along interesting. And so when you see that this trooper is not using their lights and sirens, but speeding so often throughout that day, it leads me to believe that they maybe didn't want to call attention to their conduct and were potentially showing off for their ride along.

NINA MOINI: We have not heard about that, in particular from the state patrol, but it's certainly something that we will ask about and follow up on. When it comes to, again, this case, we haven't heard much yet about Olivia Flores, this 18-year-old woman who was struck in this instance in Rochester. Can you talk about, from the family that you're representing and Leneal Frazier's family and just kind of where's the status of your lawsuit with that family? And just what is the lasting impact on these families when something like this happens?

JEFF STORMS: There are just so many different layers to it. I'll tell you, for this young woman, I work with so many families where parents have lost their child. And I don't know if I've ever seen a pain deeper than the pain I see in parents who have lost their child. And so her family is undoubtedly going through unimaginable pain.

And for all of the families, when they lose loved ones in these situations, it's just so senseless. Their loved one wasn't doing anything wrong. They were going about their day. And it would have been just as senseless had it occurred if any other individual had done that to them.

However, it always seems to leave more hurt and disappointment and just sort of shock when the person who does that to them is someone who is legally obligated to be protecting them, who has taken that sworn duty. And so I think the families could never really answer that question of why. And I think it haunts them for the rest of their lives.

NINA MOINI: And so with your lawsuit, where does that stand? And what do you hope comes from that?

JEFF STORMS: Well, the lawsuit's in the initial stages. And I'll tell you, in large part, that's because there was a criminal prosecution. And when there's a criminal prosecution, it takes much longer for attorneys like myself to get the records we need to fully assess our case.

I think there are some different aspects of the Leneal Frazier case that are really critical and important that address issues of race and policing in certain neighborhoods in Minneapolis. And we've alleged equal protection claims related to that. I also represent the family of Amir Locke, and we just recently received an order this week allowing that lawsuit to continue on through discovery, alleging aspects of equal protection as well.

So with respect to the Frazier case, the Locke case, and other cases that we might pursue in Minneapolis, we have additional elements related to the types of issues that have been assessed by the federal government and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights related to those consent decrees. So while we'll certainly be looking to do our best to end police chases and to make police chases, to the extent they do occur, more safe as part of it, a large part of it will be also continuing our pursuit to ensure that systemic issues in Minneapolis related to policing and race are addressed as well.

NINA MOINI: All right, Jeff, thanks for your time.

JEFF STORMS: Thank you.

NINA MOINI: That was Jeff Storms, attorney for the family of Leneal Frazier.

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