Chase policy in question during trial of Bellaire police officer’s death
Bellaire Police Department’s chase policies came under scrutiny this week during a trial over the 2016 death of a police officer whose motorcycle crashed while pursuing alleged shoplifters.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are seeking to prove whether Dante Moore, then 27, directly caused the death of officer Anthony Marco Zarate.
While the facts leading up to the crash went mostly undisputed, defense attorney Danny Easterling focused much of his questioning on whether department policy allowed Zarate to continue chasing Moore past a certain period of time. Other testimony focused on whether a lengthy chase was proper since there were reports one of the two suspects was armed with a boxcutter.
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Prosecutors said they clearly disagreed on Easterling’s interpretation of the policy but would leave that to the jury.
“It’s certainly a tragedy, I think on that point we can all agree,” said Sean Teare, chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Vehicular Crimes Division. “Everything else, we’re just going to let the jury decide.”
Moore wore a black suit during court sessions Tuesday and Wednesday and exhibited little emotion during testimony.
Easterling said that Moore is responsible for fleeing and evading arrest, but not causing the death of the 52-year-old officer Zarate. Moore is standing trial on the charge of evading arrest, leading to death.
“We’re disputing that my client caused the death,” Easterling said Tuesday. “There was a concurrent cause. The officer was speeding at a very high rate of speed through the residential area, and he hit a big dip in the road.”
Zarate, 52, lost control of his motorcycle in the 8500 block of Ferris and slammed into the trailer of a landscaping crew as he chased a car driven by Moore in July 2016 in the Meyerland area. The officer was rushed to Memorial Hermann-The Texas Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Moore surrendered to authorities a day after the wreck. He faces 2 to 20 years of confinement if he is convicted of the evasion offense, Teare said.
Several Bellaire police officers, including the police chief, watched the trial unfold. Chief Byron Holloway declined to comment out of respect for Zarate’s family, he said.
Surveillance cameras from the Meyerland Plaza Target showed Moore and his brother defeating the security package of a FitBit exercise tracker and leaving without paying, Target employee Malachi Strong said.
Strong said he didn’t apprehend them at the time, because store policy is to call the police if employees see a knife or weapon.
Strong followed the men outside that day and approached Zarate, who was on his motorcycle. He told him there was a shoplifter in the area and pointed out the vehicle, but didn’t say there was a weapon involved, Strong told the defense attorneys.
A Target video showed Zarate pulling Moore’s car over. Zarate pulled his gun out of his holster, his finger not on the trigger, and the men fled, another video showed. Separately, Strong’s partner had already called 911 and reported a theft in progress. He said the men had a boxcutter, and the call was relayed to Houston police officers as a robbery.
Meanwhile, Bellaire Cpl. Karen Kramer heard over the radio that Zarate was on a chase. Kramer said she and at least four other units were trying to catch up with Zarate, as motorcycles aren’t the optimal vehicles to lead pursuits. Zarate radioed that he’d lost sight of the vehicle, but saw them again and re-started the chase, Kramer said.
Easterling focused much of his questioning on whether Zarate followed department policy by continuing the motorcycle chase past three minutes, when the department’s general rules state that “under no circumstances” should officers exceed that limit. Zarate chase lasted about four minutes, according to dashcam video.
Kramer told Easterling that Bellaire motorcycle officers are trained to know that chases can continue past the three-minute time frame if a felony, such as robbery, was the cause. And if an officer loses sight of a chase suspect, then the time clock on the pursuit stops and picks back up when they regain sight.
Prosecutors argued that because Zarate lost sight of Moore’s car, the pursuit was technically on pause and lasted under three minutes.
Easterling said that the Bellaire chase rules don’t specifically outline how the time is calculated, and asked Kramer whether she was interpreting the rules in favor of her friend, Zarate.
“There is nothing I can do at this point to help,” Kramer said. “He’s already gone.”
Testimony is expected to continue this week in the trial before visiting State District Judge Reagan Clark.
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