Police pursuits: Are they worth risk of injury, death?
An OpEd by Jonathan Farris, Chief Advocate, Pursuit For Change
It is very clear that Richmond Police Department, Wayne County Sheriff’s Office and Indiana State Police all have weak pursuit policies compared with more progressive jurisdictions across the US. Those stronger policies specifically define (and limit) when an officer can and cannot chase.
Over and over and over we listen to chiefs and sheriffs with similarly lacking policies espouse their excellent training and how qualified their officers are to decide when and how long and how far and how fast to pursue. Yet over 90% of pursuits are started after a non violent felony crimes – crimes which were not endangering anyone, like 4-year-old Madilynn Roberts above, UNTIL THE PURSUIT BEGAN.
Although there are a handful of states that mandate reporting of pursuit-related deaths, there is still no mandatory 50-State or Federal tracking of police chase-related deaths or injuries. As a result, we know there are many more pursuit injuries and deaths that are simply tallied as vehicular “accidents.”
Yet dangerous police chases persist like an antibiotic-resistant pandemic. Way too often we hear the exact same comment from departmental leadership, “We feel we’re doing as much as we can.” But they are NOT. If they were truly doing “all that they could,” then their pursuit-driving policies would be significantly stronger and they would cease to put their officers and innocent citizen at risk for petty crimes and misdemeanor traffic violations.
– Mandatory Federal Statistical Tracking of pursuit injuries and deaths
– Greater grant funding to support law enforcement usage of pursuit reduction technology
– Law enforcement funding for significantly more pursuit driving training
– Pursuit policy modifications including greater inter-jurisdictional policy consistency and movement toward violent felony-only pursuits
Thanks again for your reporting. It is critical that you and other reporters keep asking the difficult questions. Too many folks in the general public have no idea how pervasive the #PoliceChase problem is. And too often they find out TOO LATE – only after a loved one is killed or seriously injured.
Police pursuits: Are they worth risk of injury, death?
by Mike Emery (@PI_Emory) (email@example.com)
Updated 9:36 a.m. ET Dec. 21, 2018
RICHMOND, Ind. — A tree occupied space where the white Ford’s passenger side should have been. The flying car had smashed sideways into the tree and wrapped itself partially around the trunk.
It looked horrendous as Richmond Fire Department personnel worked to free a 23-year-old passenger from the vehicle. Haley Caldwell and 4-year-old Madilynn Roberts both sustained serious injuries when the 19-year-old driver, Daniel Zenon Arguijo, lost control of the Ford while leading police on a high-speed pursuit Nov. 30 down U.S. 40. The incident sparked a social-media debate about the value of that pursuit versus the risk associated with it.
The injuries were serious, but not fatal. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case when suspects flee police. And about a third of those who do die aren’t even involved in the pursuits.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released statistics that the United States recorded 7,090 deaths related to police pursuits for the 20-year period from 1996 through 2015. That averages 355 — or nearly one a day — per year. Of those deaths, 88 were law enforcement officers, 4,637 were in the vehicle being chased, 2,088 were in a vehicle not involved and 277 were innocent bystanders.
Which leads to the important question for communities and law enforcement agencies: Are police pursuits worth it?
Richmond Police Department, Wayne County Sheriff’s Office and Indiana State Police all have policies and procedures in place that permit officers to pursue fleeing suspects at the officer’s discretion. Nationwide, some agencies absolutely prohibit vehicle pursuits. Those agencies decided the risks to citizen and officer safety outweigh the need for suspect apprehension.
Accidents, injuries and worse occur regularly nationwide when drivers flee law enforcement and officers choose to pursue. According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics’ analysis of the International Association of Chiefs of Police pursuit database, 15 percent of pursuits end in crashes. The database recorded 5,568 pursuits from 115 agencies from 2009 to 2013. One in every 200 pursuits in the database ended with a fatality, and there were two serious and 10 minor injuries for every 100 pursuits.
Those serious accidents and deaths occur in Wayne County, too.
Police pursuits in Wayne County over the years
A review of Pal Item stories involving police pursuits from 2011 through 2018 revealed 18 chases that ended in crashes. Two of those crashes killed the driver of the fleeing vehicle.
On March 11, 2013, Richmond Police Department pursued a wanted man onto Indiana 227. Even though officers discontinued the pursuit because of weather conditions and the dangerous way the suspect operated his Pontiac, the vehicle left the roadway and struck two trees, killing the driver.
On May 23, 2017, the Indiana State Police pulled over a driver in Henry County, and when the officer suspected impairment and asked the driver to step out of the car, the driver sped off. When entering Wayne County, the Cadillac was speeding enough to fly over a cable barrier in the median into oncoming westbound traffic. A head-on collision with a pickup killed the fleeing driver and injured two people in the pickup.
Even since the Nov. 30 incident, there have been pursuit incidents in Wayne County and Indiana.
A Muncie man escaped one multi-county pursuit of his Ford on Dec. 17, then led another pursuit after state troopers located him in Wayne County. David Reed Shoemaker, 43, lost control of his Ford, which left Mineral Springs Road and came to rest on its side in a wooded area. Shoemaker was not seriously injured.
An Indiana police officer was not as lucky Dec. 12. Hundreds attended Tuesday’s funeral services for Sgt. Benton Bertram, 33, in Charlestown, Indiana. The nine-year veteran of the Charlestown Police Department died when his police vehicle left Indiana 3 in Scott County and struck a tree. According to the online Officer Down Memorial Page, Bertram is the sixth law enforcement officer in the United States to die this year while engaged in a police pursuit.
Officers constantly balance community safety with the need to engage in pursuits or let suspects go
Of the 7,090 deaths related to pursuits from 1996 through 2015, 192 occurred in Indiana and 231 in Ohio. Seven of the Indiana deaths were police officers, 129 were people in the fleeing vehicle, 53 were people in another vehicle and three were bystanders. In Ohio, one was an officer, 100 were in fleeing vehicles, 116 were in other vehicles and 14 were bystanders.
By any count, pursuits pose one of the most dangerous actions police officers face. Officers must constantly balance community safety with the need to pursue. Is the community safe if officers let the suspect go? Is the community safe if officers continue to pursue?
It’s a tough spot with no easy answers.
“We’ll let people go we shouldn’t have,” RPD Chief Jim Branum said, “but it’s better to err on the side of caution.”
Branum said RPD has had 14 vehicle pursuits during 2018. None of those ended in an accident or with injuries.
And that’s how pursuits most often end. The International Association of Chiefs of Police database shows the pursued driver gives up and stops 29 percent of the time and 25 percent end when the police discontinue the pursuit, 17 percent end with the suspect eluding officers, 9 percent end with police intervention and 2 percent end with the suspect vehicle becoming disabled. Those cause no harm; however, the 15 percent that involve collisions do.
And that’s a rate too steep for some. The Bureau of Justice Statistics said an estimated 2 percent of local police forces and 1 percent of sheriff’s offices prohibited vehicle pursuits completely. Allowing a suspect to escape, though, runs against officers’ instincts.
“It’s tough to tell a young policeman to let a violator go, because catching the bad guy is what they’re hired to do,” Branum said. “Then, letting this person go, is that a danger to the public, as well?”
RPD, sheriff’s department and state police policies allow pursuits; however, they list factors an officer should consider when deciding to pursue. The factors include:
The severity of the offense committed by the suspect, which can be complicated by the fact the act of fleeing in a vehicle is a felony itself in Indiana;
- Whether the suspect can be identified for later arrest;
- The safety of those involved and the general public;
- The amount of traffic on the roadway;
- The time of day;
- The speeds associated with the pursuit:
- The road conditions; and
- The perceived driving ability of the suspect, such as if the driver an inexperienced teenager.
Those factors must continuously be considered as the officer pursues. The three departments also allow officers and supervisors the authority to discontinue a pursuit at any time.
“There are lots of things to consider in a short amount of time,” said Branum, who noted he has discontinued pursuits as a supervisor. “And they’re all things you learned after becoming a police officer.”
The rules also lay out procedures and techniques for the execution of pursuits. All three agencies also then require a review of each pursuit that analyzes justification for the pursuit, the communication involved, the supervisors’ roles, equipment or training needs, disciplinary concerns and policy or procedure revisions.
Sheriff Jeff Cappa said the sheriff’s department policy meets the standards established by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which has accredited the agency.
“I have a very professional staff, and they’re trained very well,” said Cappa, whose agency was involved in five pursuits during 2017 with no accidents or injuries. “They understand what the job requires in those situations.”
Traffic violations are primary reason why police pursuits begin, but officers often left wondering why suspects flee
The chase of Arguijo that ended with the Ford wrapped around a tree began with Arguijo running a stop sign and nearly striking Patrolman Adam Blanton’s vehicle. Arguijo sped away when Blanton turned to attempt a traffic stop.
That’s the most common reason for pursuits to begin, according to the Chiefs of Police database. Traffic violations trigger 69 percent of the pursuits, including 16 percent for speeding, 13 percent for reckless driving and 12 percent for suspicion of impaired driving. Suspects thought to have committed non-violent felonies — often auto theft — account for 12 percent of the pursuits, violent felonies for 9 percent and misdemeanors for 8 percent.
Pal Item stories about pursuits included those beginning for traffic stops, but officers also pursued a Florida murder suspect, an attempted murder suspect, robbery suspects, break-in suspects, suspects wanted on warrants, counterfeiters and suspected stolen vehicles. Even with traffic stops, there’s reason for officers to wonder why a suspect would commit a felony — the fleeing — to avoid a simple traffic citation.
“You don’t know why the person is fleeing,” Branum said.
During Blanton’s pursuit of Arguijo, the officer showed awareness of the traffic conditions on U.S. 40, which were lighter than expected at the time of the pursuit, and the fact other drivers were aware of Blanton and pulling to the side even before Arguijo reached them, according to an affidavit of probable cause. Blanton also noted he could not get close enough to procure Arguijo’s license plate number and that he was losing ground to Arguijo.
Still, Arguijo lost control when a vehicle pulled out of a shopping center entrance in front of him. Arguijo was later found to be under the influence of methamphetamine when he fled, running six stop signs and five red lights before he crashed. He has been charged with Level 5 felony resisting law enforcement causing serious injury, two counts of Level 6 felony driving under the influence of a controlled substance and causing serious injury, Level 6 felony criminal recklessness with a deadly weapon, Class A misdemeanor operating under the influence of a controlled substance while endangering a person and Class C misdemeanor operating under the influence of methamphetamine.
Shoemaker, who also crashed his Ford, fled to avoid a traffic stop in Muncie. He led police through four counties before his crash west of Centerville. Shoemaker was jailed on charges of Level 5 operating as a habitual traffic violator with a lifetime suspension and Level 6 felony resisting law enforcement.
Both men exceeded 90 miles per hour while they were being chased. The pursuit database shows 23 percent of pursuits topped 90 mph and 45 percent exceeded 70 mph. Wayne County pursuits regularly reach high speeds because of the roads that cross the county, including Interstate 70, U.S. 40, U.S. 35, Indiana 38 and Indiana 1.
Those roads also contribute to pursuits entering the county from other Indiana counties, such as Shoemaker, and from other states. Pal Item stories reflected pursuits that began in Delaware, Randolph, Henry, Union and Marion counties in Indiana, plus Preble and Montgomery counties in Ohio. In those instances, the Wayne County officers assist other agencies. On I-70, Branum said, local officers often are just asked to block exit ramps to keep the pursuit on the highway.
How police pursuits end: from stop sticks to roadblocks and other immobilization techniques
The proximity to the state border also means local pursuits travel into Ohio. Agency policies dictate what pursuits may be continued into Ohio and local officers’ roles once entering the neighboring state.
While the suspect driver in a pursuit might have a destination in mind, leaving pursuing officers “trying to keep up,” Branum said, officers have the advantage of their radios. That’s especially true now that the county has a centralized 911 center that dispatches calls for all county agencies. Dispatchers can communicate with every unit in the county, plus alert neighboring counties and states during a pursuit.
“It’s nearly impossible to outrun the radio, even if you can outrun the car,” Branum said.
The best conclusion to any pursuit is for the fleeing driver to pull over and surrender. Some will bail from their vehicles and attempt to run away from officers, which still is safer than high-speed pursuits. Other than that, officers can use tire deflators (stop sticks), roadblocks and sheer numbers to stop a fleeing vehicle. Only the state police permits precision immobilization techniques where officers use their vehicles to contact the fleeing vehicle, and then only under strict circumstances, such as lower speeds and by trained officers.
“The strategy is that there are enough units in the area so that the driver decides there’s no place to go,” said Branum, who noted stop sticks are never used on fleeing motorcycles that would crash as a result.
Pal Item pursuit stories noted five pursuits that were ended using stop sticks. Other pursuits ended when the fleeing drivers pulled into driveways, abandoned vehicles and ran, plowed into farm fields, traveled into yards, drove through a fence, struck law enforcement vehicles and crashed.
At least two technology-based ideas have been developed to assist officers in pursuits, but neither has become commonly accepted or used.
One idea involves firing a small, adhesive, GPS tag onto a fleeing vehicle from a launcher located behind the police vehicle’s grille. That allows officers to back off and track the suspect vehicle on a computer, delaying the arrest but eliminating a possibly dangerous pursuit. One drawback, however, is that a police vehicle equipped to fire the GPS tag must get close enough to the fleeing vehicle to attach the tag.
Another idea involves using a remote to disable the engine of a fleeing vehicle. Branum said he wonders how the fleeing vehicle would react if the engine suddenly shuts down at high speed.
Of pursuits in the Chiefs of Police database, 57 percent ended within three minutes and 66 percent covered less than three miles. The data shows that the longer a pursuit lasts and when more law enforcement vehicles become involved the likelihood of a crash increases.
Cappa and Branum said their officers are trained in emergency vehicle operation when they attend the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy for their initial training. The state then requires additional annual training in operating emergency vehicles. The training is classroom training and in-car training. Cappa said his officers received both kinds of training this year, while Branum said RPD alternates years between classroom and road training.
The road training, he said, usually is done at the Richmond Municipal Airport on a timed course that tests the necessary skills. Officers drive their day-to-day vehicles when training.
“We feel we’re doing as much as we can,” Branum said.
That training, however, does not make officers, such as Sgt. Bertram, infallible when in pursuit. Also, the drivers fleeing from law enforcement do not receive such training. And their vehicles might not be pursuit ready such as law enforcement pursuit-certified vehicles. Those drivers, much like Arguijo and Shoemaker, can lose control and crash.
In the end, officers must quickly and continuously weigh many factors and reach a decision about engaging in a pursuit.
“I think part of how you combat that is have a policy in place, have guidelines and lay down for the officers that these are the rules,” Branum said. “I think we’ve done well the past three of four years I’ve had reason to monitor it.”
Most times the officer will apprehend a driver who chose to flee, and sometimes that driver will present a clear — if not deadly — danger to society. But other times, suspects, police officers and innocent bystanders will also continue to sustain serious injuries and lose their lives because of police pursuits.
Which leads back to the important question for communities and law enforcement agencies: Are police pursuits worth it?