It’s no secret that more cops have died in car crashes than from bullets in the last ten years. All too often the reasons for those crashes are excessive speed and driving beyond the capability of the driver and vehicle. For some the only way to find out what those limits are is to exceed them, sometimes with tragic results.
Unfortunately, for a lot of cops what finally gets us to slow down is an incident that threatens to end our careers and sometimes our lives. That type of experience can take many forms.
In my case, it was a Grand Jury.
The Dust, the Darkness, the Speed
It was a hot humid August night at around 0230 hours as the squad car traveled down the highway. Off the side of the road in a field a pickup truck could be seen tearing around the alfalfa, kicking up dirt as it spun in circles.
The squad slowed and the brake lights activating apparently warned the passengers of the pickup truck that the attention of the law had been drawn to their joy ride. The suspect vehicle immediately headed to the closed dirt road and fled the scene at an increasing rate of speed. Any doubt of wrong doing was now cast aside, the red lights and siren were activated and the pursuit was called in.
The fleeing suspects swerved off one side of the road and then the other, apparently piloted by a drunk driver. The drought conditions made it difficult to keep the vehicle ahead — as well the road — within view in the clouds of dust.
The fleeing driver was far more familiar with the country road. The dust, the darkness, and the speed all conspired to hide the “T” intersection sign. The fleeing suspect, his reactions slowed by his intoxication (later determined to me more than twice the legal limit), failed to brake fast enough to make it around and through the intersection. With his brakes locked he slid off the road and down into the wheat field that lay well below the level of the road. When the vehicle came to a stop he and his passengers threw their doors open in an attempt to flee the scene, as they had done on previous occasions.
With no warning that the road was about to end the squad left the elevated road and started to fall down into the field, the pickup truck would alter its’ decent. The front right tire and underside of the squad slammed into the tailgate of the pickup truck causing the squad car to then vault up and to the left, just as the driver stepped from the cab.
All that could be heard was the squad car slamming into the top of the driver’s door as it cleared the rest of the truck. With the brakes applied and the undercarriage seriously damaged it still took a long distance before the squad finally came to a rest.
A frantic call to dispatch was made. Following a run back to the truck, the officer found the driver down, not breathing. His girlfriend was fighting to be near him, preventing any first aid attempts. Another passenger was fleeing on foot, carrying a package our informants would later tell us contained cocaine.
A second officer arrived on scene and was finally able to handcuff the girlfriend and drag her to his squad car despite her screams, struggles and at least one kick to the officers’ face. CPR was started.
A third officer arrived and was sent out looking for the suspect who had fled into the nearby woods. He would find nothing.
The ambulance arrived a short time later and transported the downed driver to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The autopsy would determine he was killed by a blow to the back of his head by the front bumper of the squad car.
So Help Me God
The State investigators would interview me and the others involved in this incident. I would assist in the recreation that would be videoed by them. Despite their investigation that determined no wrong doing, the County Attorney insisted on convening a Grand Jury.
As I sat outside the courtroom awaiting my turn to be questioned in front of the Grand Jury, a million things ran through my mind.
God, I did not want to be there. God, I was glad it wasn’t me looking at potential criminal charges. God, I felt so sorry for the officer involved. God, I was glad I was the third officer on the scene. God, let me make it clear to the Grand Jury that the officer did nothing wrong. God, it could so easily have been me. God, I felt so guilty being glad it wasn’t me.
My name was called and I entered the courtroom knowing that what I said could determine if criminal charges would be brought. I raised my hand and promised to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.
The Grand Jury returned a No Bill so there wouldn’t be any criminal charges against the officer. With time the death threats against him made by the deceased friends and relatives would also pass. The officer soon left the jurisdiction for a previously planned transfer and has had a long and productive career.
As expected, a civil suit was filed by the family of the deceased. At trial a settlement was offered but the family turned it down. The jury would end up awarding an amount of money that was significantly less than the offered settlement — what the state’s attorney would describe as “a pittance.”
A Lasting Impression
That incident left a lasting impression on every person involved. It made me more cautious and it changed the way I drove. I was traveling south when a northbound vehicle approached. I estimated it to be well over the 55 mph speed limit. The radar indicated 85. I tried to get turned around quickly but traffic slowed me. The violator vehicle took a left onto another road. I accelerated to catch up, activating my red lights and siren.
The road went out into the county. I continued to accelerate up toward 100 mph, calling in to dispatch. A deputy would head toward me on the same road from about 10 miles away putting the suspect between us. The road was flat with no traffic, my only concern would be a deer running out in front of me. It was night and I didn’t have much of a description of the vehicle. I continued to attempt to catch the vehicle advising dispatch that despite my speed the tail lights ahead of me seemed to be gaining distance.
Every mile or so I’d come to an intersection. I slowed at each one and made sure there it was clear of oncoming traffic. That didn’t help me close the distance. I knew the flat paved surface would turn to gravel in a short distance. All I had was a speeding vehicle. Sure, it could have contained some real criminals, maybe even the deceased drivers’ buddy hauling another load of coke, but I notified dispatch and terminated the pursuit at the end of the pavement.
Some cops would have kept going. Before the Grand Jury I probably would have kept going, but the thrill of the chase had lost much of its thrill. I was willing to chase the ones I could catch but I wasn’t going to chase for the sake of chasing anymore. I made the decision to always drive as safely as I could, bearing in mind the risk of the pursuit weighed heavily against the benefit of the apprehension. What happened next would cement those concepts in all my future pursuits and call responses.
Two days later, another officer was backing the same squad car up when the front right tire fell off. I wondered what would have happened if the tire had fallen off going down that gravel road at pursuit speed chasing a speeder. Would it have been worth it?
God, I was glad. Since then have I had people get away from me? Yes, but they usually were arrested later. If they get away, that’s ok too, because you can’t catch them all. Since then I haven’t had any close calls, no near misses, no need to try to regain control of the squad car in a panic moments and I have arrived at all my calls safely and in time to deal with the situation.
God, that feels good.