Dalton police sergeant fired after 3-high-speed pursuits, including 1 that resulted in a fatal crash

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3:57 - Chase 2
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A Dalton police sergeant has been fired for engaging in three high-speed pursuits in the span of two months. The last of the chases resulted in a fatal crash for the driver.

Dalton Police Chief Deanna Strout confirmed Oct. 10 that Sgt. Bustin Buzzella is no longer employed by the town. The decision came following a Sept. 28 executive session meeting of the Dalton Select Board.

In a series of disciplinary action reports — one for each pursuit — obtained by The Eagle, Strout alleged that Buzzella violated multiple department policies during and following the high-speed chases, including being untruthful in his reports about the incidents and falsifying documents.

Strout’s report states that after the first pursuit, on March 21, she pulled Buzzella into her office and told him “he was never to operate a cruiser at a high rate of speed like that in the future, or he would face further disciplinary action.”

Attorney Mark Brennan, who represents Buzzella, did not have an immediate comment on the outcome. Brennan said that Buzzella did file a disability claim with the town.

Buzzella had been on administrative leave since a high-speed chase on May 20 resulted in the death of Ryan Griffin, of Pittsfield. Buzzella has been placed on the Brady List for the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office, meaning he should not be called for witness testimony without prior approval.

In the internal affairs investigations into Buzzella’s conduct during the three chases, Strout outlined the department rules the sergeant violated: Its high-speed pursuit policy, untruthfulness and falsifying records, among other infractions.

The department’s criteria for engaging in high-speed pursuits weighs factors such as the severity of the crime believed to have been committed, the population density and nature of the area, and the officer’s familiarity with the area, among others.

In the internal investigation, Buzzella was found to have omitted or exaggerated information in reports on the chases, and in the case of a pursuit on May 14, failed to file a report as requested until almost a week after the incident.

The evening of May 20, Griffin died in a single-car crash after Buzzella pursued him from Main Street in Dalton onto Robinson Road in Hinsdale.

Dashcam footage obtained by The Eagle shows that Griffin crashed into a tree while traveling at a high speed evading Buzzella, causing the car to catch fire. In the footage, Buzzella can be seen exiting his car to extinguish the fire.

Griffin, 33, was being pursued on suspicion of operating under the influence of alcohol after a stop sign violation. He was driving with a suspended license.

In her disciplinary report, Strout wrote that there was no evidence that Griffin posed a significant risk of harm to the community, as “there is no indication that the operator of the vehicle had committed a violent felony,” one of the criteria for justifying a pursuit.

Strout went on to say that Buzzella’s decision to pursue Griffin in rainy conditions created a greater risk to the public than letting him go. There was another option, she said: Because he knew Griffin’s identity after searching for his registration, he could have followed up at his home later.

“I find that, by choosing to continue the pursuit after the operator increased his speed on wet and windy roads, Sgt. Buzzella created an avoidable risk of harm to the public,” Strout wrote. “Based on these circumstances, there was no justification to commence a high-speed pursuit.”

Strout also wrote in the report that Buzzella’s account of the incident was inaccurate. The chief said Buzzella mischaracterized Griffin’s actions, saying he crossed a double yellow line. Strout was not able to find any instances of the vehicle doing so in the dashcam footage, and found Buzzella “falsely reported the improper actions of this vehicle to justify pursuing it.”

Strout also wrote that Buzzella mischaracterized his own actions in the pursuit, quoting him as saying he “slowed his cruiser and turned in to the parking lot for Craneville Place.” In fact, she said, he made a U-turn on Main Street and drove over the sidewalk to conduct a traffic stop.

Strout noted in the report that Buzzella had been involved in a motor vehicle crash in December 2017 in which he was found at fault for making a U-turn in his cruiser.

The May 20 chase came just six days after his last high-speed pursuit. On May 14, Buzzella chased a suspect from Hinsdale to Peru to Worthington and back, reaching a top speed of 99 mph. The speedometer data on Buzzella’s cruiser is included in the dashcam footage.

The chase lasted for 16 minutes.

Buzzella began the pursuit after an alleged assault with a knife was called in. He reported that he believed the juvenile suspect in the car was armed with a knife and could have been a threat to themselves, told by a responding officer that they had been “making statements of suicide by police.”

In her report, Strout said Buzzella did not ascertain details about the situation at the time before beginning pursuit, finding fault in his failure to communicate. She noted that the dispatcher failed to provide these details, but added that as a sergeant and the supervisor on duty, it was Buzzella’s responsibility to ask for them.

Buzzella also wrote in his report that he was responding to “a domestic violence incident involving the use of a knife and a possible stabbing injury.”

In her review of the radio transmissions and phone calls of the incident, Strout said none of the officers or dispatchers involved informed Buzzella that anyone had been stabbed. A dispatcher asked officers to respond to Hinsdale for “a party involved in an assault with a knife,” Strout wrote; she found Buzzella’s inclusion of an alleged stabbing in his report to be untruthful.

“Sgt. Buzzella was never advised there was a stabbing injury,” Strout wrote. “I find that Sgt. Buzzella attempted to escalate or exaggerate the level of the crime to justify his actions in this vehicle pursuit.”

In a disciplinary action report reviewing the May 14 incident, Strout noted that Buzzella traveled at excessive speeds, “passing cars, bicyclists and pedestrians” and that Buzzella followed the car “through a basketball court on a Sunday morning.” Dashcam footage shows the basketball court in question was empty at the time.

Factors that made that chase unsafe, Strout said, included continuing the pursuit into unfamiliar towns and using his cellphone to communicate with Dalton police dispatch because he had driven out of radio range.

Strout also found that Buzzella had filed misleading information in his report on the chase. She quotes Buzzella’s writing directly as saying, “there were times when I was traveling at 75 miles an hour and still losing sight of the black BMW (the car he was pursuing) off in the distance.” Strout notes that dashcam footage shows Buzzella regularly traveling at speeds ranging from 70 to 99 mph.

“I find that Sgt. Buzzella deliberately omitted the information regarding his actual speed in order to avoid being reprimanded for excessive speed,” Strout wrote in the report.

The first time Buzzella was disciplined for a high-speed chase was for a March 21 pursuit, after Buzzella attempted to stop a vehicle for speeding. The driver fled through a red light and crashed into another car on Housatonic Street in Dalton, then continued into Pittsfield. Buzzella pursued the driver into the city at “a high rate of speed” — a subsequent report indicated Buzzella traveled up to 96 mph in the chase.

Buzzella lost sight of the car and eventually stopped pursuing it. According to a verbal warning report from the incident, the car that Buzzella was pursuing crashed into several other vehicles later on.

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