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NY fatality flames debate over police-chase policies

Both sides agree on one point: there's no easy solution

By Gene Warner
The Buffalo News

To chase or not to chase?

That's the question public and law enforcement officials often ask -- and debate -- following cases like the horrific motorcycle crash last week that killed a graduating Clarence High School senior who was set to enter the U.S. Marines.

Once again, the fatal accident, with the motorcycle reportedly topping 100 mph, raises the question: Why would any police agency pursue a speeding vehicle traveling at anywhere near that speed?

One high-ranking law enforcement official in Western New York explained what would happen if police agencies opted never to engage in high-speed pursuits.

"Everybody would take off," the official said. "Nobody would stop."

That's one side of the debate.

Then there's the view of an attorney who succeeded in convincing a jury that two state troopers helped cause the crash that killed three people in a Cattaraugus County chase back in 1992.

"Are they still engaging in these high-speed chases, when it's foreseeable that there may be grievous harm and damage?" asked Buffalo attorney Francis M. Letro.

Both sides agree on one point: there's no easy solution here. The decision of whether to pursue depends on a host of factors, including speed, road conditions, traffic, time of day, weather and the reason for the stop.

"You can't have a blanket rule," Letro said. "It's a matter of judgment, like any police decision in the field. It depends on the existing circumstances. Sometimes you don't chase."

Eighteen-year-old Patrick S. Conway was killed instantly last Wednesday morning when his high-performance motorcycle crashed into another vehicle on Main Street near Harris Hill Road. State police had stopped him on Main Street near Sheridan Drive for not having a license plate. But he sped off, and the crash occurred about 1.4 miles from the initial traffic stop.

Witnesses have said, in interviews with state police, that the motorcycle was traveling at speeds of more than 100 mph. State police have suggested, and witnesses have concurred, that the pursuing patrol car was traveling considerably slower, as it arrived at the accident scene almost 30 seconds after the crash.

The crash obscures the fact that such chases -- police agencies prefer to call them "pursuits" -- are exceedingly rare, occurring in fewer than 1 in 1,000 traffic stops.

The Erie County Sheriff's Office, which was not involved in last week's crash, wrote more than 13,000 traffic tickets last year, conducting about 10,000 traffic stops; that's almost 30 per day. In only two of those 10,000 cases did the driver refuse to stop or flee from the patrol deputy, Chief of Patrol Scott M. Joslyn said.

While movies and TV shows may glorify high-speed chases, whether they're bouncing up and down San Francisco hills or zooming across highways, patrol officers dread traffic stops that go awry.

"No officer ever wants to be involved in a pursuit, ever," Joslyn said. "They can turn deadly in a moment's notice."

"As a former night watch commander, the few incidents where vehicles failed to stop are some of the most stressful situations I've been in," he added. "You're thinking about the safety of others. You're thinking about the safety of your officers. You're thinking about the safety of the operator. From a supervising standpoint, it's really daunting, very stressful."

That's why police officers consider traffic stops to be probably their second most dangerous "routine" activity, behind only domestic-violence calls.

Local police agencies, for obvious reasons, don't like spelling out their pursuit policies, but conversations with several accident-investigation veterans show how tricky the line is that police agencies walk in devising those guidelines.

The key imponderable in such pursuits: Why did the driver flee from the scene?

"Whenever somebody flees, we have every reason to believe that a crime, other than the initial traffic violation, may have been committed," Joslyn said. "There may have been a horrible crime just committed."

That was not the case with Conway, who may have feared what the traffic stop could mean for his coming graduation or joining of the Marines.

While local police departments may have different pursuit policies and guidelines, Letro pointed out that most require the officer on patrol to call in to a supervisor, who makes the decision of whether to pursue after being briefed on the circumstances.

"They're detached," Letro said of the supervisors. "They are not in the emotional adrenaline rush of the officer in the field. They can have a more objective view."

And after any kind of pursuit, most police departments require an administrative review of the decision of whether to chase.

Some departments go even further.

No Buffalo accident investigator could be reached to comment, but the Buffalo police did have a specific policy that was in effect, at least back in 1999: "Pursuit will not be initiated if the reason for the attempted stop is only for vehicle and traffic law violations, misdemeanors or other nonviolent felonies."

It's not clear whether that policy still exists.

No State Police official authorized to talk about the case could be reached to comment for this article.

Copyright 2013 The Buffalo News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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