March 29, 2006—Given the Fort Wayne Police Department's history of automobile chases, it was only a matter of time before an innocent motorist or passenger was hurt. Sadly, a 4-year-old boy paid the price Monday.
Police Chief Rusty York is mostly right when he said blame for the accident that critically injured 4-year-old Naylon Thompson Jr. rests squarely on the driver of a car who was fleeing police. According to police accounts, the driver, Courtney Woods, was speeding, failed to stop for police, had drugs in his car, was driving without a license and was to appear next week in court on other felony charges. If the police description is accurate — and there is no reason to believe it's not — Woods hit the van Naylon was riding in, and it is Woods who caused the tragic collision.
But had police called off their high-speed pursuit earlier, Woods may well have not darted onto Jefferson Boulevard attempting to elude police. Woods' vehicle lost a wheel several blocks from the crash scene. His car wasn't likely to go far on three wheels, yet police pursued him to the busy Jefferson-Washington corridor near Indiana Tech, just east of downtown.
Tragically, York had the opportunity to approve a new police chase policy late last year that would have limited high-speed pursuits to known and suspected felons and banned such pursuits when drivers are suspected only of traffic offenses. It was speeding that initiated Monday's chase.
In theory, the current policy should work. It requires supervisors to determine whether the pursing officers — who are naturally pumped up and seeking to catch a suspect — should continue chases. But the city's history is that supervisors too frequently allow them to continue.
In 2004, for example, city police recorded 84 pursuits — nearly half of which ended with property damage and/or personal injury. More than half of the pursuits began with a traffic infraction or pursuit of a suspected misdemeanor offender.
Police should no sooner chase a traffic offender on city streets during a workday than they would fire a gun into a suspect running into a crowd. The current policy sounds reasonable, and maintains the police discretion for each unique instance that York believes is necessary. But it isn't working.
The policy York was considering late last year is a starting point. But York should beef up that language and limit high-speed pursuits to felons or suspected felons who are believed to be dangerous. If York insists on keeping the current policy, he and other police commanders should make sure supervisors responsible for making decisions on continuing chases err on the side of terminating them.
Time after time, police chases end with the drivers who are fleeing police crashing. Usually, they hurt only themselves. Monday's collision demonstrated why allowing police chases to continue should be the exception and not the rule.