• 46°

Police: Pursuits necessary

A car chase that took less than two minutes and spanned just two and a half miles took the lives of two drivers last week — but grief and shock have also given way to questions about the nature of the pursuit.

In the wake of the head-on collision that killed T.R. Miller Principal Donnie Rotch and Brewton resident Martin Reid, some residents have criticized the police chase that preceded the crash. Reid was fleeing from police after a domestic violence incident in the parking lot of the police department.

But area law enforcement officers say the ability to pursue a suspect is a necessary police tool — and the judgment call of whether to engage in a chase can result in criticism either way.

“When an officer makes the call to pursue a suspect he often gets that ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ response,” Andalusia Police Chief Wilbur Williams said. “If the officer had chosen not to pursue the suspect and the accident had happened, people would blame the officer for not stopping the suspect.”

Brewton Police Chief Monte McGougin said officers had a mandatory meeting Monday which included a discussion of the police department’s pursuit policy.

“We sat down as a whole family,” McGougin said of his officers. “We talked about how we’ve got to keep it within the policy.”

McGougin said the officer who pursued Reid’s car was following Brewton police policy for chasing suspects. The policy states that officers can pursue a suspect if they have seen him harm another person. The chase began when the officer approached Reid, who was fighting with a woman in his car in the police department parking lot.

After the woman exited the car, the officer pursued Reid from the police department north on U.S. 31. The officer began to back off, and did not see the collision of the two cars driven by Reid and Rotch — he only saw an explosion, McGougin said. McGougin said the officer saw the explosion when he topped a hill by The Potter’s House Church, which is about three-tenths of a mile behind where the crash occurred.

McGougin pointed out that the officer did not know who Reid was, despite rumors to the contrary.

“Even if you think you know who is in a car, the car might have been stolen,” McGougin said, referring to a hypothetical situation.

In fact, police initially had Reid’s identify incorect on the night of the crash.

Court records indicate that Martin Reid was convicted in 2007 of reckless driving. He had originally also been charged in Brewton Municipal Court with attempting to elude police and driving while his license was suspended. He was sentenced to one year of probation.

Standard policy

The Brewton Police Department’s vehicular pursuit policy is nearly identical to a sample policy recommended by the International Association of Police Chiefs. Among the procedures:

• The decision to initiate pursuit must be based on the pursuing officer’s conclusion that the immediate danger to the officer and the public created by the pursuit is less than the immediate or potential danger to the public should the suspect remain at large.

• Any law enforcement officer in an authorized emergency vehicle may initiate a vehicular pursuit when the suspect exhibits the intention to avoid apprehension by refusing to stop when properly directed to do so. Pursuit may also be justified if the officer reasonably believes that the suspect, if allowed to flee, would present a danger to human life or cause serious injury.

Williams said officers in the Andalusia department also abide by that national standard when it comes to pursuing suspects in a variety of situations.

“You have to look at the circumstances that bring attention to the officer concerning the suspect,” Williams said. “There are other things that are considered such as time of day, traffic conditions and the actions of the offender.”

Williams said in some cases, continuing pursuits of suspects by officers have to be approved by supervisors. “Whether or not to pursue a suspect is basically a judgment call by the officer,” he said. “A pursuit could reach a point that would require approval from a supervisor to continue the pursuit. Information such as if the offender is known and what type of incident has occurred are taken into consideration on whether that pursuit should continue.”

In Fairhope, one of Police Chief Bill Press’ first acts when he was hired about a year ago was to revise the department’s chase policy. Officers are now able to pursue a suspect only when they believe a felony has taken place, Press said, and there is a threat of physical violence. For example, he said, in the case of an armed robbery, if the suspects fled, the police could follow.

The number of accidents that happened as a result of police chases — whether resulting in injury or death to officers, suspects or bystanders — pushed Press to revise the policy.

“We needed to define our parameters,” Press said.

Press agreed that it is a judgment call for officers and for their supervisors.

“It’s based on their direct observations or what is relayed to them,” Press said.

Why pursue?

Suzanna Taylor, instructor of criminal justice at the University of North Alabama, said police pursuits are a necessary law enforcement tool.

“The core reason that it is absolutely necessary for law enforcement officer to engage in a chase with a suspect is to uphold our call of duty to protect and to serve in the ‘social contract’ of society,” said Taylor, who has a background in police work. “If law enforcement officers just ignored our duties within the ‘social contract,’ then we would have additional liability. Law enforcement officers cannot simply let dangerous criminals escape through the avenue of fleeing law enforcement via vehicle transportation. The choice of escape for criminals from law enforcement will either commence via foot (running from the police) or via vehicle transportation.”

Taylor offered a comparison between a vehicular chase and a foot chase.

“It would look ridiculous to onlookers if a law enforcement officer did not give chase, which is on foot, after a fleeing suspect,” Taylor said. “Onlookers would ask, ‘Well, officer, aren’t you going to give chase?’ That foot chase could have the same potential dangers to the community as a vehicle pursuit. For instance, if the eluding suspect was armed, he/she could end up shooting at the pursuing officer in a crowded area of the officer’s jurisdiction.”

And Williams said research has shown that suspects don’t give up even when officers stop their pursuit.

“We’ve tried to track how pursuits end,” Williams said. “Some researchers have said that if an officer will back off on a chase that a suspect will immediately return to a normal driving pattern. That’s hogwash. The evidence we’ve seen reveals just the opposite. There is no evidence that a suspect will return to normal driving if an officer backs off. At that point, the officer has no control over the person attempting to elude.”

A report released by the U.S. Department of Justice states that 70 percent of suspects who were interviewed following a chase reported they would have slowed down “when I felt safe,” the report said. The phrase “when I felt safe” was interpreted by the respondents as outdistancing the police by 2.3 miles on highways and 2.5 miles on freeways.

The report also stated that 53 percent of the suspects said they were willing to run at all costs and that 64 percent believed they would not be caught.

Williams said suspects being pursued by police have been shown to continue fleeing even after officers have stopped the pursuit.

“When that suspect looks up and he hasn’t seen officers for six, eight or 10 miles down the road, he may feel that it’s safe to return to normal driving speeds,” Williams said. “But those who run, run for a reason. If a suspect had done what the law requires him to do and if he had chosen not to abide by the law, there is a problem.”

Liability

Press pointed out that, in addition to the other factors officers must weigh, potential litigation is an issue departments must consider when determining their chase policies.

“You can’t forget that,” he said. “You could be subjecting your department or city to huge, huge fines.”

Tracy Roberts, an attorney for the Alabama League of Municipalities, said there have been some court rulings in recent years that address a city’s right to chase suspects.

In Gooden vs. City of Talladega, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that, “Any alleged negligence by a police officer in initiating and continuing a high-speed pursuit of a motorist did not proximately cause the motorist’s wreck and resulting fatal injuries. The officer followed policies and procedures reflected in the city’s police department manual.”

In that case, the court ruled, the fleeing motorist wrecked because he lost control of his vehicle as a result of his excessive speed during the pursuit. The officer was more than 200 to 300 yards from the motorist’s vehicle when it wrecked, and the motorist could have slowed down and stopped at any time during the chase, the court ruled.

Judgment call

Weighing the dangers can often be a split-second decision for officers as they assess a situation and a suspect.

Butch Lee, assistant chief with the Poarch Creek Tribal Police, said the department has policy and procedures in place regarding pursuits involving suspects and police, but individual cases often dictate the response.

“But there is no blanket policy that covers all situations,” he said. “Each case depends on factors known at the time an officer responds to a call.”

In last week’s case in Brewton, Williams said he believes the officer acted responsibly and did what he had to do in the situation.

“We know that it was a fairly innocuous event now, but at that point and at that time, what did the officer have available to him to make a decision?” Williams said. “He did what he had to do. He was just doing what he was sworn to do.”

Williams said there is no written formula that tells an officer when to engage in the pursuit of a suspect.

“There aren’t any magical formulas when it comes to a pursuit,” Williams said. “Everything has to be taken into consideration. The road, the traffic, the incident — it’s the totality of circumstances that must be considered.”