'Stop sticks' at center of Fla. crash investigation

"It's a horribly dangerous activity."

By Leon Fooksman, Mark Hollis and Chrystian Tejedor
South Florida Sun-Sentinel 

(AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — A tire deflation device — a common tool used by police across the country to stop fleeing suspects — is at the core of the investigation into the deaths of two Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies killed early Wednesday by a fellow deputy chasing a stolen car.

Deputies Donta J. Manuel, 33, and Jonathan D. Wallace, 23, were struck and killed by a sheriff's cruiser while trying to remove tire-deflation spikes that they had launched across a desolate stretch of State Road 715.

A key question facing sheriff's investigators is why Manuel and Wallace, dressed in their dark green uniforms, were on the unlit road during a pursuit, and whether the equipment they were using was faulty, malfunctioned or improperly used.

"You make split-second decisions and you hope they come out right," Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said.

Manuel and Wallace laid down the device, sometimes known as "stop sticks," as the fleeing Toyota Camry accelerated with three deputies in pursuit. The Camry's tires blew out, but the two deputies needed to move the sticks off the road so another deputy could get by, follow and release a police dog that to pursue the two suspects fleeing into the sugar cane fields, Bradshaw said.

The device is supposed to have a lanyard attached for officers to pull the spikes off the road. But an initial investigation into Wednesday's wreck indicated that the stop sticks used by Manual and Wallace had no cord, sheriff's spokesman Paul Miller said.

The deputy whose car struck them, Gregorio Fernandez, 39, lost control and crashed into a nearby canal. Fernandez, a dog handler, suffered a concussion and a broken arm and was flown to St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, where he was in fair condition.

A training deputy riding with Fernandez, Usbaldo Lara Jr., 23, suffered minor injuries and was treated and released at Palms West Hospital in Loxahatchee.

The male German shepherd in Fernandez's cruiser, Brit, was not injured.

"This was out on 715. It was pitch black and our deputies are in dark green," Bradshaw said. "Everyone involved was doing their job, and that is why this is a dangerous job."

The pursuit has put a spotlight on what law enforcement experts around the country describe as a risky method of ending high-speed chases, and one in which officers often have little training.

According to a national law enforcement memorial organization, records show that since 1996 as many as 20 or more police officers in the United States have died on duty while deploying road spikes or similar tire-deflation devices. That compares with an average of more than 150 officers killed nationally each year.

Standards for how and when police use the devices are inconsistent, and manufacturers offer varying recommendations, specialists say.

"There is not a best practice. There is not a widely regarded and well understood way for everyone to know how to use these devices," said Travis Yates, a Tulsa, Okla., police captain who writes for an online law enforcement training magazine.

Recommendations on how to deploy and retrieve road spikes -- such as how close officers should get to speeding vehicles and when to throw the devices onto a roadway -- vary by manufacturer, the specialists said. They also say policies differ vastly among law enforcement agencies.

"There is not a global right way to do this," Yates said.

Still, even with questions about the device and how it was used by Manuel and Wallace, Bradshaw cited the two suspects as the reason for Wednesday's tragedy.

"What I blame are the two people who stole that car who put us in a position that we had to go chase them and put our lives in danger," Bradshaw said. "That's who I blame."

Investigators tracked down one of the suspects hiding in a shed outside an apartment building at 365 S. Salvadore Court in Pahokee, officials said. Ernie Daley Jr, 19, of Pahokee, was charged with one count of grand theft, one count of fleeing and eluding causing death and two counts of aggravated manslaughter of a law enforcement officer by culpable negligence.

He is to appear in court this morning.

Detectives were still looking Wednesday night for the second suspect.

The chase started after a woman in Belle Glade called 911 at about 1 a.m., saying two men were breaking into a neighbor's gold 1990 Toyota Camry. As deputies responded, they saw the car northbound on State Road 715.

Bradshaw said a sheriff's sergeant authorized a pursuit, in part because the streets were mostly empty and there had been a rash of robberies in the Glades and his agency wanted to find suspects. Police procedures usually discourage pursuits unless a felony was committed.

In this case, officials hatched a plan, Bradshaw said:

A sergeant, a patrol deputy and Fernandez would follow the fleeing car. Manuel and Wallace would lay down the sticks. The Camry would pass over them and its tires would deflate. Manual and Wallace would move the sticks. Fernandez would pass the other two cruisers on the left, past where the sticks had been. His dog would then be let loose to track two suspects if they fled into the cane fields.

Everything worked according to plan, Bradshaw said, until, for an unknown reason, Manual and Wallace failed to remove the sticks from the road.

There are two basic types of tire-deflation devices. Bradshaw said both are used by his deputies. Typically, the equipment costs about $400 to $450 each. He has said he wants to put these devices in the cruisers of most deputies.

Barry Peterson, a sales representative for Federal Signal, a company that manufacturers the devices, said the company recommends that officers not immediately attempt to remove the devices from the roadway until they know the area is clear of traffic.

"If you have to go out and get the spikes because a chase [patrol] vehicles is following, then, we say just leave the spikes out there; the worst thing they'll do is just flatten [the tires] of the police cars," Peterson said. "[Entering the roadway] is a real strong no-no. You just leave them in place."

Generally, the devices are used to impede or stop the movement of vehicles by deflating tires. The strip is made up of a collection of long metal barbs. The strips are typically sold with an attached rope or some other retrieval device.

Bradshaw said the device the deputies used may not have had a retrieval device, or it had become entangled and was unusable.

With or without a retrieval cord that would be used to yank the strips off the roadway, experts say, the deputies faced a hectic situation with the approach of the speeding canine vehicle.

"It's a horribly dangerous activity," said Ron Barber of In the Line of Duty, an online police training site.

Lowell Keith, treasurer of Safety Stopper Inc. in Carmel, Ind., sells a spike stick device that is deployed electronically from the back of a patrol car, eliminating the need for officers to enter the roadway to spread the deflation tools.

"A lot of time, for the officers, the adrenaline is racing, they grab the spikes fast, and they forget the right way to use them and don't always follow the safest methods of retrieving them either," Keith said.

As investigators looked for answers in the wreck, Bradshaw met with the families of both deputies who died. He pledged the support of the Sheriff's Office.

"It's a very traumatic incident when their lives are snuffed out," he said.

Copyright 2007 South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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