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‘They responded like it was World War III’: Family of woman killed in crash says cops broke rules by not slowing down

The victim’s family says video shows the fatal crash was a “100 percent an avoidable situation.”

Verona Gunn, a retired school teacher who was killed after two police cars collided in the Austin neighborhood on Memorial Day weekend.
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Dwight Gunn cringed Tuesday as he watched video of two Chicago police cars, sirens blaring and emergency lights flashing, collide with each other and then hit the car carrying his mother, retired school teacher Verona Gunn, killing her.

”It’s very difficult to put into words the level of anger,” he said. “Because it was absolutely, 100 percent an avoidable situation. ... Our mother should be here.”

Gunn, an 84-year-old retired Chicago Public Schools first-grade teacher, was in the back seat of a car that sat waiting for emergency vehicles to pass when the accident occurred two weeks ago in the Austin neighborhood. Three of Gunn’s relatives in the car were also injured.

Video also shows several other police cars, moments before the crash, had slowed down and safely navigated the intersection on their way to a call of a man with a weapon just blocks away from the crash site, family attorney Andrew M. Stroth said Tuesday at a West Side church.

Dwight called for measures to prevent such accidents in the future.

“There has to be purpose that comes from this pain that we’re experiencing,” he said.

“They responded like it was World War III or something — a total overreaction.”

The Memorial Day weekend collision also injured 10 police officers. Authorities have said the accident involved police vehicles and a civilian car, but couldn’t say definitively who caused it because the investigation was ongoing.

On Tuesday, Stroth said the police vehicles violated regulations that call for officers in such situations, especially ones that do not involve a pursuit, to slow down at intersections to ensure they can proceed safely.

”This case is about the willful and wanton actions of officers driving these vehicles without any regard for our community,” Stroth said.

“Austin is one of the most densely populated communities in the city. Austin is a predominantly black community. Where’s the equity? Would these officers have traveled at high speeds and as recklessly through Lincoln Park, through the Gold Coast, through Old Town ... with no respect for the people in the neighborhood?”

Stroth filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in Cook County court Monday, naming the city of Chicago and the two officers driving the vehicles that night. They are referred to only as John Doe 1 and 2.

Chicago’s law department said Tuesday it does not comment on pending litigation.

The family car, a Toyota sedan, had stopped as around 10 police vehicles passed through the same intersection before the crash, Stroth said. The car was still idling when the collision occurred.

Accidents involving law enforcement vehicles have long been a public safety concern, both for civilians and officers.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which highlights the risk of police vehicles crossing intersections, said that in most years, traffic-related accidents overall are the main cause of death for on-duty officers, with 564 killed in crashes — including ones involving officers on foot in or by the roadside — from 2005-2016. It didn’t include the number of civilian deaths in those crashes.

Days before the May 25 crash, new Mayor Lori Lightfoot had announced a stepped-up police presence and an increase in youth programs for the Memorial Day weekend in a bid to stave off violent crime on a holiday that’s seen an uptick in shootings in previous years. Stroth said the stepped-up presence could have played an indirect role in the accident.

”Part of the reaction by police that weekend was based on the surge of officers in these areas,” he said. “It resulted in a complete overreaction by officers responding to calls.”

Dwight, wrote a letter to Lightfoot and CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson last month that called Verona Gunn “the matriarch” of the family who worked for 30 years as a teacher. Two other adults in the car and a 9-year-old were also injured, the letter said.

Dwight also thanked Lightfoot and Johnson for calling the family to express their condolences and to assure them there will be “a full and swift” investigation.

On Monday night, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the department expressed its “deepest condolences” to the Gunn family but couldn’t comment on the specifics of the crash.

”Both the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and the Chicago Police department are independently investigating” the crash, Gugleilmi said.

Contributing: Associated Press