COUNCIL BLUFFS — The Iowa State trooper who shot a fleeing motorist late last year has been cleared of wrongdoing, but the Pottawattamie County attorney is questioning the agency's policies for high speed-chases in urban areas.
“I'm very thankful ... that no one innocent was hit during this,” County Attorney Matt Wilber said Friday. “I don't want to be sitting across the table from a family that's trying to understand why they lost loved ones.”
On Friday, Wilber released the results of his investigation into the Dec. 1 incident in which Trooper Tim Sieleman shot and wounded Michael Lee, 28, of Omaha after a four-minute chase through Council Bluffs.
Wilber said he understands law enforcement may have to pursue suspects on city streets.
But he said he plans to talk with Iowa State Patrol officials about their pursuit policies and suggest that chases be curtailed to some degree in metro areas.
“I think you have to have some sort of happy medium,” he said.
Sgt. Scott Bright, a spokesman for the Iowa State Patrol, acknowledged Wilber's concerns but said he does not believe any policy changes will result.
“People just don't take off just to take off. There is always a reason,” Bright said. “We don't know what that reason is. We don't know if that person just committed a robbery or a homicide somewhere.”
According to Iowa Department of Public Safety guidelines, a vehicle pursuit is justified “when, in the officer's judgment, the officer believes the risk to the public is greater without an apprehension when compared to the risk of the pursuit.”
Other factors include the seriousness of the offense, volume of vehicle and pedestrian traffic, weather conditions and the probability of making an arrest, according to the guidelines.
Sieleman was on patrol about 6:50 a.m. that Sunday when he spotted the truck, a blue 2001 Dodge Ram near 24th Street and West Broadway.
The truck had no license plate, and Sieleman said he couldn't see in-transit signs posted in the windows.
It would later turn out that in-transit signs were posted — Sieleman may not have seen them because the windows were tinted, Wilber said. Investigators would later learn the truck had been stolen from a car dealership, and the in-transit signs were fraudulent.
Sieleman turned on his emergency lights as the truck turned from Broadway onto southbound Eighth Street, in a residential neighborhood just west of downtown. The truck sped away, weaving through the neighborhood and onto the South Expressway.
Sieleman's cruiser is equipped with a StarChase launcher, a device meant to allow officers to end a chase and track the fleeing vehicle remotely. But one of the GPS transmitters Sieleman fired failed to stick to the truck, and the other missed.
Sieleman pursued the truck south on the South Expressway and underneath Interstate 29/80.
Speeds reached 107 mph at one point. As they approached a residential area north of Lake Manawa, Sieleman rammed the truck, knocking it off the road. He jumped out, figuring the driver would flee on foot.
But the truck drove at him. Sieleman fired his service pistol 10 times, yelling in his radio that the driver had tried to run him over.
During a press conference on Friday, Wilbur showed cruiser video from Sieleman's patrol car.
That, plus the location of shell casings recovered at the scene, show Sieleman was in the path of the truck when he fired, Wilber said.
The truck pulled onto Veterans Memorial Highway and took off west toward Nebraska.
Another trooper ended the chase by ramming the truck, causing it to roll onto its side.
Lee was treated at a local hospital for a gunshot wound to his left arm.
Wilber said he does not think Lee was trying to run over Sieleman but instead was trying to get away. Nonetheless, the shooting was justified, he said.
Investigators found a digital scale, 1.2 grams of Ecstasy and a burnt marijuana joint when they searched the Dodge.
“He admitted he had been smoking K2,” Wilber said, referring to synthetic marijuana. “Mr. Lee to this day indicates he does not have any memory of these events.”
Lee is charged with interference with official acts, assaulting a police officer with a weapon and second-degree theft. He has pleaded not guilty.
Bill McGinn of Council Bluffs, Lee's attorney, said he expected Sieleman to be cleared in the incident.
“He was just acting the best he could under the circumstances,” McGinn said about the trooper. “We are still denying that (Lee) intentionally ran from police.”
Wilber was complimentary of Sieleman's handling of the pursuit.
“He was extremely professional, calm, throughout the entire chase,” Wilber said.
Now that Wilber has completed his review, an internal investigation will be conducted to see if any patrol policies were violated. Sieleman has been on administrative leave since the shooting.
It is not the first time Sieleman has shot someone. In 2009, Wilber also cleared Sieleman after he shot Matthew Loth, 31, of Plattsmouth, Neb., as he was trying to evade law enforcement in a vehicle, missing Sieleman, who was on foot, by inches. Loth suffered non-life-threatening injuries.