'Sometimes it just sneaks up on you'
Friends and loved ones are struggling to cope with Brittany Webb's death.
Another innocent life lost
Days after Brittany Webb's crash, another innocent person died from a crash connected to a police chase.
Is it worth it?
The law gives officers discretion to decide if it's the public's safety to pursue a suspect or let them go.
'... Our officers are going to be held accountable'
Two Charlotte police officers were suspended in the weeks after the crash that killed Brittany Webb.
'How could this happen?'
Innocent bystander deaths have more than tripled since 1982. Here's what is being done to stop them.
'I'm not the same, but it could be worse'
Aaron Norward's overcome many physical challenges since the crash. He thanks his daughter for giving him a reason to fight.
Giggles echoed off the car windows as Aaron Norward's friends teased him.
"'You're a dad now Aaron.' That's all they kept saying," Norward said smiling. "They said, 'We waited so long for this day.’"
Just 24 hours after the birth of his daughter Zayleigh, Norward and two of his closest friends headed to the hospital, so he could sign the newborn's birth certificate.
"Oh man, I was excited," the 28-year-old Charlotte man said. "I didn't even want to talk to nobody."
Today, he can barely remember the crash.
"It kind of bothers me, just trying to remember," Norward said. "I guess it ain't meant to be remembered."
Pictures from an impound lot show the now unrecognizable Honda Accord that carried Norward as a passenger. The front of the smashed car looks like a squeezed accordion. The windshield is shattered and the pink front passenger seat airbag that couldn't save Brittany Webb, Norward's best friend, is now deflated.
Norward was seated directly behind Webb. He nearly died, too, but all he can think about is her.
"To find out she was across the hall from me at the hospital and I didn't even know that, it hit me hard," Norward said. "And she had two beautiful children, too. That's sad, man."
Few people know about the Jan. 3 rush-hour crash on Statesville Road. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police charged the other driver with second-degree murder, but that diminishes the role officers played that afternoon.
"It's important for people to know what happened to (Brittany)," her sister Brianna Webb said. "She was taken from us."
'Sometimes it just sneaks up on you': Friends and loved ones are struggling to cope with Brittany Webb's death.
Excited to celebrate new life, Webb, Norward and another friend left for the hospital around 5:00 pm. Around that same time, court records and scanner traffic reveal two CMPD officers attempted to stop a man driving a Jeep with a covered, but still visible license plate on Statesville Road.
Records show the officers made "several separate attempts" to stop the driver before the Jeep sped up and drove into the wrong lane, at which point they “disengaged” for the last time. According to court documents, officers said they lost sight of the driver before the crash, but scanner traffic suggests at least one officer witnessed the wreck.
Court records accuse Bryan Gabriel Franklin, Jr. of driving the wrong way at a high rate of speed on the 45 mph stretch of road when he collided with the other car. Scanner traffic reveals a coordinated effort by police to stop the driver, who made documented attempts to evade police and reached an estimated 75 mph in the seconds leading up to the wrong-way crash. Franklin's attorney, citing the pending case, declined comment for this story. He's due in court Thursday.
Crews rushed Webb and Norward, neither wearing seatbelts according to the crash report, to the emergency room. Norward didn’t wake up for a month. Webb stayed on life support for weeks.
"When I walked in the room and seen my daughter, I just got weak," Keith Webb said through tears. "All I could do was sit there and hold her hand."
Her 9-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter are now growing up without a mother.
"Her daughter had a Mother's Day event that I know she would have been at, but instead I was there,” Webb’s mother Carol Willis said weeping. “That was really, really hard.”
Webb's younger brother, also named Keith, said his big sister was like a second mother to him.
"Sometimes it just sneaks up on you," he said of the pain that now lives inside him.
Webb's father promised he'd defend his oldest daughter as she slipped away.
"She tried to give her punches, but the punches weren't strong enough for her to prevail," he said. “I told my daughter, ‘I’m going to fight.”
Another innocent life lost: Days after Brittany Webb's crash, another innocent person died from a crash connected to a police chase.
Just a week after the crash that would eventually take Webb's life, another innocent person died in Charlotte following an attempted traffic stop.
CMPD tried to pull over a teen who was driving more than 50 mph over the speed limit on Rozzelles Ferry Road on Jan. 11, court records show. Officers said they disengaged three minutes before a CMPD helicopter spotted the driver.
The fleeing teen eventually slammed into a truck driven by Micky Brown at Sheets Circle and Tuckaseegee Road, records show. Brown died, and two of his passengers were hospitalized with injuries.
Tashawn Eugene Lowery was charged with second-degree murder, among other charges in relation to the crash.
Is it worth it?: The law gives officers discretion to decide if it's the public's safety to pursue a suspect or let them go.
Are these pursuits worth it? Police have to ask that question before and during every pursuit. The law gives officers discretion to decide whether it's better for the public’s safety to pursue a driver or let them go.
"We're constantly having to balance the need for us to apprehend those dangerous people up against the inherent risk of a police pursuit," CMPD Lt. Stephen Fischbach said. "Is this pursuit worth it? It comes down to are our officers engaging in pursuits that are worth the risk?"
In the months after the crashes, CMPD revised its pursuit policy for the first time in more than two years, making it slightly more restrictive, but not in response to any specific case, according to Fischbach.
“We want to make sure that when officers are initiating and engaging in a pursuit, that it is for crimes that are dangerous for life,” he told WCNC Charlotte.
The latest policy update in April only allows pursuits when an officer "has reasonable suspicion that the driver or occupant has committed or is attempting to commit a crime dangerous to life" or "can articulate the exigent need to apprehend the suspect(s) because of potential harm to the public if they are not apprehended." The department recently removed a section that previously allowed pursuits when officers believed a driver or passenger committed a felony home burglary or break-in "where a continuous sequence of events immediately" led to the suspect.
The policy requires officers to consider a variety of factors, including location, traffic conditions, speed limit and weather before and during pursuits.
"Officers must continually question whether the seriousness of the crime justifies the continuation of the pursuit," the policy reads.
Department records analyzed by WCNC Charlotte show the number of CMPD pursuits has more than quadrupled over the last decade, from 22 in 2011 to 97 in 2021. CMPD has yet to provide a breakdown of how those pursuits ended, despite WCNC Charlotte requesting that information more than two months ago.
Fischbach believes the rise in pursuits is the result of an increase in violent crime and better enforcement technology, based on anecdotal evidence from his experience. However, he later said CMPD could not provide data to support that explanation.
CMPD Internal Affairs annual reports show while most CMPD pursuits started with crimes like armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, some began with traffic violations. Over the last decade, CMPD documented 16 (just under 3%) of all pursuits that started with traffic offenses other than driving while impaired.
"With violent crime going up over the years, society has an expectation that our officers are out there and apprehending people who pose a real threat to the community," Fischbach said. "We also have to face those families that lose a loved one or whose lives are forever changed by one of these violent criminals in our society. We have to face those families too, so there is a need, an expectation, that we apprehend these people who are preying on our community members."
“They're not all violent,” WCNC Charlotte corrected him.
“And in those cases, where a pursuit is not taking place for a pursuable offense per our directive, those officers are going to be held accountable,” he replied.
Fischbach acknowledged there are alternatives to tracking down offenders other than pursuits and said if there is a way for officers to prevent a pursuit. That is the department's goal.
“We're all human beings. It would be unrealistic that in these high-stress situations that the right decision is always made,” Fischbach said.
“The public expects you to make the right decision every time,” WCNC Charlotte replied.
“They do,” he conceded. “This is a difficult job … Our officers took this job to save lives, so any loss of life in the community is felt by all of us.”
Fischbach said a supervisor monitors every pursuit in real-time in an effort to offer additional protection to the public. In addition, he said CMPD also internally scrutinizes every pursuit.
'... Our officers are going to be held accountable': Two Charlotte police officers were suspended in the weeks after the crash that killed Brittany Webb.
Citing personnel privacy law, Fischbach said the department could not release details of specific cases, like the crash involving Norward and Webb.
"I have received specific and hard direction from the Police Attorney’s Office that the information requested is part of the involved employee’s personnel files and therefore not public, so we will not be releasing any of this information," Fischbach said in response to WCNC Charlotte's questions in May.
Personnel records show in the weeks after the crash that injured Norward and killed Webb, the agency suspended the two named officers involved without pay for at least 15 days. The officers, through CMPD, declined comment for this story.
"I can't speak to a specific case," Fischbach told WCNC Charlotte. "If mistakes are made, if there are violations of the directive, our officers are going to be held accountable."
A WCNC Charlotte analysis of the latest federal data identified a record number of innocent people voluntarily reported by agencies as having died as a consequence of police pursuits.
Brittany Webb and Micky Brown are among at least 4,200 innocent victims killed over the last four decades in connection to police pursuits, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records analyzed by WCNC Charlotte.
They join more than 9,000 suspects and their passengers and more than 130 officers who’ve also died, according to WCNC Charlotte's analysis of NHTSA data.
'How could this happen?': Innocent bystander deaths have more than tripled since 1982. Here's what is being done to stop them.
Federal pursuit data shows the number of bystander deaths specifically has more than tripled since 1982, outpacing other pursuit deaths. Records show at least 58 "occupants of other vehicles" and "nonoccupants" died in 1982 compared to a minimum of 214 in 2020.
Several of those innocent victims lived and died in the Charlotte area and across the Carolinas.
A 2012 fatal pursuit crash in Belmont killed former mayor Kevin Loftin and his friend Donna Deitz. Police said the suspect slammed into them at 80 mph after running through a checkpoint. Belmont Police updated its policy in March 2013 to say the agency will only chase for a crime that poses a significant risk of serious bodily injury or death.
A similar fatal crash occurred in Charlotte in March 2010 after the North Carolina State Highway Patrol said officers tried to pull over a man who avoided a checkpoint. NCSHP said the driver was going 90 mph when he slammed into Latia Winchester, 26, at the intersection of Parkwood Avenue and North Davidson Street.
Cynthia Coe was hit head-on by a man being chased by Lumberton Police on Jan. 30 of this year. Coe's son, Charles, said his mother had just let him out of the car a block away when he heard the fatal crash. Police said the driver fled from police after a traffic stop; they discovered the car he was driving was allegedly stolen.
Zeleria Simpson, a recent graduate of South Carolina State, and junior Shemyia Riley died after South Carolina Highway Patrol said officers chased down a man in Orangeburg County on Feb. 24 of this year. The driver crashed into Simpson and Riley; they were in separate vehicles.
North Carolina State Highway Patrol data identifies 25 "civilian" pursuit deaths since 2018, including nine in 2021 and four so far in 2022. Those deaths include suspects, passengers in their cars and third parties. During that same time, the agency reported one patrol "member" death.
Esther Seoanes knows the pain of loss. Her husband died nearly 10 years ago in Texas as an innocent victim. She believes even more restrictive policies that only allow pursuits of violent felonies are part of the solution. Seoanes is with Pursuit SAFETY, a non-profit that tracks deadly pursuit crashes.
"We want to save lives, so we would like to minimize unnecessary pursuits, thereby decreasing the amount of innocent victims that are killed," Seoanes said. "We're talking about thousands of lives that could be saved, because they didn't pursue.”
Federal data show almost one-third of those who die in pursuits are innocent bystanders. Seoanes' husband, 32-year-old James Williford, died in Austin after a fleeing driver struck him. Police said that driver led them on a brief chase that reached speeds of more than 90 mph.
"My life changed," Seoanes said. "I was really desperate to find some hope and some understanding of why this happened. It was a foreign thought in my mind, like how could this happen?"
Retired officer Tom Gleason, who created Honor the Badge Police Training, said existing police policies enable unnecessary pursuits.
"My stance is and always will be that you don't pursue in traffic for non-violent felonies," Gleason said. "Till the public holds the agency accountable, these will continue."
Norward's attorney, Gary Mauney, said police need to be held to account if they violate the policy.
"These chases get initiated for very minor crimes," Mauney said. "Innocent people end up getting hurt or killed and it's just not worth it."
Paul Dickinson represents Brittany Webb's family and said the city's pursuit policy, which he believes officers violated in this case, needs to be changed.
"The decision that was made in this situation resulted in the loss of life," Dickinson said. "And what I think the policies should be designed to do is to avoid the situations like this. Policies need to be written in such a way that police officers who made that decision know the potential for an extremely bad outcome. It was almost inevitable and yet the pursuit continued."
Both attorneys acknowledge the alleged driver is partly responsible. However, they also believe CMPD is responsible too.
"One of the parties is someone who is arrested for a crime. There is also claims that can be brought against the police department and the officers that were involved in this pursuit and whether or not they made poor decisions about continuing a pursuit of this individuals," Dickinson said. "In this case, I see multiple parties that need to be held accountable."
"I am not saying it’s ok that the guy was breaking the law," Mauney said. "Put him in jail, but when you engage in a chase, the decision has to be made whether this will harm innocent people and police have a duty to think about those people."
Fischbach believes officers need the discretion to make judgment calls in the heat of the moment, because every call, case and interaction is different. However, in response to criticism of CMPD's policy, he said the department is willing to revisit the issue.
"I would welcome that feedback,” he said. “The CMPD is constantly trying to improve."
Norward sees a drastic need for improvement.
"The disregard for people's life, it's sad," he said. "It ain’t right. It needs to be handled better than this. Do a better job and be accountable for what you did or what you do and don't do nothing to harm innocent bystanders."
'I'm not the same, but it could be worse': Aaron Norward's overcome many physical challenges since the crash. He thanks his daughter for giving him a reason to fight.
The crash forever changed the new father. He overcame failing organs, hours of surgery, broken bones, torn ligaments and a brain injury only to have to learn how to swallow, talk and walk again. He credits his daughter for helping him survive.
"I knew this is the one person I can’t let down," Norward said. "There are times where I want to give up and break down and cry, but it won't do me no good, but when I do get like that, I just think about my daughter and she brings a smile to my face. I had to fight extra hard just to get where I am today. In a way, you can say I'm not the same, but it could be worse."
His best friend's parents know that all too well.
“We’re still hurting," Carol Willis said. "We're missing Brittany greatly. Her two kids are missing her."
Webb lived in New York, but visited Charlotte regularly.
“There’s a space missing," her father said during an interview with WCNC Charlotte in New York. "It just hurts that she's not here to represent herself."
Webb aspired to be a nurse, lived with a passion for helping others and "just loved life."
"She was a guardian and now she really is a guardian angel," her mom said.
The driver reportedly fleeing police in this case was driving another person's Jeep at the time. The owner, according to state and court records, had a limited record in North Carolina, stemming from gun, drugs and robbery charges in 2016 and 2017.
A CMPD police report shows just days after the crash, police tried to stop that man in another car during rush hour. The report said officers attempted to stop a vehicle for a traffic infraction on Norris Avenue at North Graham Street around 5:30 on Jan. 7.
"The suspect fled from the traffic stop, ran a stop sign and collided with two other vehicles," the report says.