The Hickory Record
MORGANTON, N.C. — Two officers step from their police cars and start walking towards a suspicious vehicle at a seemingly typical stop. Then an engine revs and the car is gone. Officers scramble to their cars and follow the fleeing vehicle down winding country roads as speeds reach 80 mph.
At one point, a door on the fleeing vehicle swings open and passenger tries, unsuccessfully, to jump from the speeding auto.
This high excitement chase was no Hollywood production, instead playing out in and around Morganton. The News Herald has obtained footage of the chase from the officers' dash cams.
These chases are dangerous. One wrong move by either the fleeing suspect or the officers in pursuit could result in death.
Just ask Morganton Department of Safety Officers Sgt. Mike Ferraro and PSO Aaron Palmer.
It was May 2 when the report came in about a suspicious car in the parking lot of the Christian Outreach Center in Morganton. What followed was a chase through Burke County that ended with Donelle Nicholas Cuthbertson being arrested on multiple charges.
“I was driving by as they were coming out of the center and recognized the vehicle as the one we were looking for,” Ferraro said. “Just as I got behind them they turned into the (B&D) Package Store.”
He said he pulled over and waited for the car and had Palmer wait on another side to ensure whichever way the suspects went, they would be covered.
“Lucky me, I got to be the one that was behind them,” Ferraro said.
He said the suspects stopped for them and waited while he was getting ready to get out of his patrol car.
“Aaron and I started walking toward them and then they took off,” he said. “Then it was just instinct. If something runs, you chase it.”
After the suspect made his decision to run, speed limit signs became obsolete as he hit speeds recorded as fast as 80 mph.
Training takes hold
It is that point that all of the training kicks in and safety and caution become as important as catching the suspects.
“Automatically you take off, but as soon as you do you have to start weighing the safety of everyone and even the ‘why’ you are chasing them,” he said. “We didn’t really know other than they were suspected of trying to sell drugs.”
Palmer said it was fortunate they were together when the suspect decided to run.
“I was able to stay with them for the most part,” Palmer said.
Palmer, who is a K-9 officer, drives an SUV and his vehicle is not as attuned to a chase as a regular patrol car.
“I didn’t feel comfortable going as fast as he was, so I just stayed back where I could keep a visual contact and be able to give locations and speeds,” Palmer said. “My main thought was to keep them in sight enough to where when someone with a better car that could keep up could take my position.”
Ferraro recalled there was one part of the chase where “they shot out onto Highway 70.”
“You have to think about yourself having to stop at the stop sign so nobody will hit me while they keep going,” he said. “When there are two patrol cars involved, the secondary vehicle is able to keep watch while you can concentrate on the bad guy.”
An officer’s mind races
While in such a hazardous position, does an officer ever think the next corner might hold the end of their life?
“Sure you think about it,” Palmer said. “I know it’s dangerous and everyone else knows it, so it goes through your mind. You just have to go back to your training and know your vehicle and what it is capable of.”
MPDS Major Ronnie Rector says officers participate in more than 40 hours of drivers training which includes pursuit driving as part of their skill development.
“We try to train for those moments and try to keep the officers and, our primary concern, the public safe,” Rector said. “We try to use a reasonable standard by asking if our actions are reasonable and is what we are doing in regard to the safety of the public.”
Rector said when the loss outweighs the gain, the training says to pull back.
“At any point when the danger to the public, officer, or suspect outweighs apprehending the suspect, the chase is terminated,” Rector said.
He noted situations like this are sometimes called “contempt of cop.”
“Psychologists have identified that like a child who has done something wrong, you always want to be one above that child. That’s what makes your adrenaline rush. And when you have that, like when you’re fussing at your child, you don’t want to go too far.”
He said during a chase, the focus becomes very intense for the officers on catching the suspect.
“We teach officers to learn when to back off and look at the bigger picture,” he said. “Is what we are doing reasonable?”
Rector said MDPS has a policy to use a secondary officer as well as a supervisor monitoring the chase from start to finish allowing fresh eyes and ears to think outside of the rush of the moment.
A team effort
He added other law enforcement agencies are often called in to serve supplemental but important roles.
“In this instance, there is a Drexel officer blocking an intersection. There is a highway patrol officer and sheriff’s deputies that are on the interstate not allowing people on the interstate,” Rector said. “So, we have units that parallel the chase to keep the public safe.”
He said there are tools the officers have to attempt to put as quick a stop to a chase as possible.
“Every vehicle has a set of ‘stop sticks’ even within our fire stations,” Rector said.
MDPS Chief Mark Tolbert said there are a few chases each year, but there aren’t many who stretch in time and distance as the May 2 chase.
“Television does us no service in this line of work,” Tolbert said. “It give the message officers love to be in chases and love to drive fast. But, all of these guys understand the responsibility and liability that comes with this. I dare say there isn’t a single person in this department that really looks forward to being in a chase.”
Tolbert acknowledged there is an excitement that goes into being in a chase.
“You still do not develop the desire to be in that situation because the consequences can be great,” Tolbert said. “You are chasing what may end up being a joy-riding group of teenagers or it could be a felon who has a gun in the car.
This one ended exactly like we wanted it to with no one hurt.”
All four of the officers wanted to remind the public state law requires motorists to clear the lane to let emergency vehicles proceed without impediment.
Tolbert and Rector also pointed out MPDS officers do double duty as both law enforcement and fire department duties.
“These officers could have easily gone directly from fighting a fire to having to participate in this chase,” Rector said.
He said the department does have a rotating shift and do all possible to ensure the officers are performing without fatigue as much as possible.
“I do think some folks do not appreciate the manpower challenge of what our officers do every day and are called on to be ready to do,” Tolbert said.
The chief said he has the easy job.
“We have the people in place and I believe you let them rise to the level of their experience and training,” Tolbert said. “If we give them the equipment and the support they need they’ll make everybody look good. We’ve always had a strong tradition in this department about having good people. That’s the way it was when I started here and that’s how it is now.”
Reprinted with permission from the Hickory Record