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One wonders when law enforcement will work with California legislators to make 
Kristie's Law the means to prevent a new generation of innocent victims of police pursuits.
 

Dangerous pursuit: Police chases

By Shelly Whitehead
Kentucky Post staff reporter

November 8, 2003 -- Every year as many as 400 people are killed during police pursuits in this country.

Last May, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Officer Doug Bryant became one of them as he chased a suspect down Interstate 75 and crashed in Fort Mitchell.

Police chases in the last few months involving Kentucky and Ohio law enforcement officers have followed high-speed and circuitous routes that spanned bridges, roads and airspace across the Tri-state.

Debate rages over whether high-speed pursuit is justified. And consensus is growing among local and national law enforcement for the need for stricter controls to dictate when, where and why police engage in such potentially deadly car chases.

"We're seeing (pursuit policies) that are more restricted as to the nature of the pursuit. -- And due to the safety factor, some agencies now have said no pursuits, period," said Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training Emergency Vehicle Operations Supervisor Mike Leaverton.

Driving the action is the public's steadily souring view of car chases, even in that home of the live police pursuit television cut-in, Los Angeles.

Too often the broadcasts gave viewers the graphic truth -- the crashes spawned by nearly half of all police car chases kill almost as many good guys as bad guys.

Locally, police department administrators from Boone to Bellevue are both developing pursuit policies and rewriting those that exist, just as departments from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. have done already.

In a world filled with toys and games like Police Chase Charlie, the Hot Wheels Highway Police Chase Playset and PlayStation's World's Scariest Police Chases it's easy to see how even newly trained police professionals might romanticize this aspect of the job.

But within real-life police chases, with real metal, glass, flesh, blood and lawyers, that romance fades.

"After all the negative coverage and lawsuits -- and the results of what's already happened out there, a lot of agencies are saying it's not worth it," Leaverton said.

Numbers tell some of the story. According to national data, 10 of the 116 officers killed in the line of duty as of Nov. 2 this year died while chasing suspects in cars.

The number is third only to the 38 officers killed this year by gunfire and the 35 who died in non-pursuit car crashes.

But figures regarding the overall results of police pursuits may be more telling of the changing mood about them. According to national monitoring organization, Pursuit Watch, 40 percent of police pursuits end in crashes and half of those cause some kind of injury.

And though most departments do not maintain data on pursuits, statistics collected by the voluntary Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS) indicate that at least 1 percent of all police pursuits end in death.

Each year in the U.S., 300 to 400 people die in such car chases. Though most of the deaths occur to occupants in the car being chased, nearly that many are killed in other cars on the road or on the roadside near the pursuit. Fewer than 10 pursuing police officers die in car chases annually, according to FARS data.

And, fewer than 17 percent of suspects fleeing police are serious felony offenders.

Those numbers provide insight into so many departments are reevaluating and rewriting their guidelines for car chases.

Northern Kentucky's largest law enforcement agency, the Boone County Sheriff's Department, will soon institute a newly written pursuit policy built around the level of risk a potential pursuit poses to others.

Suspects whose behavior presents imminent danger to others can only be chased if suspected in major crimes, like murder or kidnapping, under the new policy.

Lt. Col. Robert Reuthe said the reformulated guidelines reflect the demands of a rapidly growing county.

"You watch officers dying across the country in motor vehicle accidents and we just decided with traffic as congested as it is, we had to put some limits on it," Reuthe said.

" -- And I think when you have the L.A.P.D. and L.A. County Sheriff's office and Chattanooga police saying, 'Hold on, we've got to change our philosophy on this' -- that even though we might have taken heat in the past for changing this (policy), I think now more will be saying, 'You're on the right path.' "

Like Boone County deputies, officers with Erlanger and Covington police frequently face potential pursuits merely because sections of Interstate 75 cross through their cities.

Both departments' pursuit policies require shift supervisors be notified of any pursuits. These senior officers then oversee the pursuit's progress, with the option of canceling the chase at their discretion.

Covington and Erlanger police also require marked cruisers with activated lights and sirens for all pursuits, which are typically limited to only two chase cars. Supervisors must monitor pursuit via police radio.

Erlanger Police Lt. Kevin Gilpin said supervisors are integral in lending the objective, experienced oversight needed to keep these often heated, high-speed crime hunts from running into deadly problems like sudden traffic snarls and road surface irregularities. The actions of all involved in the chase are reviewed later for policy compliance and future problem-solving potential.

"Supervisors have responsibilities in this. -- If the supervisor feels it's just too dangerous and the risk outweighs the benefits, he can terminate that pursuit." Gilpin said.

"One of the things people have to realize is if you're going above 55 mph, everyone ahead of you cannot hear your siren. So it should be realized that at 55 mph, a siren is virtually ineffective."

Even at slower speeds with all precautions in place, chasing law-breakers is always risky business. One of those to find that out firsthand most recently was Covington Police Officer Rob Nader.

On Nov. 3, police say Nader was chasing a suspect down Sterret Avenue, when a van driven by another motorist crossed Sterret at Madison Avenue and crashed into Nader's cruiser even though his cruiser's lights and sirens were both activated.

"No one was hurt," said Covington Assistant Police Chief Lt. Col. Mike Kraft.

"It happened after a person -- (came) to the police department -- and told the officer a car was chasing them. (Nader) tried to stop that car, but the car fled. -- Officer Nader was chasing the car and became involved in an accident."

Though the crash damaged both van and police cruiser, police did make a felony arrest of the 20-year-old Covington man allegedly in the car Nader was chasing. Most importantly, no one was hurt.

But the pervasive fear that someone could be keeps the police pursuit policy review rolling, even at smaller departments like Bellevue Police. With just 11 sworn officers on staff, Chief Bill Cole said it may be even more important for his department to have an effective, up-to-date pursuit policy in place to cover the rapidly changing riverfront community efficiently.

Cole is reviewing what he calls a "very vague policy" currently in place in Bellevue with an eye toward an overhaul in the new year.

Kentucky's primary police training agency is, in January, adding a course in pursuit driving at the Department for Criminal Justice Training in Richmond. The new hands-on course for seasoned police officers reflects the push nationally to rein in the practice of this long-romanticized part of police work among departments across the commonwealth.

Many veteran Northern Kentucky officers support that idea, explaining that as new police officers they were more eager to engage in car chases -- a phenomenon most say they still see in new recruits today.

Most officers acknowledged the risk in policies that hold officers back from some car chases. They realize that some suspects will take advantage of such policies, although experts say departments that have cut back or stopped pursuits have experienced few such problems.

Likewise, most local law enforcement administrators say letting a few low-level law-breakers race away is a small price to pay for what they see as a practice that greatly enhances the safety of everyone in their communities.

In trying to explain the trend, Gilpin says, "It's funny because when you first get in the job you think it's going to be neat to run down the street with the lights and sirens on, because when you watched it on TV, you didn't think about it. You just go, 'That looks like that's fun.' And to a certain extent, it is fun -- that rush of adrenaline. --

"But it takes a toll on you. -- because the guy trying to get away from police doesn't care about people in the roadway. So we have to. What's the old saying? 'You may win today's battle, but you're not going to win the war.' "


Publication Date: 11-08-2003

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