Detroit officials call for stricter policies in pursuits
National statistics show Mich. is one of the deadliest states when it comes to the number of people killed in pursuits
By L.L. Brasier and Gina Damron
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — Last week's high-speed police pursuit that left two children dead and three other kids injured in an east-side Detroit neighborhood has some officials and organizations calling for tighter policies governing when and why officers may initiate a chase.
National statistics show Michigan — which averaged more than two deaths a month last year in police chases — is one of the deadliest states when it comes to the number of people killed in pursuits.
Pursuit policies vary greatly among state, county and local police agencies in Michigan. Detroit's policy, which outlines restrictions over when a pursuit may be initiated, is relatively restrictive in comparison with the Michigan State Police, which leaves it up to the discretion of the individual trooper.
In last Wednesday's incident, a driver running from Detroit police sped into a residential neighborhood, where the car jumped a curb, ran over two small children on scooters, careened into three more kids and plowed into a house. The two children on scooters were killed and the others injured, one critically. The driver was arrested.
The deaths bring to at least 50 the number of people killed in Michigan in high-speed police pursuits since January 2013, according to Michigan State Police and numbers compiled by the Free Press. In a number of instances, as was the case last week in Detroit, those killed were innocent bystanders. Three of the six people killed in the last 18 months in chases initiated by state police were bystanders. And a 25-year-old newlywed was killed last Oct. 6 when her SUV was T-boned in
Redford by a car driven by a burglar suspect fleeing from police.
"We need to revisit this whole policy," said state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, who has been fighting to restrict police pursuits after four people were killed in his district in separate crashes in 2014, including two women in incidents that began as minor traffic violations and escalated into high-speed chases by the Michigan State Police troopers.
"Look, in Detroit we now have two children killed. I would rather see one criminal go free than the loss of these innocent lives."
Statewide records show that while the number of crashes involving police pursuits have declined in the last decade, those that do occur are more likely to be deadly. In 2005, there were 887 crashes involving police chases, but only 13 deaths. In 2013, there were 16 deaths in 561 crashes, and in 2014, there were 27 deaths among 555 crashes. The records, however, do not include a breakdown of those killed, whether they were police, those fleeing, or bystanders.
There is no doubt, though, that high-speed police pursuits are dangerous. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, property damage occurs in one out of five police pursuits, injuries in one out of seven, and deaths in one out of 35. Fleeing suspects are most likely to be killed, followed by other motorists and pedestrians, followed by police.
A Problem Nationwide
Most police agencies in Michigan have "discretionary" policies that allow patrol officers to decide whether a chase is worth pursuing. The state ranks fourth in the nation in the number of fatalities caused as a result of police pursuits, behind California, Texas and Georgia, according to data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those numbers, however, are likely underreported, since agencies provide the federal government crash data on a voluntary basis, experts say.
In the last two decades, many large cities, including Orlando, Milwaukee and Las Vegas, have ended high-speed pursuits, except in the instances when a violent felony has occurred. Los Angeles County does not allow pursuits in the case of traffic violations.
"It has reduced the number of crashes and fatalities by 90%," said Lt. James LaRochelle, of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which oversees 1.5 million residents and 41 million visitors a year. The department began restricting pursuits in 2005. Since most pursuits start with traffic stops, Las Vegas police take down the license plate and eventually send investigators to the address for an arrest. In 2005, they had 254 pursuits. Last year, the number had dropped to 35.
"Restrictive pursuit policies are becoming the norm, because law enforcement agencies are coming to the realization that pursuits are dangerous for everyone involved," said George Fachner, a researcher at CNA Corporation, where he does analysis for the U.S. Department of Justice on community policing.
Yet many large law enforcement agencies in Michigan do not have such restrictions. The Michigan State Police chase policy allows troopers to initiate pursuits even in the case of minor infractions, such as tinted windows and failure to wear a seat belt.
Geoff Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina, has been researching police pursuits for 30 years and is considered the nation's leading expert on the matter. Alpert said every department should restrict pursuits to only violent felonies.
"These policies are not grounded in fact," Alpert said. "There are two myths out there. That there is a body in the trunk. In other words, they've committed some horrible crime. But usually these are just young people making a horrible choice. And secondly, that everybody will run if these policies are restricted. There is no evidence that more people run."
In Orlando, police reported 107 suspects fled out of 40,000 police stops between March 2004 and February 2005, the first year the city made public its restricted policy, a ratio that has remained consistent over the last decade. Alpert says research supports that trend.
"The bigger picture is balancing the need to immediately apprehend, and the risk to the public," Alpert said. "When I train these police officers, I say, 'So your daughter is coming home from work, the police are pursuing someone for running a stop sign, she is at the wheel and she is injured.' You have to make it personal, because it's personal for the people who are hurt or killed."
Michigan law enforcement officials though, defend their policies of allowing police to pursue, even for traffic stops. Oakland County Sheriff's deputies can pursue fleeing cars for minor infractions like failing to stop at a stop sign.
Sheriff Michael Bouchard said his policy is both effective and responsible because it requires that supervisors closely monitor pursuits the moment they begin.
"The deputies are constantly monitored and if the conditions are such that the risk is too much, we'll call it off," he said. "We see it as a living and breathing oversight, in real time, which is more effective than taking a cookie-cutter approach. It's more specific to the situation."
The department also has a helicopter, which allows supervisors to call off chases so that the pursuit can continue from the air. In one high-speed chase involving a motorcycle through the northern part of the county, deputies ended their pursuit while the helicopter followed the driver to a bar. Patrol cars arrived and arrested the suspect.
Tragic Ending In Detroit
It was a warm summer evening and children were out playing in the neighborhood on Nottingham Street on Detroit's east side about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, when, several blocks away, three special operations officers in a Detroit police vehicle tried to pulled over a Camaro near Chatsworth and Cornwall. The officers said they had seen someone in the car with a gun.
The Camaro sped off with the officers in pursuit.
Sixty-two seconds later, Michaelango Jackson, 6, and Makiah Jackson, 3, were plowed over by the Camaro and killed as they rode scooters on the sidewalk along Nottingham Street. The Camaro, which had jumped the curb, proceeded several hundred yards before hitting the porch of an abandoned home, then plowing through a driveway where three boys were playing.
Darius Andrews Jr., 3, Isaiah Williams, 5, and Zyaire Gardner, 7, were all injured. Darius was released from the hospital Thursday, Isaiah was released Friday, and Zyaire was moved to another hospital, according to a family member.
Police arrested driver Lorenzo Harris, 29, at the scene, along with his passenger. Harris is facing several charges in connection with the crash, including second-degree murder. According to records, he has a long criminal history, including drug, weapons, assault and stolen property offenses and resisting arrest. He was released from prison in February 2014, but immediately absconded.
A police supervisor reported that he tried to call off the chase but was unsuccessful, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said. He said the officers did not get the message.
Police also said the officers lost sight of the vehicle during the chase, but witnesses told reporters the police car was right behind the Camaro.
Although the officers reported seeing a gun in the car, no weapon has been recovered. A person familiar with the investigation said a witness told police they saw a gun tossed from the Camaro.
Craig said police are evaluating whether the department's vehicular pursuits policy was followed. The policy says a chase should be terminated if the danger to the public outweighs the need to immediately apprehend those fleeing.
"Officers must place the protection of human life over all other considerations," according to the police policy, which says it was effective June 2014 and is reviewed annually.
The policy says officers can pursue a fleeing vehicle if they "have probable cause to believe a felony has been is being or is about to be, committed," but fleeing and eluding alone isn't enough. The policy also states that a chase can be initiated if officers see offenses that pose such a danger to the public "that the anticipated hazards of pursuit are outweighed by the danger posed by allowing the conduct to continue."
Officers should also consider several factors — including the nature of the violation, weather conditions, location, time of day and the speed required to maintain the chase — before deciding whether to start or continue a chase, the policy says.
In addition, a monitoring patrol supervisor is to assess the circumstances surrounding a pursuit and terminate it if that is warranted, according to the policy. Craig said on Thursday that he had directed a change last year to the policy, saying it had been "silent on supervisory management and I wanted it in there."
Detroit's policy appears to be substantially more restrictive than both the Oakland County Sheriff's Office and Michigan State Police, which allow for pursuits in the case of minor traffic violations and misdemeanors. The Macomb County Sheriff's
Office refused to supply its pursuit policy, despite a request from the Free Press under Michigan's Freedom of Information Act and a request from the Free Press for Wayne County's policy is still pending.
The Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality says Detroit's policy doesn't go far enough. The coalition, in a statement, said it "has been advocating for a change in state and local policies involving high speed chases initiated by law enforcement.
"Currently, most police departments face little or no liability in matters where death or injury is caused in situations like the one (Wednesday) ... though we are not fully aware of all of the matters and are currently investigating the particulars, we can say that two wrongs do not make a right. If it was wrong for the chased driver to drive recklessly, irresponsibility, and dangerously, it is equally reckless, dangerous and irresponsible for police to give chase in a highly populated residential neighborhood."
A Mother's Movement
The tragedy in Detroit has caught the attention of a national organization pushing for more restrictions on police pursuits and providing support for families who have had loved ones killed during police chases.
"We are grieving over what happened in Detroit," said Candy Priano, a mother in Chico, Calif., and founder of PursuitSAFETY, a nonprofit group. "Our hearts are broken."
Priano's daughter, Kristie, a high school student, was killed on her way to basketball practice 13 years ago. Since then Priano has talked with hundreds of grieving families. "We come to realize that we are victims, as well," she said.
She has talked to police agencies, lawmakers and researchers over the years.
"We are not about banning pursuits," she said. "We are about not conducting unnecessary pursuits, we're about pursuing only for violent criminals when the need is so great that you have to pursue, when there is no other way to apprehend them."
Copyright 2015 the Detroit Free Press