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HIGH-SPEED CHASES ARE RISKY
The Cincinnati Post
November 26, 2004

By Roy Wood
Post staff reporter

When police chases left two innocent bystanders dead during a recent four-day period in Hamilton County, the deaths brought renewed urgency to the long controversial question of when -- or even whether -- officers should engage in risky high-speed pursuits.

In one of the fatal accidents, a teen-age driver who allegedly drove away from a gas station without paying for gas later struck and killed a 52-year-old pedestrian while being pursued by a Hamilton County sheriff's deputy in a chase that approached 90 mph.

Jim Phillips, whose 20-year-old daugther was killed in a police pursuit launched a Web site, PursuitWatch.org, in March 2003 "principally as a vehicle to vent (his) anger and rage."
The Winter Park, Fla., resident says the site advocates safe chases. Although Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis has defended the deputy's actions, others have faulted the decision, arguing that a stolen tank of gas is never worth risking the lives of officers, other drivers, pedestrians or even suspects themselves.

Even before the latest incidents, some police departments, in the tri-state and elsewhere, had begun adopting new pursuit policies aimed at tempering cops' natural instinct to do whatever it takes to catch the bad guys. In Fairfield, for example, a year-old policy is based on the premise that sometimes, it's better for a bad guy to get away, at least temporarily, than to take the risks involved in trying to catch him at all costs.

"I'm sure there are some suspects who get away," said Fairfield Police Lt. Ken Colburn. "But the offenses they commit are not worth  putting people on the road, including our own people, at high risk."

A quarter century ago, the trend in police departments across the country was to generally defer to street cops' decisions on when to step on the gas in chasing fleeing suspects. The frequency of resulting crashes, however, gradually prompted some law enforcement experts to rethink a policy that seemed to pit officers' adrenalin against their judgment.

Despite the tightened high-speed pursuit policies in many police departments, 40 percent of chases still end in crashes, according to one nationally prominent criminologist.

"The thing people have to understand is that -- once we start chasing, the guy isn't going to stop," said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor from the University of South Carolina who for 20 years has concentrated his research and training on evaluating high-risk police activities such as the use of force and pursuit driving.

Alpert, who has authored and co-authored numerous books, including "Pursuit Driving: What We Know," stresses that because a fleeing suspect has little interest in public safety, it is all the more important for police officers to carefully weigh whether capturing the suspect is worth the likelihood of a crash.

Today's more progressive police pursuit policies, Alpert said, have several things in common.

Those policies allow officers to chase only if someone is suspected of a specified list of violent felonies. Secondly, a supervisor is involved in making decisions to initiate or terminate chases.

Without restrictive police pursuit policies, serious injuries or death is predictable, said Jim Phillips of Winter Park, Fla., whose 20-year-old daughter Sarah was an innocent victim killed during a police chase three years ago.

Sarah Phillips was stopped for a police roadblock when the suspect who was fleeing police hit the car she was driving.

As a result of the family's legal settlement with the Orange County sheriff's office, Phillips became involved in revising the agency's pursuit policy.

Although some safe-chase advocates have been labeled "no-pursuit" advocates, Phillips stresses that at least in his case, nothing could be further from the truth. Violent felons who might commit other violent acts and are a danger to the public, he says, should be pursued.

But the costs should be weighed, he emphasized.

"Pursuit policy should be a public safety issue," he said.

Like Alpert, Phillips, who has examined more than 100 pursuit policies, said the policies should not give street officers too much discretion.

Research shows that even in training exercises, officers placed in pursuit situations get an adrenaline rush, with their heart rates and breathing speeding up.

Officers also can become so emotionally involved in a pursuit, Philipps said, that they begin to lose sight of road safety.

For those reasons, it's paramount that supervisors not involved in the pursuit make decisions about when to start and stop the chase, he said.

The Hamilton County sheriff's office policy does not require a supervisor to give a deputy the OK to initiate pursuit, Sheriff Simon Leis said last week in defending his deputy's Nov. 10 decision to pursue Vernon Fears Jr.

The deputy believed Fears, 18, had driven away from a gas station without paying for gas. During the ensuing chase, the vehicle Fears was driving crashed into a car and struck a pedestrian, Rebecca Maynard, 52, who died.

Fears was indicted on charges of aggravated vehicular homicide, involuntary manslaughter, theft and other charges.

Leis said he has no intention of changing his department's policy.

Evendale Police Chief Gary Faust, likewise, said he has no plans to change his department's policy in the wake of a Nov. 7 pursuit-related fatality.

In that incident, police said Randy D. Smith, 52, of the 8300 block of Mayfair Street in Hartwell, was chased after the car he was driving rear-ended a car on Reading Road, killing a passenger in the car he struck, 68-year-old Mabel Trapp of Hamilton. The officer who pursued Smith also believed he was under the influence of alcohol.

Smith, who has been indicted on aggravated vehicular homicide charges and other counts.

Evendale's police department is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc., a national body that sets some 400 standards for accreditation.

One of those standards includes describing supervisor's responsibilities in a pursuit policy. Supervisors oversee Evendale police pursuits.

Like Phillips, Faust believes supervisors not directly involved in pursuits can be more objective about safety than officers pumped up on adrenaline. Although officers can terminate pursuits on their own, it's typically supervisors who call off the chase, Faust said.

By contrast, Leis said pursuits "happen too fast" for supervisors to become involved in when to terminate them.

One defense for broad pursuit policies he often hears, Phillips says, goes something like, "If the bad guys hadn't run, none of this would have happened."

Leis used a different explanation in defending his deputy's decision to pursue Fears' car.

"What you have to understand here, you really don't know what the situation might be," Leis said. "In that $15 or $20 gas theft, there could have been some person who was a hostage in that car, there could have been somebody who had been murdered and was in the trunk of that car."

It is an explanation Phillips doesn't buy.

"Osama or D.B. Cooper or even Elvis could be in that car, too," Phillips said.

Phillips says on his Web site that less than 17 percent of suspects flee for an underlying felony. Most flee because they have no driver's license, no insurance, no registration or are driving under the influence of alcohol.

"Would you rather deal with an impaired driver at 40 mph or 80 mph?" Phillips asked.

Officers from a few departments that have restrictive policies -- which allow chases only for violent crimes and require involvement of supervisors -- say their policies are working.

"We've had terrific success with our new pursuit policy," said Capt. Paul Rooney, whose Orlando Police Department adopted a new policy in March. "I think it's the model policy for the country."

In St. Louis County, Mo., where a restrictive policy has been in place about 10 years, the department has simply found safer ways to chase bad guys than to chase them in cars, said Maj. Timothy Fitch.

Officers will attempt to make a traffic stop, he said, but unless the case involves a serious felony, there won't be a high-speed chase.

If someone is DUI, for example, police will give the driver a wide berth and try to warn other drivers away. Many times, officers simply arrest the drunken driver when he gets to his driveway, Fitch said.

In some other cases, the department uses helicopters or a plane to keep an eye on suspects without causing the suspect to tear through traffic or populated areas.

"We would rather let a stolen car go than take the risk of someone getting killed," Fitch said. "It's worth the trade-off."


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