Three recent high-speed police pursuits in the Baton Rouge area — including one in which two suspected shoplifters died when their car crashed into a truck, seriously injuring two other people — highlight a potential danger not only to the fleeing suspects and the officers pursuing them, but to anyone else caught in their path.
FBI statistics from 2010, the most recent available, show that 1 percent of all high-speed chases end in fatalities. A 2010 USA Today story, citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, said roughly 360 people are killed each year in police chases, and roughly a third of those are innocent bystanders.
Pursuit statistics, however, are tracked on a voluntary basis, and neither the FBI nor the NTSA maintains active databases. Pursuit Safety, a national nonprofit that promotes safety in police chases, contends on its website that pursuit deaths actually are “two or three times” higher than those cited by the FBI and NTSA in 2010.
Doug Cain, a spokesman for Louisiana State Police, said no statewide agency tracks pursuit deaths in Louisiana.
In the first of the recent local chases, a man and woman suspected of shoplifting at Tanger Outlet Center were killed Dec. 18 following a high-speed police pursuit that spanned two parishes, starting in Gonzales and ending with a head-on wreck with a stopped truck in St. Gabriel. The driver and passenger in the truck suffered serious injuries, authorities said.
On Jan. 9, Walker police arrested a fugitive and another felon after a 12-mile chase that ended with a collision. The suspects and the driver of the vehicle they hit suffered only minor injuries, authorities said. Just 12 days later, a masked gunman robbed a Brusly pharmacy and forced a cashier to drive off with him in a stolen Addis police car. The subsequent pursuit ended with a wreck, a standoff and an Addis police officer fatally shooting the suspect. The hostage suffered minor injuries from the wreck, police said.
Nearly every law enforcement agency in the Baton Rouge region — Louisiana State Police, sheriff’s offices and municipal police departments — has a policy for pursuing fleeing suspects.
The policies share many of the same characteristics: outlining the officers’ or deputies’ responsibilities during a pursuit, their supervisors’ responsibilities, the procedure for engaging in a pursuit, when to end the chase and a reminder that, above all else, the public’s safety should be the chief concern.
Nearly every agency contacted by The Advocate offered its pursuit manual, though several took advantage of provisions under the state’s Public Records Act to black out parts of their policies. State Police refused to release the department’s policy altogether, though several officials agreed to discuss pursuits.
Departments with clear and concise policies aren’t immune to potential chase troubles.
In the Gonzales chase, the pursuing officer, Brent Amy, was instructed by two supervisors to end the chase if it became too dangerous, according to a recording of radio communication during the pursuit. Twice he responded there was very little traffic and continued the pursuit. Eventually the driver of the fleeing vehicle swerved onto the shoulder to pass slower traffic, lost control of the vehicle and hit a truck that had stopped on the opposite shoulder of La. 30, authorities said.
Police chases can be especially hazardous in highly populated areas.
Tony Bacala, chief deputy of the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, started as a patrolman in 1977, when “it was a different world.” Drivers could go from one end of the parish to another in 20 minutes, and there was only one red light on Airline Highway in Gonzales, he noted.
“There were a lot less cars and a lot less likelihood that the person you wanted to pursue would cause harm to someone else,” Bacala said. “That’s always been the central theme, and certainly as we’ve become more densely populated. There’s a much greater likelihood now that when you get in a chase it will end in accident and an innocent person on the highway gets injured.”
Several law enforcement officers said the most important part of ensuring safe police pursuits is practice and training.
“Attempting to apprehend a suspect who is fleeing in a vehicle ranks among the most dangerous activities a law enforcement officer will ever engage in,” Baton Rouge Police Department spokesman Lt. Don Kelly said in an email. “So we take those situations very seriously, and have extensive policies and procedures in place, as well as an after-action review process of every pursuit. In the end, all of our training and procedures are designed to do everything possible to help reduce and manage the risks involved, both to the public and our officers.”
At the Louisiana State Police Emergency Vehicle Operations Center, which features 170 acres and 1.7 miles of training track, State Police offers courses on pursuit techniques and tactics.
“Anything that you do, you need to practice,” said Sgt. Dave Kolb, the lead instructor and manager of the facility. “In situations like a pursuit, you really don’t have time to think. You have to react, and you react like you practice.”
“It’s like firearms training. You don’t just shoot your gun once,” said Sgt. J.B. Slaton, a State Police spokesman.
Gonzales officer hailed
Following an internal investigation into the Dec. 18 pursuit, Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson found that no policies were broken. Jackson commended Amy for his pursuit of Kevdrinka Williams and Tremaine Wickem. Jackson said Amy’s actions near the end of the pursuit likely saved the lives of the driver and passenger of the truck hit by Williams’ vehicle.
When Williams came upon traffic on La. 30 near La. 74 in St. Gabriel and swerved onto the shoulder, Amy veered into the eastbound lane to warn oncoming traffic, Jackson noted in a post-incident report. A truck driver pulled to a stop on the shoulder of the highway, where his vehicle was struck head-on after Williams lost control of her car.
“Thinking the suspect would try and pass the two vehicles, I slowed to approximately 45 mph and entered oncoming traffic to divert the oncoming truck to the shoulder,” Amy wrote in his case report.
“This action, in my opinion, saved the lives of both occupants of this vehicle,” Jackson wrote in a summary of the incident.
The case report and chief’s investigation summary were part of a 36-page document that includes witness testimony, officers’ reports, the Louisiana State Police accident report and the findings of Jackson’s internal investigation.
The Gonzales pursuit policy doesn’t specifically outline which offenses are suitable for pursuit and which ones aren’t. However, in the section regarding discontinuing a pursuit, the policy reads that officers “must continually question whether the seriousness of the violation reasonably warrants continuation of the pursuit.”
The policy further reads that pursuits should be discontinued when “there is a clear danger to the public” and “when speed dangerously exceeds the normal flow of traffic, or where pedestrian and vehicular traffic necessitates unsafe maneuvering of the vehicle.”
While Jackson said he found no fault with Amy, he did say he plans to make some changes to the department’s pursuit policy to make sure the public is better protected.
When to engage
In Baton Rouge, Kelly, the police spokesman, would not speak specifically about the department’s pursuit procedures, declining to release what maneuvers are approved or prohibited, or when officers should or shouldn’t pursue. However, he did speak in general terms about the department’s chase policies.
Factors involved in whether or not to pursue a suspect, Kelly said in a written response, include “the seriousness of the known offense(s) committed by the violator, the speeds involved, whether the identity of the offender is known, the type of roadway/area, weather conditions, lighting conditions, vehicle conditions, time of day, traffic flow (and) the availability of air support.”
Bacala said the top factor in whether Ascension deputies engage in a pursuit is the nature of the suspected violation. A homicide or robbery suspect is more likely to be pursued by police than a simple traffic violation, he said.
Other factors include whether the identity of the suspect is known, traffic and weather conditions.
“Each case is weighed on its own merits,” Bacala said.
Kelly noted there is no policy on when to pursue or when to disengage.
“Every pursuit is different, and circumstances can rapidly change, so our officers and supervisors have to be entrusted with a great deal of latitude to use their judgment and experience to make decisions in real time,” Kelly said. “The guiding principle is that if the officer or a supervisor feels at any time that the dangers posed by continuing the pursuit outweigh the risk of allowing the violator to escape, they are authorized to immediately terminate.”
Termination of a pursuit, however, doesn’t mean that officers can’t later re-engage suspects in a chase, he added.
“For the most part this process works very well, as the majority of our pursuits do end quickly with the safe apprehension of the violator and no serious injuries or significant property damage,” Kelly said.
Ultimately, Bacala said, law enforcement officers have to remember their jobs are to protect and serve the public and must weigh the costs and benefits of every action before beginning a pursuit.
“To draw it into absolute terms is sometimes a little tricky, but the bottom line is the necessity of catching the suspect has to outweigh the risk to the public,” Bacala said.