Pressure on Pa. police over chases
By JONATHAN D. SILVER
In the past month, two high-profile police pursuits in Pittsburgh -- one ending with deaths, the other with serious injuries -- have triggered broad interest in the city's chase policy and whether it needs to be revised.
City Councilman Len Bodack wants Pittsburgh police officials to explain their policy at a public hearing. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has asked the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association to review the county's model pursuit policy that some departments use as a guideline. He has also informally discussed with state police the possibility of examining whether Pittsburgh's policy is on par with national standards.
Local activist groups are clamoring for accountability, complaining that some chases are triggered by minor infractions and put residents at risk. And the Citizen Police Review Board recently held a hearing -- albeit one sparsely attended -- on the matter of police pursuits.
Unlike most encounters between police and suspects, pursuits inherently put innocent people at risk.
"When we make a car stop or do a search warrant, the folks in danger are usually the officer and the individuals involved. The difference between those activities and a police pursuit is you're then throwing in a third innocent party. They could be 10 miles away in extreme danger when that pursuit starts," said Tulsa, Okla. police Capt. Travis Yates, who favors pursuit policy reforms. "Where we're making the mistake is we're chasing everyone for everything, and that has to stop"
Pittsburgh police Chief Dominic J. Costa refused requests to discuss any aspect of his department's pursuit policy while an internal panel reviews the May incident in Homewood that led to two civilian deaths.
"Per Chief Costa, we are not going to address any issues related to pursuits in light of the open internal critical incident review," spokeswoman Tammy Ewin said.
Ms. Ewin would not release the bureau's chase policy. However, a copy obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shows that the five-page policy has not been revised since October 1998 and does not prohibit chases for certain types of minor infractions, contrary to a national trend among what one expert terms "progressive" departments.
Perhaps the most specific language in Pittsburgh's policy pertains to prolonged pursuits, which "shall be conducted only when a serious crime has taken place and immediate apprehension is necessary to protect life or prevent serious bodily injury."
But there is wiggle room. Neither "prolonged" nor "serious crime" is defined.
"It's pretty clear that the national trend is to restrict pursuits for only serious violent felons. So what you have, basically, is a prohibition against pursuits for traffic and even property offenses," said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, who has studied police pursuits for more than 20 years.
That type of thinking is anathema to many officers, who fret that a restriction on pursuits will lead criminals to act with impunity. They also espouse the philosophy that a person fleeing over a minor traffic violation might be running because of involvement in a far more serious crime.
"The unknown factor always is whether you've got Jeffrey Dahmer in the car in front of you with a little kid in the trunk or if you've got a guy who just ran down a man and woman in the street," said Pittsburgh police union president James J. Malloy, who is happy with the city's current policy. "You just don't know what you have unless you get close enough to pull them over."
Dr. Alpert dismisses those concerns.
"Those are both myths. Empirically we know that's not true in most cities," he said. "The bottom line is you don't raise risk to the public on hunches, on maybes and could-bes and possibilities. You raise risk to the public on what you know and whether you have probable cause or reasonable suspicion of violent crime."
Over the past decade, numerous police departments around the country -- including those in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles -- have restricted their pursuit policies and forbidden officers to engage in chases for traffic infractions or misdemeanors.
Those changes should resonate in Pittsburgh, considering the relatively innocuous origins of the two recent chases that ended violently.
The May 25 crash in Homewood stemmed from undercover officers trying to pull over a pickup truck that had broken brake lights. The driver did not obey, stepped on the gas and ran a red light at 60 mph in a residential neighborhood, police said.
Police are reluctant to classify the incident as a pursuit because it lasted only 11.2 seconds, and Dr. Alpert agrees with that assessment.
On June 20, officers in the Hill District pursued a sport utility vehicle into Garfield. Their interest was drawn because the driver was playing music too loudly and did not signal a turn. Police said a supervisor terminated the pursuit before the crash, in which a couple was injured.
"If it was all initiated by loud music, we have a real problem," said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board. "If some goofball's driving down the street breaking the noise ordinance with a busted taillight, maybe there's a better way to get their attention, or you'll find them later."
In Dallas, which changed its policy last month because of injuries to police and civilians during pursuits, officers can chase suspects only for felonies.
"Prior to that, there were no restrictions on when you could or couldn't chase a person. A minor traffic violation could turn into a pursuit," Dallas police Senior Cpl. Jamie Matthews said.
Ms. Pittinger is not in favor of hard-and-fast rules governing pursuits. Instead, her focus is on whether officers are following their own regulations.
Pittsburgh's policy has standard language that reads: "A motor vehicle pursuit is justified only when the necessity of immediate apprehension outweighs the level of danger created by the pursuit."
According to the policy, officers and supervisors must take into account the nature of the charges against the suspect, speed, traffic volume, location, road and weather conditions, and time of day.
Pursuing officers or their supervisors can terminate a chase if they have identified the suspect, do not have to apprehend the person immediately to protect themselves or the public, and can catch them later, the policy states.
"When you look at the city's policy, it has pretty much all the elements that are recommended to be included in policies. It doesn't seem to be so much a matter of the policy guidelines. It's perhaps adhering to those guidelines," Ms. Pittinger said.
"I think that it's very important that we not come out with something black and white and say to the cops, 'If this, fine. If not, no.' Because that's not fair," said Ms. Pittinger. "That imposes, I think, a danger to public safety as much as having an open-ended, chase-'em-anytime-you-want policy."
Even as departments are modifying chase policies, they are also experimenting with innovations in how they chase. The Orange County sheriff's office in Orlando, Fla., for instance, which chases only violent felons, uses helicopters to aid in pursuits. The department also has an "auto trap unit," a squad of officers in unmarked cars who watch for stolen vehicles and then literally box them in without launching a chase.
""You capture the bad guy, the victim gets their car back in one piece, and you make your streets safer because you're not chasing anybody," Division Chief Steven Jones said. "You've got to think outside the box."
Here at home, Mr. Zappala is intrigued by the idea of technology that can immobilize fleeing vehicles or at least track them. He also is interested in exploring the possibility of wiring a camera system so police could monitor, say, city streets when suspects try to flee.
"If people are not offended with cameras on the highways, this is just a logical extension of that," Mr. Zappala said. "You know where they're at so you can intercept. So you'd be concentrating more on intercept schemes than you would on chase schemes."
Ultimately, police say, the person who determines the outcome of a pursuit is the driver who refuses an officer's order to pull over.
And if someone decides to flee, according to Dr. Alpert, the most potent tool in the police arsenal is not a helicopter or a tire-deflation device, but the ability to call off a chase.
For a 1997 study of pursuits, Dr. Alpert interviewed 146 jailed drivers in high-speed chases. More than 70 percent, he found, said they would have slowed down when they felt "safe," or when they outdistanced police by about two blocks.
"We know that once a pursuit starts and the police terminate -- in other words, turn off their lights and sirens, turn around and go off the other way, let the person think he's won, he's free -- it's very likely the person will slow down," Dr. Alpert said. "And in an urban environment, it's likely they'll slow down very, very quickly."
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