By: Emily Lane, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Louisiana State Police troopers chased the car for 7 miles before it hit a box truck and smashed into a fence on Chef Menteur Highway. The crash ended the lives of a 2-year-old girl in the back seat and a 25-year-old man riding shotgun. The stolen car’s driver, a 21-year-old, then aimed a gun at his own head and fired a fatal shot.
A little more than two weeks before, a Kia Forte fleeing state troopers swiped a Hyundai Sonata and a Ford Econoline van before coming to rest near Basin and Conti streets. As troopers questioned the driver and his female passenger, one officer wrote in a report, they noticed an unrestrained 9-month-old baby and 2-year-old child on the back-seat floorboard of the car they’d chased and then disabled by purposefully striking it with a state trooper vehicle.
After the two June chases, State Police said troopers did not know passengers, much less children, were in the cars that led them on a pursuit. But police chases inherently put officers, the people in the car they are chasing, and anyone else on the road at risk – and a NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune investigation found that those chases frequently end in crashes.
Two law enforcement consultants, both with experience as police officers who have either trained other police agencies on vehicle pursuits or testified in court about pursuit procedures, said the “unknown” factor inherent in police chases is precisely what makes them one of the riskiest actions law enforcement officers take.
“The problem is you never really know what you’re chasing,” said Walter Signorelli, a retired New York Police Department officer who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “Unpredictability factors into the danger.”
From Jan. 1 – Sept. 15 this year:
Twenty arrests were made following the crashes, yielding a handful of suspects with guns and drugs in the car. In some cases, the car they were driving was believed to be stolen, records show. Only one of the fleeing suspects was booked with a violent offense other than aggravated flight.
The share of State Police vehicle pursuits that ended in crashes in New Orleans this year exceeds the loose national norm, but it does not stray too far from it, said Tulsa (Okla.) Police Department Maj. Travis Yates. Yates, who said he has penned more than a hundred articles on police pursuits and consulted with dozens of police departments on the topic, said while there’s not a reliable national database that tracks police vehicle pursuits and outcomes, it’s common for about one in every three police chases to end in a crash.
“I’m not saying one-third is good. It’s not,” Yates said. “But that’s sort of the nature of that business. You can’t control the person you’re (chasing).” On the other hand, Yates added, “If we did anything else in law enforcement and one-third of the time it ended badly, we probably would address that.”
Data also shows more State Police chases in New Orleans tended to end in crashes compared to state trooper chase outcomes for the entire state. Despite those outcomes, Yates noted, State Police have backed up their high number of chases with an above-average behind-the-wheel training program. Those who acknowledge the dangers of liberal pursuit policies also note the risks involved when police rarely or never chase suspects.
“We understand that the decision to pursue or not pursue is a delicate balance,” Maj. Doug Cain, a spokesman for Louisiana State Police, said in a statement. “This isn’t an exact science and no two pursuits are exactly alike.”
Louisiana state troopers understand public safety “is the primary priority” during a pursuit, Cain said in a statement. “We acknowledge that there is an inherent risk to the public, troopers and the violator when a dangerous and unwise decision is made by the violator to flee,” he said in a statement. However, he said, the agency has an obligation to pursue in certain circumstances.
Vehicle pursuits, Cain said, are part of State Police’s “proactive approach” that serves both the public and the agency. “While even one crash involving a third party vehicle is too many we also know that banning pursuits does not serve the overall public safety mission. When those prone to criminal activity know they will seldom if ever be pursued by police, we believe we put the public at even greater risk,” he said.
Signorelli acknowledged what he called the “dilemma” of whether to chase.
“Once bad guys find out all they’ve got to do is flee, they’re going to get away. That might enhance or create more crime and may create more danger in the long run,” he said.
How do State Police chase outcomes compare to NOPD?
The NOPD’s vehicle pursuit policy, which was updated in December 2015 with input from the U.S. Department of Justice and federal consent decree monitors, is on the restrictive side: it permits officers to chase offenders in vehicles only if the person is suspected of having just committed a violent felony. State Police have not said what kinds of offenses for which its policy authorizes troopers to pursue. The agency, citing public safety reasons, denied a public records request for a copy of its pursuit policy.
Data provided by NOPD show officers engaged in 22 vehicle pursuits this year through Sept. 15. Compared to NOPD, the state police have engaged in more than twice as many chases in New Orleans even though the size of State Police’s presence in the city is about 3 percent the size of NOPD. Only one of NOPD’s vehicle pursuits in that time frame ended in a crash. No one was injured in that crash, which occurred in Algiers, and it did not involve a third-party vehicle, according to a police report.
Additionally, a higher percentage of state police crashes in New Orleans ended in crashes, compared to state police chases statewide, data show. About a third of State Police vehicle pursuits across the entire state, including New Orleans, ended in crashes – a statistic that matches what Yates called common. State Police engaged in 91 total vehicle pursuits across the state from Jan. 1 – Sept. 15, with 31 of the chases ending in crashes, the agency said.
What’s different about New Orleans?
Weather, vehicle speeds, time of day and traffic conditions are “just a few” factors State Police said they consider when deciding to chase or continue chasing, Cain said. Signorelli said familiarity with the streets should also be a factor.
State Police acknowledged the difference between chasing on a state highway or rural road in a north Louisiana parish, for instance, compared to a pursuit on Interstate 10 or a residential neighborhood in New Orleans, noting in the agency’s statement that troopers receive training in “in both urban and rural environments.”
In a city environment, opportunities exist for catching up with a fleeing suspect that might not be available in a more rural setting, Signorelli noted. If an officer loses a suspect he or she is seeking to arrest in the city, Signorelli said, the officer can broadcast the suspect’s name, vehicle description and license plate and have another officer track him down when the suspect surfaces. With fewer officers on the ground and more room to spread out, a rural vehicle pursuit could be an officer’s only shot at apprehending a suspect, Signorelli said.
Most of the crashes involving State Police chases this year occurred in residential neighborhoods. The neighborhood where the most crashes occurred were:
The type of offense that merits a chase is another factor experts say should be considered when deciding if a chase is worth the risk to public safety.
NOPD’s policy, which the department has said is modeled off best practices in the field of law enforcement, sets clear guidelines about what kinds of offenses merit a vehicle pursuit. Not only must the offense be a suspected violent felony, the chase must occur around the time the suspect is fleeing the scene of that offense. If an officer spots a driver at a red light who is wanted in a weeks-old murder, for example, standards would not be met to engage in vehicle pursuit if that person fled after the officer attempted to pull him or her over, according to an analysis of the policy.
“In law enforcement, we’re typically judged on what we know at the time,” Signorelli said.
Agencies reviewing pursuit policies tend to be going in the direction of NOPD, by authorizing chases only when seeking to apprehend someone suspected of violent offenses, Yates said.
However, NOPD Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans labor group, said he finds NOPD’s pursuit policy “too restrictive.” Glasser said it is not prudent for public safety to chase too often, but he argued the current policy should be “a little more flexible,” and provide officers and supervisors with more discretion.
“The pendulum has swung too far the other way,” said Glasser, referring to restrictiveness of the chase policy. “But at the same time,” he added, “I understand why we got here and the concerns with it.”
State Police have not said which kinds of offenses merit vehicle pursuits for their agency, or if their policy provides that type of guidance. Department of Public Safety and Corrections attorney Faye Morrison explained in an email this summer that the department denied the request for a copy of the policy because it provides “detailed operational plan for pursuits and roadblocks,” and releasing the information publicly “may undermine its effectiveness and put troopers and the public at risk.”
Scene of a multiple fatality police chase and wreck on Chef Menteur Highway near Lonely Oak Drive. (Photo by G. Andrew Boyd, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Chase outcomes: arrests
The criminal charges drivers and passengers faced after fleeing State Police and crashing, however, can shed some light on what underlying offenses – if any – may have existed, though the information does not indicate what troopers knew when they decided to initiate a pursuit. Only one of the people arrested after a crash was arrested on suspicion of a violent offense – simple battery. None of the 20 people arrested were arrested on suspicion of a violent felony.
Orleans Parish Criminal Court records show:
Two days after the June 28 crash on Chef Menteur that ended in the deaths of 2-year-old Ivory Washington, 25-year-old Brandon Harold, and the suicide of Kenneth Davis, 21, State Police and NOPD announced what they learned about the car and its contents. The Honda Accord Davis drove was stolen, and inside they found two stolen guns, two stolen wallets and two stolen laptops, all of which were taken from different parts of the city, NOPD Deputy Chief Paul Noel said.
The offense that led troopers on that fatal chase was a stolen license plate, the agency said then.
The adults arrested after the June 13 crash when young children were found on the back-seat floorboard were both arrested on multiple charges, including child desertion. A summary of the arrest by State Police says troopers found a handgun in a backpack; another backpack containing more than $1,600 in cash and “multiple ‘baggies’ consistent with the sale of narcotics”; a pouch containing what troopers identified as marijuana and Tramadol pills; and a bag containing a pill bottle and what troopers believed was crack cocaine.
Elmore Williams, 23, was booked with two counts of child desertion, aggravated flight from an officer, possession of crack cocaine, possession of marijuana, possession of schedule IV drugs and illegal carrying of a weapon with controlled dangerous substances. Tatiana Garrett, 21, was booked on the same gun and drug charges as Williams.
A police report for the June 13 State Police chase mentioned above indicates traffic violations prompted that chase. The report states a trooper met eyes with the man, who was on foot at the time, before the man ran to his car and sped off. The trooper then decided to pursue the car after observing “reckless driving and multiple other traffic violations.”
State Police training ‘above average,’ but policy unclear
Despite the higher-than-typical number of New Orleans pursuits that ended in crashes so far this year, Yates said Louisiana State Police deserve credit for the “well above average” amount of training troopers receive behind the wheel.
Training is a crucial part of the conversation about vehicle pursuits, Yates said. While many agencies, in his opinion, don’t have enough driving training, the amount required at Louisiana State Police’s academy is double what is generally recommended.
“(Training) is vital because a pursuit is not only a high-risk activity, it’s a high stress activity,” Yates said. And unlike most officer-involved shootings, which draw the most attention from the public, Yates said, vehicle chases carry risks to third parties. “The community is involved,” he said.
Louisiana State Police troopers receive more than 80 hours of driver training in the academy when they join the agency. Louisiana troopers must also receive 10 hours of mandatory driver training each year at their annual in-service training sessions, the agency said. Yates said some agencies don’t offer driving training as part of their in-service at all, even though it is recommended.
Two decades ago, Yates said, “the training (Louisiana) State Police are getting would not have been happening anywhere else in this country.”
More training and more restrictive chase policies popping up around the country are indicative of an evolution in thinking about vehicle pursuits that’s taken place across the country in the last 20 years, Yates said. Signorelli agreed, saying it’s often a “terrible incident,” unfortunately, that sets up a platform for change.
Ideally, Yates said, the community would be involved in creating a pursuit policy so civilians could express what kinds of risks to public safety they’re willing to take for law enforcement to apprehend perpetrators. Glasser agreed. And when examining outcomes, Glasser cautioned, it’s important to remember, “Hindsight is 20-20…No one is clairvoyant.”
“Not pursuing isn’t the answer, and pursuing at all costs isn’t the answer,” Glasser said. “Each community has to decide for themselves, what they want their police to do.”
Read State Police’s full statement issued for this story here.
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