Detective is back on duty following injuryOPD says no laws broken during pursuit of suspect

Eleven seconds was all it took for Odessa police Detective Whitney Branch to get seriously hurt.
Authorities said Branch hopped on a moving patrol vehicle while in pursuit of a shooting suspect, lost her footing and landed on the roadway.
Branch was not faulted for the predawn Oct. 2, 2016, incident, and neither was Cpl. John Chavez, who reportedly told Branch, and two other police officers that morning, “to get onto” the Chevrolet Tahoe he drove at about 8 mph in an effort to catch up with the fleeing suspect, an inquiry into Branch’s on-duty injuries showed.
Odessa Police Chief Tim Burton declared on the face sheet of the inquiry that no laws were broken by OPD officers the night Branch suffered a head injury, and remanded — or sent down — the inquiry for a follow-up Level Two investigation by the patrol division, which would see if any of the four officers riding the Tahoe that night would face some form of discipline on the shift level if it was determined a violation occurred.
The conclusion reached in the inquiry maintains that since Chavez and Branch were doing their jobs as members of law enforcement, they won’t face any action, or have any points assessed against them. A copy of the OPD’s inquiry into what happened the night Branch was hurt was obtained through a Freedom of Information request.
The inquiry by the Odessa Police Department’s Professional Standards Unit included Branch, Chavez and the two other OPD officers — Cpl. Justin Caid and Officer Brian Cordero. There are state and local laws prohibiting riding on portions of vehicles not meant for passengers but since the city ordinance prohibiting rides on vehicles exempts officers whenever they’re engaged “in the necessary discharge of [their] duty,” neither Chavez nor Branch were blamed for what happened. Both officers declined to comment for this story.
Burton explained that some laws can be broken when an officer is caught in an adverse situation while on duty. The OPD’s inquiry into the events that led up to Branch’s injury doesn’t warrant a full-scale investigation by Internal Affairs unit but is something that could be handled “at the shift level,” Burton explained.
Burton said in the course of exercising their duties, “officers are empowered to violate statute to the extent that is necessary.”
“It’s a safety issue and a procedural one,” Burton continued. “The law allows them to do that.”
The man accused of running from officers, 30-year-old Christopher Turner, was arrested on suspicion of evading arrest or detention causing bodily injury, a third-degree felony.
Other crimes for which Turner was arrested include the unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, another third-degree felony, two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, both second-degree felonies and a parole violation.
Turner was also charged with one count of deadly conduct, a third-degree felony, and tampering or fabricating physical evidence, also a third-degree felony. Turner, 814 E. Odessa St., was being held Friday at the Ector County Detention Center on bonds totaling $65,000.
Repeated attempts to reach Turner’s defense attorney, Adrian Chavez, for comment were unsuccessful.
“An inquiry is different than an investigation,” said OPD Capt. Jerry Harvell, who oversees the Professional Standards Unit. An inquiry requires the collection of facts of an incident and for providing a conclusion. The penalties for a level two probe are less stringent that those under a first level investigation, said Harvell.
Harvell said he didn’t know when the traffic division’s probe would be completed but Burton said the investigation could take several weeks.
The OPD’s findings in the inquiry strictly deal with the events that led up to the moment Branch was injured during the investigation of a shooting on Monahans Street.
Police spokesman Cpl. Steve LeSueur has said the OPD was awaiting a final review by the City of Odessa’s Risk Management Department regarding Branch. A departmental committee, or board, reached its decision Feb. 23 to not assess points against Branch, who has returned to duty following her accident five months ago.
No points were assessed against Chavez either, the OPD’s report read.
The “discharge” of duties the Professional Standards Unit referred to in its inquiry was shown Oct. 2 the moment Branch and the other officers all heard a volley of gunshots they believed were tied to a shooting that resulted in a murder in the 1000 block of Monahans Street. The multiple gunshots were heard coming west of the location, the report found.
The gunshots were followed by a radio broadcast of an officer announcing a foot pursuit, which drew several patrol and detective units to head toward the area to help catch the fleeing suspect, later identified as Turner.
Chavez, who was responding to what he heard in the radio report, saw Branch, Caid and Cordero all running toward the area, pulled up alongside them in the Tahoe and reportedly told them to “get on his running boards and [that] he would give them a ride,” the inquiry read.
Branch, who was riding in the back of the vehicle lost her grip the moment Chavez turned right onto eastbound Monahans Street and landed on the asphalt roadway, leaving her with a head injury so severe that she required a two-week stay in the Intensive Care Unit at Medical Center Hospital, and a transfer to another hospital in Houston for another two weeks when her condition improved.
Branch also suffered a damaged airway, the inquiry read. Chavez’s driving time was estimated to be about 11 seconds. Caid and Cordero managed to grab on to something while riding on the running boards of the Chevy Tahoe.
In Caid’s officer report that was included in the inquiry he states that “standing on the running boards of the units is done on a fairly regular basis during foot pursuits or other fluid scenes.”
“It is a faster way to travel to a nearby area if the officer is on foot. Officers are rarely able to sit in the front passenger seat of a single officer patrol unit. That is because of the amount of supplies in the passenger compartment utilized by the officer operating the vehicle,” Caid said. “If officers sit in the rear transport area of the patrol unit, they are unable to open the rear doors to exit the vehicle. That would cause the driver of the unit to park the vehicle and exit to open the rear doors from the exterior.”
“Due to the listed circumstances, officers tend to ride on the exterior running board for short distances (while the vehicle travels at low speeds) which allows them to be faster to action upon arriving in the area of the scene,” Caid reported.
Since all four OPD officers were “engaged in the necessary discharge of their duties,” the city’s Safety and Disciplinary Action Review Board reviewed Chavez’s case on Jan. 12 and concluded that while it found the incident was preventable, “no action was taken, and no points were assessed against Cpl. Chavez.”
The board reached the same conclusion regarding Branch.
“On Feb. 23, the City of Odessa’s Safety and Disciplinary Action Review Board reviewed Detective Branch’s case,” the report said. “The Safety and Disciplinary Action Review Board found the incident was preventable, but no action was taken and no points were assessed against Detective Branch.”
The Safety and Disciplinary Action Review board is comprised of a chairman and five members from the OPD, Odessa Fire/Rescue, the City of Odessa Utilities Department, the Department of Public Works and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. All those members are volunteers and are recommended and approved by the Odessa city manager.
The board, which is part of the city’s Risk Management Department, meets once a month to discuss accidents involving city employees, and operators of city-owned or leased equipment that was involved in an incident causing loss, guidelines on the board’s administrative procedure read.
The conclusions reached by the board are based on a point system used to determine the level of disciplinary action which, in turn, is based on findings “that the matters in question were preventable on the part of the employee at review,” the guidelines read.
Harvell said that riding on the running boards of a patrol vehicle is not, as far he knows, “something we train the guys to do.”
While a move like that is not consistent with protocol, Harvell added that there are moments when officers are compelled to go to above the limits of statutes to catch a suspect.
“We don’t train the guys to do that, but it’s just like anything else in the field. Guys will do things like that. We don’t teach to jump fences either. We don’t teach them to run down alleys,” Harvell said. “We don’t teach them to do that, but when they’re in the performance of their duties things are happening like this.”
Harvell said chaotic crime scenes are fluid. And they’re just doing things, and quickly, because on the hunt for the bad guy. There’s no lesson plan out there for that. There’s no training where you can find ‘here’s how you ride a running board’ that I know of.”
You can’t cover everything in policy but you can see what you’ve learned, Harvell said, who alluded to Branch when he explained how experience can be the best teacher in dealing with on-the-job incidents.