Deadly Pursuits: Part II
Some cities slam brakes on chases
Several have banned pursuits for traffic violations
Click here to read: Deadly Pursuits: Part 1
By Eunice Trotter, Tom Spalding and Mark Nichols
May 23, 2005—A year ago, Orlando, Fla., made its already restrictive police pursuit policy even more stringent by telling officers to stop, turn around and drive away to defuse a chase when a fleeing vehicle does not stop.
Some officers were outraged, predicting a crime wave because they weren't allowed to chase except for the most serious crimes.
But Orlando has found there was no cause for concern.
Crime hasn't surged. Drivers continue to pull over when they see a police officer's pulsating lights behind them.
"We've had great results," said Orlando Police Capt. Paul Rooney, who helped revise his department's policy. And no deaths, he added.
Orlando is one of several communities across the nation that have scrutinized their pursuit policies and cut back on chases. About 350 people nationwide are killed in chases each year, and about 110 of them are bystanders who tragically cross paths with the pursuit.
While a police chase in many parts of Indiana can be triggered by even the most minor traffic infractions, many cities elsewhere have imposed restrictions, according to an Indianapolis Star survey of policies of more than 50 departments.
Los Angeles; San Antonio; Detroit; Milwaukee; Boston; San Jose, Calif.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas; and Kansas City, Mo., have banned police pursuits for traffic infractions. Other cities, including Baltimore and Memphis, Tenn., permit chases only for violent felonies.
In Central Indiana, police officials want their departments to continue to chase fleeing drivers for any reason, including traffic violations, because they view pursuits as an important crime-fighting tool. Many Hoosier departments, including the Indianapolis Police Department, the Marion County Sheriff's Department and the Indiana State Police, have policies that give wide discretion to the officer on the street.
An Indianapolis Star analysis of 947 chases from 2003 and 2004 by those three departments found that about three-quarters of all chases were prompted by traffic violations or "suspicious" vehicles or occupants. Chases have reached speeds of 100 mph on Indianapolis city streets and more than 170 mph on Indiana's interstate highways.
From 1993 through 2003, 86 people died in chases in Indiana, 25 of them bystanders. Nationally, 3,877 were killed during the same period; 1,251 were bystanders.
Indianapolis Police Chief Michael T. Spears said police need the freedom to pursue anyone, even traffic violators, because minor crimes often lead to major offenders. When the pursuit gets too dangerous, officers can stop, and they frequently do, said Spears, who helped write IPD's policy. He said supervisors immediately monitor pursuits and frequently call them off.
"At this point, I believe our pursuit policy is a good one, and our supervisors do a terrific job monitoring them and discontinuing chases when they become too hazardous," Spears said.
But experts say police departments that allow all pursuits have a record of more chases, more property damage, more injuries, more deaths and more lawsuits.
For many Indiana law enforcement agencies, traffic offenses are reasons to chase. In Brownsburg, for example, the policy is to "stop any person suspected of committing any criminal offense or traffic violation who fails to stop upon receiving proper notice."
The 27-member Beech Grove Police Department bans pursuits for traffic violations. Such chases are not worth the public danger, said Capt. Richard Witmer. "I don't think the stats have borne out that if you have a restrictive policy, the crooks are going" to escape, Witmer said.
The Fort Wayne Police Department is revising its policy, said Capt. Tom Rhoades. The department decided to study its policy after a high-speed chase through a school zone.
"I would say it's going to be so restrictive (that) if there's not a known immediate threat to the public, we're not going to pursue," Rhoades said.
In Memphis, the policy allows police to chase only violent felony suspects, and officers must get permission from superiors within the first minute or stop the pursuit, said Matt McCann, a Memphis Police Department spokesman. That minute might allow a helicopter to follow the suspect's car, reducing the danger.
Many departments use helicopters to track fleeing suspects, allowing the police cars in the chase to pull back. In Indianapolis, however, most pursuits are over before a helicopter can get into the air, and often the helicopter is not in service when it's needed, according to The Star's analysis of the 947 reports by IPD and other departments.
The Star's analysis of 433 chases by the Indianapolis Police Department in 2003 and 2004 showed a helicopter was used in only 44. A helicopter was used in 22 of the Marion County Sheriff's Department's 192 chases.
In Orlando, police can chase only people suspected of committing one of 11 forcible felonies listed in the policy. Those crimes include murder, manslaughter, rape and aggravated assault with a weapon. The least serious is use of explosives on a structure thought to be occupied.
What makes Orlando's policy even more radical is it requires officers to turn off their emergency lights, turn around and drive in another direction if a person fails to stop and the triggering crime is not one of the 11 felonies.
Overall, most Orlando officers are happy about the policy because it helps protect officers as well as the public, Rooney said. "It's got to start from the top down. It's all education and training, and you've got to really explain it's for everyone. It's in everyone's best interest to do this," Rooney said.
Last year, there were 11 pursuits in Orlando. By comparison, Indianapolis police had 202 last year, and two led to the deaths of two elderly residents who had nothing to do with the chases.
In the year since Orlando's policy was changed, 107 people -- a fraction of a percent of the drivers involved in 40,460 stops -- kept driving after police turned on their emergency lights ordering them to stop.
Many Indiana law enforcement officers say unrestricted pursuits are necessary because the public demands them to protect communities from criminals. There are about 600 police and sheriff's departments in Indiana and many different policies.
"If we said we were not going to pursue, the criminals would know it's a free-for-all," said Col. Kerry J. Forestal of the Marion County Sheriff's Department. "As long as they ran, there (would be) no long arm of the law."
Michael F. Ward, executive director of the Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police, called pursuits "a necessary evil."
"Police officers are not chasing for the thrills," Ward said.
In Florida, Valencia Community College administrator Stanley Stone headed Orlando's citizens panel. He said perceptions such as those of Forestal and Ward had to be overcome in Orlando as its policy evolved.
"One of the things officers told us then was we would be cramping their style. The policy would interfere with the officers' ability to do their job. They said we were not helping them," Stone said.
"You have to remember a police officer only has seconds to make a decision. What we don't want is the police officer to have discretion. When you give them discretion, they do the best they can. But would you give them that discretion if they've been a police officer for only one year? How about 10 years? We wanted to take the guesswork out," he said.
Failed policy attempt
In California, the General Assembly is wrestling with devising a different way to control pursuits.
Like Indiana, California provides immunity from lawsuit liability to its nearly 600 police departments when pursuits end in death, injury and property damage. And, as in Indiana, pursuit policies in California differ. Some allow pursuits for any reason, while others ban pursuits of traffic violators and people wanted for misdemeanors.
In April, bills to create a statewide policy in California restricting pursuits to violent felonies failed after intense lobbying by police organizations.
Elected officials also have proposed withdrawing immunity for police officers who violate department policies, said Richard Gregson, executive director of the California Police Chiefs Association.
If that proposal becomes law, police departments would be liable for any wrecks or injuries resulting from a pursuit in which policy was violated, whether it was the officer or the person being pursued who caused the crash. The liability could be as much as $500,000 per incident.
"In our estimation, that would be disastrous," Gregson said.
Police are lobbying against the proposal, but they are backing a bill that would increase penalties for those who flee. The crime is now a misdemeanor in California.
Searching for a model
In Indiana, there has been no successful effort to change the police immunity shield law, adopted by the legislature in 1987. The law was designed to protect cities from frivolous lawsuits, but it has resulted in unsuccessful lawsuits by survivors claiming wrongful death or injury stemming from police pursuits.
Indiana police and prosecutors have sought a tougher penalty for fleeing, suggesting the crime be punishable by up to eight years in prison. Fleeing already is a felony, carrying a sentence of up to three years. The bill failed to advance in the General Assembly last year and wasn't proposed this year.
Research shows that harsher penalties don't stop people from fleeing, said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a University of South Carolina researcher.
"People agree to stop 99.9 percent of the time. But when a person decides not to, there is nothing police can do short of deadly force," Alpert said.
Mary B. Powers, of Citizens Alert, a Chicago-based group that monitors police conduct, has called for a restrictive policy in Chicago for more than a decade. Although Chicago police still pursue traffic violators, they call off a larger number of pursuits.
Yet that is not enough, she said. "It seems to me it would be simple (to develop a policy) that could be applied universally."
The International Association of Chiefs of Police adopted a model chase policy nine years ago that would allow police to decide whom to chase. Many law enforcement agencies, including IPD, have guidelines similar to that model's.
Capt. Perry Hollowell, an instructor at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy near Plainfield, thinks Indiana police chiefs will oppose any effort to make pursuit policies more restrictive.
But Hollowell, a former Vermillion County sheriff, said he thinks restricting chases to serious felonies is an "absolute coming thing."
Several Indiana departments already say their policies won't change.
Greenwood has had its insurers review the police department's policy every year since 1996, said Chief Joe Pitcher. The policy allows the pursuit of anyone. "If he (the insurer) doesn't see a problem, there is no problem."
The Lawrence Police Department was in the process of reviewing its 13-year-old policy when Officer Craig Herbert was killed during a chase March 5. Police were pursuing a 15-year-old boy driving a stolen van when the teen crashed into Herbert's car, killing him. The van's owner had left the parked vehicle idling, police said.
Police responded by proposing an ordinance banning people from letting their vehicles sit idling at curbs or in driveways. Lawrence Deputy Chief Brian Bulger said police would continue to pursue stolen cars.
In Plainfield, police have reduced the number of pursuits, though their policy allows chases of anyone, said Chief Larry Brinker. The typical number of chases -- eight to 10 a year -- was reduced to two last year, and both of those pursuits were of drunken drivers, he said. Departments in some cities don't allow pursuit of drunken drivers, saying they could present an even greater danger when chased at high speeds.
In Indianapolis, a citizens group has begun looking at issues related to police pursuits because of the danger they pose in neighborhoods. Pursuits in residential areas frequently end in yards.
Last month, the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations assigned a committee to review IPD and Sheriff's Department policies. "The popular sentiment out there from the general public, as well as in the neighborhoods we work in, is to make them pedestrian-friendly," said Clarke Kahlo, a committee member. "It's not consistent to have high-speed vehicle chases, even if it's only occasional."
Capt. Rooney, of Orlando, said he thinks police want a good, consistent policy.
"It makes clear sense that we all (should) play by the same rules," Rooney said. "Will it work perfectly in Indianapolis or anywhere else? I can't say. But it works great for us."
Call Star reporter Tom Spalding at (317) 444-2761 or send email to Eunice Trotter: firstname.lastname@example.org