SPECIAL REPORT: DEADLY PURSUITS (PART 1 OF 2)
Are police chases
worth dying for?
Restrictions would give suspects a green light to flee, many officers say. But 86 Indiana deaths in 11 years have spurred calls for stricter policies.
By Eunice Trotter, Tom Spalding and Mark Nichols
May 23, 2005—As they drove to a Chinese buffet dinner on a rainy Saturday evening, 27-year-old Tameka Anthony leaned over from the passenger seat in her fiance's car and pecked Luther Page on the lips. "I love you," she said.
Moments later, as the couple and Anthony's 9-year-old son were turning left into the parking lot from Arlington Avenue, their lives collided with an 80 mph police pursuit of a suspect fleeing a traffic stop that evening in 2002.
The intoxicated driver smashed into the passenger side of the couple's car. Anthony and her son were killed. Page is permanently disabled.
Across Indiana and the nation, people like Anthony and her son have died when their paths have crossed a police chase that had nothing to do with them.
They are people like 7-month-old Nathanael Bublitz, who wouldn't stop crying as the family headed home from late-night church services in 1997. His 28-year-old mother, Rebekah, unbuckled her seat belt to pull him into her lap from his car seat as the family drove on I-465, her husband at the wheel. A man fleeing police at 100 mph weaved to avoid a tire deflation device and slammed into the Bublitz van. Mother and infant were propelled through the windshield. The baby died instantly; the mother, eight days later.
And they are like Marian W. Woempner, 78, who was driving to church with her husband, Robert, 82, last October. An Indianapolis Housing Agency police car, joining a chase as it was ending, sped through a red light at Emerson and Edgewood avenues and hit the Woempners' car, killing the woman.
An analysis by The Indianapolis Star of 947 police pursuits in Indiana from 2003 and 2004 shows police are virtually unrestricted when they chase suspects. They pursue fleeing vehicles at high speeds and usually for traffic infractions, according to The Star's examination of reports from the Indianapolis Police Department, the Marion County Sheriff's Department and the Indiana State Police.
At least 86 people -- bystanders, suspects and law enforcement officers -- died as the result of police pursuits in Indiana from 1993 through 2003, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Twenty-five of them were bystanders not involved in the chase. Nationally, 3,877 were killed during the same period, 1,251 of them not a part of the pursuit.
Reports of the 947 chases analyzed by The Star show that police:
* Initiated pursuits that ended with at least one injury or death in one of five cases. A third of the chases resulted in property damage.
* Chased motorists at speeds ranging from 10 to more than 170 mph. IPD averaged 57 mph, the Sheriff's Department 64 mph and State Police 88 mph. State Police in August 2003 chased a motorcyclist for 11 miles on I-69 near Fort Wayne at speeds of more than 170 mph. Fort Wayne police joined in, but the suspect got away.
*Often were chasing for relatively minor infractions. Almost three out of four chases were prompted by a traffic violation -- mostly speeding, expired plates or erratic driving -- or a "suspicious" vehicle or occupant. In the first three months of this year, IPD reported 66 chases. Eight out of 10 stemmed from traffic violations.
In several states, police departments have severely restricted chasing suspects to only the most serious offenses. Under a year-old regulation, police in Orlando, Fla., must turn off their lights and sirens, stop their vehicles and turn around when motorists don't stop. Police departments in Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio, and Memphis, Tenn., also have curtailed police pursuits.
"High-speed vehicle pursuits are possibly the most dangerous of all police activities," according to a Philadelphia Police Department policy that limits chases.
Police agencies in Central Indiana say they need to be able to chase anyone they choose under any conditions.
"As a department, we're not going to allow people to believe we're not going to chase them," said Marion County Sheriff's Col. Kerry J. Forestal. He said deputies should continue to pursue vehicles that don't stop, even for minor traffic violations.
"This department is not ready to not chase someone because it's (a) traffic (violation). . . .Yes, they ran the red light, but did they hit and kill somebody before they ran the light? We need to stop them and find out what they're fleeing for."
To Indiana State Police Deputy Superintendent Danny East, "fleeing is a clue." The person running might have committed other crimes.
"The traffic stops our people make have produced (evidence of) criminal activity," East said. "And we know that when we do pull somebody over on a traffic violation and they start to flee, that heightens our awareness there is probably suspected criminal activity."
Forestal said deputies do not want to chase. "But if (a suspect) is running, we can't assume the only violation is the broken taillight. There could be someone in the trunk."
But usually there is no serious crime.
In only a handful of 947 cases -- about 3 percent -- did the suspect face criminal charges for violent felonies after the chase, according to The Star's analysis. Nearly a third of those stopped faced traffic-related charges, while the most frequent charge was resisting arrest, which grew out of the chase itself.
However, police say they do discover felonies as a result of otherwise routine stops and pursuits.
IPD Chief Michael T. Spears, whose department conducted an average of four chases a week during the two-year period reviewed, recalled police chasing a stolen-vehicle suspect in 2002. When the van finally was stopped after going the wrong way on I-70 and running over a tire-deflation device, police found a friend of the suspect's shot in the head and dead in the back, according to reports at the time. In a 1998 case, police chased a suspect on the Westside of Indianapolis into Speedway after he carjacked a woman and her three children.
Page, who lost his fiancee a few months before they were to be married, said he blames IPD and 19-year-old Nathanial Williams, who was drunk and running from a traffic stop. He also lost his fiancee's son, 9-year-old Charles Griffin Jr.
Williams now is serving a 20-year prison sentence for drunken driving, fleeing police and causing the deaths.
"My argument is, if police had never chased him, he would not have hit my car, and my family would still be alive," Page said. "I often think I would have been married by now. My life would have been different."
Page sued Williams and won a $1.3 million judgment. But he doubts he will ever collect. Williams had no car insurance. Page probably would not have won a suit against the Police Department because police have immunity under state law that says they cannot be held liable for properly doing their job.
"All I think about now is: Why? Why would he run? But I also blame the police officers. Why would they chase him in those weather conditions? It was raining. I've asked that question. But I've never got an answer."
After that deadly pursuit, IPD reviewed its chase policy and began requiring police supervisors to monitor and direct pursuits by radio. No other significant restrictions were imposed.
"What fails to stay in people's minds is who is responsible for the pursuit -- the person who is fleeing," said 1st Sgt. Dave Bursten, a State Police spokesman.
Bursten's point is acknowledged by those who seek to curtail high-speed chases. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., whose mother was killed when she crossed paths with a high-speed chase in 1986 in North Dakota, has called for a national policy.
"It is the fault of the people who are fleeing law enforcement officials," Dorgan said during a Senate speech in 2003. "But we ought to have policies and training on high-speed pursuit to make sure pursuit is appropriate. In cases where we have minor infractions, in cases where there is no imminent danger, we ought not have chases at 60, 80 or 100 miles per hour, in which innocent people get killed."
The Star reviewed 50 pursuit policies from police departments in Indiana and elsewhere. Besides Baltimore, Orlando, Columbus, Ohio, and Memphis, police departments in Louisville, Ky., Los Angeles, Kansas City, Mo., and San Antonio are among those that don't allow chases of drivers who commit traffic offenses.
In Central Indiana, Beech Grove stands out as one of the few departments with such a restriction. Fort Wayne is writing one after a high-speed chase near a school in session last year.
Geoffrey P. Alpert, a national expert consulted by police and community leaders about pursuit issues, said restrictive chase policies save lives.
He once thought police needed to chase. "That's no longer my thought," said Alpert, a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina who has studied pursuits for more than 20 years.
"Until (Indiana's) policies are revised, you're going to bury a lot more people."
Policies sometimes ignored
Even when a policy exists, police at times don't chase by their own rules.
In the case of Marian W. Woempner, who was killed as the result of a pursuit Oct. 31, an Indianapolis Housing Agency policeman allegedly violated his department's own policy by attempting to take part in the chase.
Woempner was driving her husband of 58 years to Trinity Lutheran Church on the Far Eastside, where she was to help serve cider and doughnuts after Sunday services. But she never made it.
A pickup truck rear-ended a car at 10th Street and Emerson Avenue, causing property damage but no injuries, and fled the scene. An Indianapolis police car chased the truck on city streets at speeds averaging 60 mph.
Officers from other departments joined the chase, including Sgt. Clayton Clark of the housing agency police. Although the chase had ended, Clark continued to rush to the scene.
Clark's white car had an emblem on it, but the flashing lights were in the grill. While speeding through the intersection of Emerson and Edgewood avenues, Clark's car broadsided the Woempners' car on the driver's side, killing Marian Woempner and injuring her husband.
Clark resigned after his supervisor recommended his firing for violating housing agency policy.
"An innocent person died just because they felt like they had to get him, and that's not right. It's not right," Vickie Grimes, a friend of the Woempners' for decades, told The Star after the crash. "I want people taken to justice as well as anyone else but not at the loss of wonderful people like that."
At the time, Mayor Bart Peterson said he did not plan another review of the IPD policy because in his view the accident stemmed from an emergency run rather than the pursuit.
Peterson on Friday said he supports IPD officials in determining the department's pursuit policy. "You can't prevent every police-chase-related accident unless you decide you aren't going to do any police chases."
When there is an accident, he said, police should determine whether they followed policy and whether the policy was adequate.
"I have not seen any evidence or heard any evidence from our police department yet that suggests our policy isn't a good policy."
IPD Chief Spears said a closer look at the department's pursuit policy might be necessary.
"My belief is, before we would change our policy to require officers to pursue only on-sight felons or those who commit forcible felonies, I would like to continue to analyze the decisions made by our field officers and supervisors, because I think that's the first step to take to control unnecessary pursuits and help ensure public safety," he said.
Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson said deaths and injuries resulting from chases are unfortunate, but he trusts the judgment of his deputies.
"If these officers had known someone was going to get hurt or killed, no, they wouldn't pursue, and I don't want a bunch of cowboys out there chasing cars for the sake of chasing. I sound like a broken record, but I have to emphasize that I have confidence in my people."
The Indiana State Police might move toward a more restrictive pursuit policy, said Paul E. Whitesell, who in January became superintendent, the agency's top executive. When he was with the Fort Wayne Police Department, Whitesell helped write a more restrictive policy.
"Just as it was my intention to restrict Fort Wayne, it would probably follow that I restrict this one a bit as time goes on, but I can't promise that," he said.
Suing is fruitless
Police and their departments in Indiana are immune from liability in deaths, injuries and property damage resulting from their chases.
Indianapolis lawyer Scott A. Benkie -- who represented Lester Bublitz, whose wife, Rebekah, and 7-month-old son were killed as a result of the I-465 pursuit in August 1997 -- said he lost Bublitz's wrongful death lawsuit because he could not prove that police intentionally caused the accident. That is the standard for holding police liable, even if an officer's car causes the death of an innocent person, he said.
"It would be a rare instance where that could be shown, and it would require criminal prosecution," Benkie said. "Right now, there is no accountability, and I think it's a horrific situation."
Benkie suggests police ignore policy because there is little accountability. Courts have repeatedly ruled against people who sue police as a result of deaths, injuries and property damage caused by pursuits.
"There is no way in a courtroom to get justice," he said.
Forcing them off the road
Many police departments in the state now use a tire-deflation device, a set of spikes that puncture the tires of a fleeing car.
But last year, the Marion County Sheriff's Department gave deputies another tool -- the PIT maneuver. Short for "Precision Immobilization Technique," it allows an officer to clip a fleeing vehicle with the police car to cause the fleeing car to spin.
Making pursuits even more dangerous is a handshake agreement that allows police departments to chase fleeing suspects across another jurisdiction's border -- without following that jurisdiction's pursuit policy.
Because police departments have different radio systems, they frequently can't communicate directly with one another during a pursuit, relying on a dispatcher to relay information.
"It's not the best scenario at all," said Johnson County Sheriff Terry McLaughlin.
The Star asked Jim Phillips to review pursuit policies of IPD, the Marion County Sheriff's Department and the Indiana State Police. Phillips, a national advocate who lost his daughter in a police pursuit, helped make Orlando's policy one of the most restrictive in the nation.
"(Indiana) policies essentially give a blank check to the officer initiating the pursuit," Phillips said. "In my view, this is totally unacceptable. It is a disaster waiting to happen."
IPD, the Sheriff's Department and Indiana State Police also allow officers to chase drunken drivers.
"Drunk drivers almost always end up in a wreck," Phillips said. Most people who drive while drunk just want to get home, he said.
"When police come across one and they turn on their lights and he starts to flee, the policeman should just turn off his lights, turn around and go the other way," Phillips said.
A wide-open pursuit policy "may politically pass as a tough law-and-order attitude but is nothing more than a careless disregard for public safety," he said.
Police contend that if pursuits are curtailed, crime will increase because more suspects will flee. Prosecutors and police have pressed for tougher prison sentences for people convicted of fleeing police.
"If we said we were not going to pursue, the criminals would know it's a free-for-all," Forestal said. "As long as they run, there is no long arm of the law."
That is the usual response, said Sgt. Therman Reed, spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, which changed its policy in the 1980s after fatalities involving pursuits. Police now chase suspects only in violent felony cases.
"If a vehicle takes off, we just let them go. We don't pursue if it's a traffic violation or some minor crime. We just believe they will find their way eventually into the system," Reed said.
"People who are going to flee will flee whether there is a no-pursuit policy or not," he said.
Luther Page says if pursuits were restricted, fewer people like his fiancee and her son would pay the price. "The way it is now, nobody is safe."
Call Star reporter Eunice Trotter at (317) 444-6037.
In the path of a police chase: Tameka Anthony and her son, Charles Griffin Jr., were in this car, on their way to a restaurant for dinner in April 2002, when a motorist fleeing police smashed into them at 80 mph. Both were killed. Fire personnel worked to free a person trapped. -- Matt Kryger / The Star 2002 file photo
Victims, the families and others
How deadly chases have changed the lives of survivors and left the families of victims with painful memories.
Stopping deadly chases elsewhere
The Star examines how police departments around the country have addressed pursuits, often all but forbidding them.
Behind the numbers
Analysis of area chases: A paper report is generated whenever the Indiana State Police, the Indianapolis Police Department or the Marion County Sheriff's Department conducts a chase. The Indianapolis Star copied the reports by those departments from 2003 and 2004 -- a total of 947 -- and built a computer database to analyze how departments chase.
Death counts: The numbers of deaths in Indiana and nationally are reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (U.S. Department of Transportation). The agency's Fatality Analysis Reporting System is available at www.fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/ . At times, finding details of those deaths is difficult. The Star relied primarily on news reports. The number of deaths might be undercounted because a person injured in a crash who dies weeks or months later might not appear in the statistics.
Police department policies: The Star contacted more than 50 law enforcement agencies in Indiana and elsewhere to compare their police pursuit policies. The Star had to file open-records requests to get local departments to release their policies in about half of the cases.
Links to other web sites will open a new browser. IndyStar.com is not responsible for the content, accuracy or privacy practices of these sites.
Neill Borowski, editor; Bill Huddleston, copy editor; Tim Ball and Scott Goldman, designers; Jennifer Imes, graphics editor; Greg Fisher and Val Hoeppner, photo editors. Research by Barbara Hoffman, Deborha Bostic and Ian Osborne.