Thank goodness times have changed. Most police officers don’t even chase people anymore. Many departments follow restrictive policies that discourage police pursuits except under extreme circumstances, such as trying to apprehend a violent felon who poses an imminent danger to others. All but banned is going after motorcycles because of the risk of life involved.
Are there also the hazards when police lay back? Should police take more aggressive action when a pack of motorcycles shuts down the Beltway? Or when a bunch of bikers interfere with an ambulance taking a critical-care patient to the hospital, as happened in D.C. in March? D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said enough is enough in announcing a crackdown earlier this year.
Police face a difficult dilemma: Any time they initiate a pursuit, they run the risk of starting a chase that can spin out of control, potentially causing death or serious injury to themselves, the suspect or the public. And yet there are also dangers in not pursuing a fleeing criminal, who might cause mayhem even without anyone chasing him. Some motorists who were mobbed by stunters trapped on the Beltway in December criticized police for ceding the streets to anarchy. It seems pretty clear that the Prince George’s stunt rider thought he could get away with just about anything.
“We have this discussion all the time, as police administrators and police professionals: what is that line and how do you strike that balance?” said Terrence M. Cunningham, who is chief of the Wellesley, Mass. police department and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He worries, for example, that penalties are so light in his state for failure to stop that drunk drivers would prefer risking a $100 fine for eluding a police officer rather than being caught and going to jail and paying heavy fines for a DUI.
“In a lot of ways we’ve seen the number of people who are trying to evade the police has increased, but police pursuits have dramatically decreased,” Cunningham said.
Years ago, while working the midnight patrol, Cunningham became involved in a chase involving a Massachusetts state troopers and a Ferrari that hit speeds of more than 100 mph. At one point, the Ferrari jumped the curb, threaded itself between a fence and a telephone pole, and zipped past the cruisers. They lost the driver somewhere in Boston.
“Looking back on it though, and the policy we have today, that pursuit would have been out of policy,” Cunningham said. “I hate to say it but it was just a stolen car. It’s just not worth it.”
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) model policy says a pursuing officer should believe that the immediate danger to himself and the public from pursuing a suspect is less than the immediate danger or potential danger if the suspect remains at large.
Cunningham likes using technology instead of pursuits to catch bad guys. In Milwaukee, for example, police have been using a device that fires a GPS marker at the fleeing vehicle. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that the battery-powered GPS tracker, which was created by Virginia Beach-based StarChase, sticks to the fugitive’s vehicle, allowing the police to catch up with the fugitive later. Cunningham said police are also working with companies such as OnStar that have the ability to track stolen vehicles with GPS technology and slow down or prevent the vehicle from restarting.
Others want stiffer penalties for people who evade police. Candy Priano, victim services director for the nonprofit organization PursuitSAFETY, thinks courts and legislatures should impose serious jail time on people who elude police and confiscate their vehicles as an alternative to police chases.
“What could be worse would be going to someone’s funeral?” said Priano, who founded PursuitSAFETY after her 15-year-old daughter Kristie was killed by a driver fleeing police in January 2002. That cop pursuit began because a young woman had taken her mother’s car without permission, and the police gave chase. Priando said that on average about one person a day dies in a police pursuit, and about a third of those are bystanders.
Just this week, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies gave chase to a burglary suspect who crashed his Chevrolet Camaro into an SUV, killing the man inside. The officers briefly pulled back because of the number of police vehicles involved in the pursuit and were attempting to “re-engage” when the suspect’s vehicle collided with what amounted to an innocent bystander, an L.A. County Sheriff’s Department spokesman told a local ABC news affiliate.
“Some believe there are only two choices. That’s not true. It’s not whether they should be pursuing or not pursuing,” Priando said.
And here’s the kicker. The Prince George’s County ATV stunter — the rider who stood on the seat and cruised down the road without using his hands to steer as a cruiser trailed behind him — didn’t get away. He was identified and charged after his antics appeared in social media and local TV news broadcasts.
Piera S. Barbour, 26, of Fort Washington, Md., was charged with reckless driving and negligent driving for hitting wheelies on the ATV on May 23 about 5 p.m. on Silver Hill Road near Pennsylvania Avenue, Prince George’s County police spokeswoman Cpl. Nicole Hubbard said Thursday.
Police also filed the same charges against the person who allegedly filmed Barbour’s stunting. He was identified by police as Michael W. Roane, 25, of the District.
Barbour was already in custody on unrelated charges, Hubbard said. He faces a possible fine of $650 if convicted of both counts, she said. Both men were given summonses.