“Why didn’t you stop?” the Arkansas trooper, Rodney Dunn, asks in dash cam video as Harper struggles to get out of her flipped vehicle.
“Because I didn’t feel like it was safe!” Harper responds.
“Well, this is where you ended up,” Dunn says.
Harper, now 39, was pregnant, according to a lawsuit the Little Rock resident filed last month against Dunn and other officials with the Arkansas State Police. She left the harrowing July 9, 2020, traffic stop with “hellacious bruises” and fears she’d lost her baby, her lawyer said, along with a speeding ticket delivered while she was still in the ER.
Now Harper wants damages and a commitment to changes at the state police agency, attorney Andrew Norwood said in an interview Thursday. The “precision immobilization technique” or “PIT” maneuver — meant to send a fleeing vehicle spinning by bumping its rear end sideways — has killed at least 30 people and left hundreds injured since 2016, a Washington Post investigation found last year.
Scrutiny of the tactic has grown amid a broader backlash against police use of force, as many say routine stops escalate needlessly. Some departments deem the PIT maneuver too risky to use at all. But Arkansas state police have defended it after Harper’s crash, pointing to fleeing drivers as the problem.
“It doesn’t take a genius to look at that video and realize that officer was in the wrong,” Norwood said of the dash cam footage, which he said he obtained through a public records request. “It doesn’t take very much. A reasonable person looks at that video and knows, without even knowing the law.”
Dunn could not immediately be reached for comment, and the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office — which represents police — declined to comment Thursday, citing pending litigation.
State police spokesman Bill Sadler said in a statement Thursday evening that the agency cannot comment because of the pending lawsuit and continues to “instruct and train state troopers in comprehensive emergency vehicle operation training which includes the approved procedures in the use of PIT.”
The head of the state police, Col. Bill Bryant, defended troopers’ tactics in a statement provided last month to local news before the filing of the lawsuit, Sadler said. PIT maneuvers save lives and have proven “an effective tool to stop drivers who are placing others in harm’s way,” Bryant, who is named in the lawsuit, said at the time.
“In every case a state trooper has used a PIT maneuver,” Bryant went on, “the fleeing driver could have chosen to end the pursuit by doing what all law-abiding citizens do every day when a police officer turns on the blue lights — they pull over and stop.”
Norwood argues that the trooper not only used excessive force but also executed the PIT maneuver improperly, because the move should not cause a car to flip. He says Harper was following the state driver manual’s instructions for people pulled over by law enforcement: Move to the right side of the road and use your turn signal or emergency lights to show police you’re looking for a safe place to stop.
“In my mind I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing,” Harper said Thursday night on CNN.
Harper was accused of driving 14 miles per hour over the speed limit in a 70 mph zone as she headed down the highway about 9 p.m., according to her lawsuit. Video provided to The Post by Norwood shows police pulling behind Harper’s red vehicle after she drives by on the trooper’s left in Pulaski County.
Within seconds, she moves into the rightmost lane. She says she slowed but felt unable to safely park given the narrow shoulder, opting to flash her emergency lights while waiting for an exit. Just over two minutes after Dunn activated his cruiser overhead lights, the lawsuit states, the trooper turned to the PIT maneuver.
“I’m pregnant!” Harper tells Dunn after he walks up to the smoking car and gives Harper instructions on extricating herself.
Dunn admonishes the woman, saying she has to pull over when stopped.
“It doesn’t matter, ma’am,” he says as she protests. He says an ambulance is coming.
Norwood declined to go into details of Harper’s injuries, citing her medical privacy, but said that Harper initially believed she had lost her first child — a baby she and her husband been trying to have for a decade. A doctor reported detecting the baby’s heartbeat the day after the crash, the lawyer said.
Now four months old, the child is doing well, according to her mom.
Norwood said state police rebuffed attempts to talk about the issue before the lawsuit was filed. Asked what that reform should look like, he pointed to court decisions suggesting officers’ actions should be weighed against the severity of the alleged crime at hand, the immediate threat to others and whether someone is resisting arrest or trying to flee.
“What we want them to do is follow the federal law,” he said, adding, “The wheel’s already created; we just want them to use it.”
The Post’s review of fatal PIT maneuvers found that of at least 30 deaths, 18 came after officers tried to stop vehicles for minor traffic violations such as speeding. Ten of the 30 were passengers in the fleeing vehicles, while four were bystanders or the victim of a crime. The data on these deaths and injuries is incomplete, The Post said, because the federal government does not require police departments to keep track.
Norwood said he is fighting the charges filed against Harper: speeding and failure to yield to an emergency vehicle.
In the statement to Fox 16, Bryant, the state police director, said the agency has used the PIT maneuver for more than two decades and that troopers get “comprehensive initial training” in its use as well as annual training. Most of the agency’s pursuits do not end in a PIT maneuver, Bryant said.
In a statement posted to the state police’s Facebook page in 2016, Dunn said he joined law enforcement in 1989, serving with various departments. He was hired by Arkansas state police in 1994, he said.
John Johnson, a prosecutor with the 6th Judicial District that includes Pulaski County, confirmed to The Post that the case against Harper is pending and said his office has not received a police file related to the trooper’s actions.
“We have to rely on the police agencies to self-police,” he said, adding that “historically [that] system does work.”
The state police did not say whether they had reviewed the trooper’s actions or their practices.