Houston PD needs leeway in chases, some officials say


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The third high-profile police car chase in as many weeks underscores the need for flexibility in the Houston Police Department's pursuit policy, city public safety officials said Wednesday.

Officers in the field need the leeway to make judgment calls without being bound to rigid guidelines, officials said.

"Handling police chases in general is a very difficult and complicated process," said City Councilman Adrian Garcia, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee. "We do not want to hinder officers by creating a policy that is too convoluted."

In a debate echoed in cities nationwide, Houston decision-makers have grappled with whether the Police Department's vehicle-pursuit policy is too aggressive or not aggressive enough.

The policy calls for officers to pursue anyone unless the situation is deemed too dangerous.

On Jan. 18, HPD officers backed off from a two-hour chase of a BMW that eventually rammed into another car on a Southwest Freeway on-ramp. The other vehicle carried a woman, her daughter and her grandchild. The elder woman was injured.

On Jan. 27, the pursuit of a stolen black Toyota 4Runner ended in a crash that mortally wounded 12-year-old Kyndall Batiste. Such incidents in years past led to a call for a more cautious chase policy, Garcia said.

"Back in the 1980s we had a series of car accidents that caused an outcry," said Garcia, a former police officer. "That feedback was embraced and the policy was looked at, and a more restrictive policy was born."

Each case `is different'

What critics ignore is the uniqueness of each situation, including Thursday's chase, which involved other agencies, said HPD Capt. Dwayne Ready.

"The fact of the matter is that every chase we conduct is different - different vehicle, different information available to officer in the field, different levels of danger," he said.

The variables in a pursuit situation multiply when there are various agencies - each with its own policy - involved in the chase as there were Thursday, Ready said.

"When I started in the department 20 years ago we couldn't shoot out tires, but (the Texas Department of Public Safety) could. We don't ram cars, but we have spikes. We have all kind of agencies around us.

"Whatever policy Houston has doesn't necessarily combine with those agencies."

The coordination of those different agencies happens on the fly, with dispatchers phoning ahead to jurisdictions that may become involved, officials said.

"There really is not a set rule besides each law enforcement agency's established procedures," said DPS spokeswoman Lisa Block. "It depends on each case."

In the wake of the crash that killed Batiste, HPD Chief Harold Hurtt created a Pursuit Review Committee to analyze past chases and decide on revisions, if any.

In the upcoming weeks, HPD officials will be making a general presentation before the City Council's Public Safety Committee, during which the pursuit policy will be a major area of inquiry, Garcia said.

"Ultimately it is the chief that sets the policy, but this will be an opportunity for council members to encourage additional measures, whether additional restrictions or additional freedoms," he said. 
February 3, 2006

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