A problem with perception

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by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and Photojournalist ROBERT McMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on September 24, 2012 at 10:25 PM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 25 at 7:56 AM

AUSTIN -- A KVUE Defenders investigation has prompted a Central Texas police chief to consider changing policies involving fatal crash investigations.

The potential changes center around a fatal crash involving a Lockhart woman who hit and killed a motorcyclist, 37-year-old Danny Harrison, in July.
 
The police report puts the driver, Michelle Knudsen, at fault. While no charges have been filed against her so far, the police report shows Knudsen “failed to yield the right of way.”
 
But it isn't so simple. Video recorded by two police dashboard cameras show Michelle’s father, Lt. Chris Knudsen, responding to the crash. He’s a Lockhart Police Department internal affairs supervisor. It also shows he spent at least two minutes going through her vehicle and eventually walking away with a handful of items, including his daughter’s purse.
 
“I didn’t understand how that could be legal,” Danny’s widow Amy Harrison told KVUE inside her Fort Worth home.

Harrison questions whether Lt. Knudsen tampered with evidence to protect his daughter.
 
“For all I know, it could have been lipstick and a wallet and a cell phone, but I’d like to know that,” Harrison argued.
 
Lockhart Police Chief Mike Lummus says investigators didn’t check the purse, nor were they required; department policy doesn’t require it.
 
“In this case, we’ve looked at the policies and there’s not really any policy that addresses it,” Chief Lummus told KVUE. The chief also says a potential policy change may be in order. “That’s something that I’ll have to look at,” Lummus continued.
 
According to the police report, “there was no reason to suspect Michelle was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”
 
Lt. Knudsen did not write the report, but he is mentioned in it several times. Results of Michelle's blood tests are pending. 
 
Harrison feels the crash was suspicious, especially after someone anonymously wrote on her husband’s online obituary page, “I encourage the family to thoroughly research the details of the accident,” and that Lt. Knudsen “removed ‘items’ from her vehicle.” 
 
For perspective, Austin’s Police Department only searches vehicles involved in suspicious crashes, which can find evidence like prescription drugs or alcohol, which could be contributing factors in a crash. 
 
“Part of it is gathering evidence and part of it is to ensure the integrity of the scene,” said APD’s Lt. Troy Officer.
 
Lummus admits Lt. Knudsen should never have been allowed to work his daughter’s crash. “Once he was there, he was a daddy. He wasn’t a police officer, but he was on the scene inside the tape. What I had a problem with was the perception,” Lummus said.
 
APD’s policy does not allow officers to respond to crashes involving family members.
 
“Even if the officer does everything by the book, there always is the appearance that something could be improper,” contended Lt. Officer.
 
Harrison hopes Lockhart changes its policy, but it provides her with little comfort.
 
“I’m glad for whatever good that may do for some other family down the road, but what are we supposed to do with that?” she said.

Over the phone, Lt. Knudsen declined an interview for this story. When KVUE asked him what was inside his daughter’s purse, he declined to comment. Calls to his daughter were not returned.
 
Chief Lummus has asked the Texas Rangers to review how his department handled the crash. Results of that report could take a few weeks.

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