Jim Phillips' testimony
before the Senate Public Committee Hearing
April 13, 2004
Good morning. I would like to thank Senator Aanestad and the committee for the opportunity to be here today. My name is Jim Phillips. I am not a police officer. I am not a scholar. I am an ordinary citizen thrust into the pursuit controversy because of the death of my 20-year-old daughter Sarah, an innocent bystander killed as a result of a pursuit in Orange County, Florida, in December of 2001. I come to the study of pursuit policy, training and accountability from a need to better understand why Sarah died and if it could have been prevented.
In April of 2003, as a result of my families settlement agreement in a wrongful death suit with the Orange County Sheriff's Office I was appointed by Sheriff Kevin Beary to serve on a committee to review and revise Orange County Pursuit Policy. Many of the police officers here may know Kevin Beary. He was voted "2003 Sheriff of the Year" by the National Sheriff's Association and is known as a tough "Law and Order" sheriff and for his fierce loyalty to his 1300 sworn deputies.
At a news conference in October 2003, called to announce the adoption of a new more restrictive pursuit policy, Sheriff Beary said, "It is too dangerous to continue to do things the way we always have. It is time to change the 'culture' of police departments concerning pursuits. The Orange County Sheriff's Office is tightly controlling pursuits because it is the right thing to do, it is the responsible thing to do, and it is the safe thing to do."
As the review of the Orange County Policy was being completed, I was appointed to a Citizen Review Committee tasked to review the Orlando Police Department's pursuit policy. The review was the idea of Chief Mike McCoy, who signed on as patrol officer with OPD over 25 years ago and has watched it grow from a small city force to a 600 officer metropolitan force. He pledged to accept the recommendations of the committee no matter what they were from a no-pursuit policy to a wide-open discretionary policy. After several months of work and study the committee "tweaked" and modernized the already restrictive policy. As a result Chief McCoy sleeps better at night, although it is probably inevitable that the middle-of-the-night call will come. Sometimes tragic events occur despite the best efforts of all involved. But, Chief McCoy, and his officers, have the comfort of knowing that as long as they follow the policy they have the support of the community. It is, after all, the community that set the standard.
As we meet here today the OPD policy is being adopted by 10 other departments in Central Florida and the Mayor of Altamonte Springs is considering a Citizen Review Panel. Progressive and restrictive pursuit policy is breaking out all over Central Florida and it will soon be almost universal in the Tri-County area.
For the last year police pursuit policy has been a major topic of media coverage in Central Florida. The coverage has been extensive and pervasive. Contrary to the predictions of many, the Orange County Sheriff's Office has not observed an increase in the number of suspects who flee. In fact, this has generally been the case nationwide when policies become more restrictive. The American population is divided into two groups-those who pull over when directed by police and those who are reckless and irresponsible and flee. To believe that there are a significant number of drivers who are straddling the fence and will become reckless and irresponsible in response to pursuit policy change is absurd.
Eduardo Gonzalez retired as Chief of the Tampa Florida Police Department and currently is a volunteer with CALEA, the national police accreditation organization. In a recent conversation with him concerning Kristie's Law he remarked to me that its greatest strength is that it, "establishes well defined parameters, and it will take much of the guess work out of the equation for the officers, and define for them in greater detail when they can and cannot pursue." Every police officer in this room knows of promising law enforcement careers that were compromised on the shifting sands of vague or overly discretionary policy. Because police officers deal daily with life or death situations they are in the unenviable position of having their every action judged in the light of perfect hind sight.
Police officers often tell me that they need discretion in pursuit policy because they have to make split-second decisions. This leads me to what I call the myth of the split-second decision.
I can best demonstrate the fallacy of this line of reasoning by relating it to my teaching my son how to pitch in baseball. Before each pitch I taught my son to concentrate on visualizing the pitch. Curveball, fastball or change? In or away, up or down? Where was the batter likely to hit the ball if he was able to handle the pitch? What inning was it? How many outs? What was the score? What was he going to do if the batter bunted or if a base runner decided to steal? With a good baseball player there are rarely any surprises; he knows what he is going to do in virtually any situation. Courses of action dictated by the Rules of the Game, the Percentages, his Experience and by hours of Practice and all before he took a deep breath in preparation for his windup.
Good police officers do the same. Before they ever "light up" a vehicle they have already considered what they will do if the suspect vehicle does not respond appropriately:
1. Does my department's pursuit policy permit me to pursue this suspect?
2. Are there other means of apprehension?
3. Are there any conditions present (traffic, weather, time of day etc.) that make pursuit too dangerous?
4. What is the likely outcome of the pursuit?
Life or death decisions? To be sure. Decisions made on the fly or in a split-second? Not by baseball players or by good, well trained officers.
All over the county, in reaction to one horrifying incident after another, police pursuit policy and practice is coming under review. It is hardly a surprise that generally these reviews result in more restrictive policy when you consider this:
Research shows that approximately 40% of all pursuits result in a crash, 20% result in an injury and 1% result in a death. It is compelling that these percentages vary little from study to study and are accurate for departments throughout the country and over a period of years, even when the numbers of pursuits fluctuate. With as many as 70,000 pursuits occurring every year in the United States the conclusion is inescapable: pursuits are deadly business.
SB 1866, Kristie's Law, restricts and controls pursuits and it provides for accountability. To quote Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary, " It is the right thing to do, it is the responsible thing to do, and it is the safe thing to do."