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12/17/2001

Police Chases a Balance of Common Sense, Risk

By Victor Thompson
Florida Today

For police officers in Brevard County, engaging in a car chase is one of the toughest choices to make.

Last month, Rockledge police and a Brevard County Sheriff's Office helicopter chased and arrested a man suspected of committing domestic violence, stealing the victim's car and fleeing police. Officers followed the man from Rockledge to Canaveral Groves and back, on Interstate 95 and on neighborhood roads, all without harming other motorists or pedestrians.

Not all police pursuits end as successfully. Because chases pose dangers to both the officers, the suspect and other drivers on the road, police agencies have strict pursuit guidelines.

"There's a simple rule we follow -- we have to weigh the danger to the community if we let the suspect flee versus the danger posed to the community during the chase," Titusville police Cmdr. Tony Bollinger said.

Common sense is the best tool at their disposal, say officers from Brevard police agencies and the Florida Highway Patrol. "With a lot of agencies, you only chase for violent felonies," Bollinger noted.

For most cases, Titusville police will not chase unless they have to, he said.

"If the suspect committed, or is believed will commit violent felonies, we pursue, but even then there is a gray area," Bollinger said. "And while in pursuit we must constantly consider whether to break off the chase."

Patrol cars also must obey all traffic signals and cannot exceed 10 mph over the speed limit during a chase, he said.

"We are not allowed to be reckless no matter how the fleeing car may behave," he said.

But even the safest pursuits can become dangerous. On Aug. 4 this year, a chase involving Titusville police ended when the fleeing suspect crashed his car against a tree, killing his passenger.

And a 20-year-old Winter Park woman died in late November when suspects attempting to evade a car-disabling device set up by Orange County sheriff's deputies rear-ended her car at 71 mph.

Figures provided by the Brevard Sheriff's Office show the agency has engaged in only 14 chases since Jan. 1 this year. In three, deputies were assisting other agencies. The report said all 14 pursuits ended in the arrest of the suspects involved.

There are no statistics, however, describing the charges suspects faced at the time of their chase.

Major E.C. Smith of the Brevard County Sheriff's Office said deputies use a matrix, or scale, that takes into account the gravity of the fleeing suspect's crime and the risk a chase poses to the public, as well as the conditions of the road and the conditions of the vehicles involved.

Misdemeanors and traffic offenses never warrant a chase under any circumstances, he said, but fleeing felony suspects do, and the officer at the scene must consult his or her supervisor if a pursuit seems possible.

"While in pursuit, an officer must continue to evaluate the situation to decide whether to break off the pursuit," Smith said.

The Florida Highway Patrol has 12 pages of guidelines outlining every part of a chase -- from the moment an FHP cruiser flashes its blue overhead lights to the second the suspect's car stops.

The policy prohibits pursuing anyone not involved in a violent crime. FHP motorcycles are barred from chases, and the guidelines also prohibit using "offensive tactics," such as boxing in a suspect's vehicle with patrol cars, making contact with the fleeing vehicle or creating a rolling road block.

FHP Trooper Kim Miller said roadblocks rarely stop a chase.

"Unfortunately, most chases end when the suspect crashes," she said.

Running out of gas and the occasional use of a stop stick -- a spiked rod laid down on the road that punctures the tires when the fleeing car passes -- are the most common tools available for FHP troopers during chases, Miller said.

"We always get on the radio to tell supervisors as much as we can see going on," she said. "But we need to know that person is intentionally trying to avoid us before we pursue."

Support from FHP helicopters, Miller said, has helped troopers reduce the amount of patrol cars following a fleeing suspect.

"Helicopters are our eyes," she said. "A lot of times troopers will drop back when a helicopter is tracking from above."

By dropping back, Miller said, the person being chased likely will feel less pressured, and thereby drive less recklessly.

"Our goal in a chase is always to get the person being chased to stop without injuring others," she said.

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