Deaths and injuries from Louisville police pursuits are climbing as the city has quietly rolled back one of the strictest pursuit policies in the nation, a Courier Journal investigation has found.
An analysis of police crashes dating to 2012, when Louisville Metro Police clamped down on chases following a string of crash-related deaths, shows pursuits have risen dramatically.
The consequences have been striking:
The collateral damage includes people like 34-year-old Ryan Sellers, who found herself thrust in the middle of a high-speed chase that totaled her Pontiac Grand Prix.
In late July, Sellers slid behind the wheel and pulled away from her home in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood. Her mom, who lived nearby, was expecting her any minute.
Turning onto a route she’d driven countless times, she waited at the light at Garland Avenue. It turned green. She hit the gas.
Sellers woke hours later in a downtown hospital bed, her left side filled with pain. Her ribs were fractured and her kidney lacerated.
What she eventually pieced together — from news reports, family members and the sharp pain in her neck — is that she was struck by a man fleeing police in a stolen car, his silver Chevy Impala blowing through a red light at speeds as high as 60 mph before slamming into her driver’s side door.
In Sellers’ crash, the force of the impact threw her from her 2004 Pontiac, its rumpled steel frame left on a grassy median at the busy intersection of Garland Avenue and Louis Coleman Jr. Drive.
“I’m glad that I’m alive and able to walk around and talk because I could have died that day,” she said.
Police Chief Steve Conrad said he knows pursuits are inherently risky. He pushed Louisville to have one of the strictest chase policies in the nation in 2012, just months after he arrived at the department.
But he’s also overseen the subsequent rollback, including the latest change in June through a special order that allows officers to chase any stolen vehicle, no matter if the occupants are suspected of committing a violent felony.
“It’s a pretty significant about-face,” he conceded.
Faced with increasingly troubling homicide data, Conrad decided he needed to give his officers more leeway to catch criminals, too many of whom, he said, were using stolen cars in drive-by shootings.
That required loosening the restrictions on police pursuits, he said.
Now, Conrad said, criminals “have got to think twice.”
“Because we do have the opportunity to chase, which we didn’t have for a number of years.”
Mayor Greg Fischer is concerned about the risks involved in police pursuits, said spokeswoman Jean Porter.
“He’s mindful, though, that LMPD still has strict review policies for when it is appropriate to pursue, and the adjustment made this summer was a temporary change to address the trend we were seeing in stolen cars linked to violent crime,” she said in a statement.
But critics of more permissive pursuit policies say there are alternatives to such risky chases.
Jim Dudley, a retired 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, now teaches at San Francisco State University and co-hosts a podcast for PoliceOne.com, in which he addresses issues facing police, including pursuits.
He estimates he was involved in at least 500 chases during his career.
“The tendency is for police to not want to discontinue a pursuit … it’s a primal instinct,” Dudley said. “At some point, somebody’s got to make the consideration, is this worth this pursuit?”
Sellers agrees, saying the cost and potentially wrecked lives aren’t worth it in most cases, particularly if it’s for nothing more than a stolen car.
“I feel like the chief of police, whoever wanted to make up this rule in the police department or in the city, somebody needs to be held accountable,” she said.
Louisville police define a pursuit as an officer using emergency lights and sirens in an attempt to stop a fleeing vehicle that is speeding or using evasive tactics.
In 2012, after a series of bystander fatalities, the department changed its chase policy to be among the strictest in the nation — allowing officers to pursue only those suspected of a violent felony. Some viewed the tighter policy as a win for public safety.
Fewer pursuits would make the city’s roads safer, police officials said at the time.
The reform appeared to work: The department’s pursuit numbers plummeted. There were just 35 in the next two years, compared with 52 in 2012 alone.
But it didn’t last.
Chases began to increase, and so did the injuries — to suspects, to officers and to bystanders.
Pressured to respond to a growing wave of gun violence and drive-bys, police rolled back some chase restrictions, issuing a series of consequential policy updates. None were announced publicly until this summer.
The changes gave officers more discretion to chase after suspected criminals, The Courier Journal found.
For example, officers are now able to give chase if they believe a suspect is “about to commit” a violent felony or if they know the suspect has a violent felony on his or her record.
Louisville attorney William McMurry understands the cost. He represented the family of three brothers killed in 2008 when police chased a car in which the boys, returning home from a field trip to a Christmas pageant, were passengers.
Unbeknownst to the boys, they were riding in a stolen vehicle.
For McMurry, who supported the strict 2012 policy, the department’s recent reversal is infuriating.
“The truth is, you can’t make a high-speed pursuit safe,” he said.
Recent city data shows officers are taking advantage of the more liberal pursuit rule allowing them to chase any stolen vehicle.
So far this year through September, Louisville police have engaged in at least 34 pursuits, surpassing last year’s total of 31.
In July and August of this year, the first two months of the new policy allowing officers to chase stolen vehicles, officers initiated 12 pursuits — double what the department historically has recorded over that same two-month period.
Eight of those pursuits were a result of Conrad’s new special order allowing officers to chase stolen cars, he told The Courier Journal.
From start to finish, the July 29 pursuit that ended in the T-boning of Sellers’ car lasted just two minutes. But for Sellers, now strapped with thousands in medical bills and a wrecked car, the impact of the crash lingers.
“I don’t think they should be chasing stolen cars at all because no one is going to benefit from that,” she said. “Not the driver. Not the cops because if they hurt somebody they gotta live with their guilt.”
Seven years before Sellers was thrown from her car, another Louisville woman was similarly T-boned in a West End intersection by a man fleeing the scene of a drug investigation.
This time, the outcome of the police pursuit was deadly.
On the afternoon of Oct. 23, 2012, Stephanie Melson, 31, left the day care where she worked, intending to go home and make lunch.
Instead, the mother of three young children was killed.
Her uncle, LaMont Melson, remembers surveying the crash scene in Louisville’s Chickasaw neighborhood the day he lost his niece. Her red Pontiac Grand AM had careened into someone’s front yard. The streets there were so narrow, he recalls thinking.
“It’s just not the place for any type of police chase,” he said. “We were all furious. We just couldn’t understand why.”
Within two months, Conrad’s department banned the very type of chase that led to Melson’s death — a pursuit over a non-violent felony.
Under that new policy, officers could no longer chase theft or drug trafficking suspects. The only suspects they could pursue were those allegedly involved in violent crimes, such as rape, kidnapping, some assaults and robberies.
Conrad remembers well the crash that killed Melson. She was the first person to die in a police pursuit on his watch as chief.
Seven months before her death, when Conrad first arrived in Louisville, tightening the department’s chase policy was among his top priorities. In his previous posting as police chief in Glendale, Arizona, pursuits were limited to violent felonies.
And nationally, more departments were adopting stricter approaches to pursuits.
But in Louisville, Conrad waited to update the department’s chase policy.
“I felt like if I’d changed that policy, I could have saved her life, or prevented that,” he said. “… It steeled my resolve to make a change.”
Less than a month after Melson’s funeral, Conrad announced the new pursuit policy.
“In my opinion, the costs just do not justify the risks,” Conrad told The Courier Journal in November 2012.
The new policy quickly delivered.
Between 2007 and October 2012 — just before the policy change went into effect — Louisville’s officers engaged in 283 pursuits, half of which led to a crash.
According to the department, 76 people were injured in those pursuits. Another seven people were killed.
In the three years after Conrad instituted his more restrictive policy, police chases dropped to 67.
Twenty-five people — including officers, suspects and civilians — were injured, according to a Courier Journal count.
No one died.
For Melson’s family, the turnaround didn’t come soon enough.
“When you lose a loved one and there’s a policy that comes into effect afterwards, you feel like they’re a day late and a dollar short,” LaMont Melson said. “I would hate to see anyone’s family lose a life in a tragic way.”
While the officer involved in the crash was cleared by the department of wrongdoing, the suspect he chased, Joseph Johnson, was sentenced to 25 years in prison and died behind bars in 2017.
In letters to the judge before Johnson’s sentencing, Melson’s children wrote of their struggles in school, their prayers for their mother and how they wished they could talk to her like they used to.
Melson’s youngest son closed his letter with how they were holding their mother close.
“We have pictures of her around the house to keep her in our dreams.”
But the sharp drop in Louisville’s police pursuits didn’t last.
Faced in 2016 with a record-breaking triple-digit homicide count, Conrad said he decided to reconsider the department’s stance on chases.
In December of that year, he quietly issued a rare “special order” introducing a temporary policy that would allow officers to engage in pursuits under additional “special circumstances,” documents obtained by The Courier Journal show.
The order, not announced publicly, was outlined in a letter to officers.
“We have seen too many of our citizens become victims of shootings or of homicides,” Conrad wrote. “I am committed to adjust our approach for the safety of our community.”
Conrad said his investigators noticed that some of the gun violence in Louisville stemmed from drive-by shootings using stolen vehicles. The special rule dovetailed with the formation of a new violent crime task force focusing on crime “hot spots.”
“It was developed … to supplement what they were doing or give them a tool they didn’t have,” Conrad told The Courier Journal.
Under the new rules, officers could chase suspects if they:
Taken together, the new provisions fundamentally altered the department’s guidelines on pursuits, said Sam Aguiar, a Louisville attorney who has represented pursuit victims.
Aguiar took particular issue with the new rule allowing officers to chase suspects they believe are “about to commit” a violent felony.
“How the hell do you know that?” he asked. “It’s got to be a very rare circumstance where you have facts that are going to lead you to believe the people that you’re pursuing are about to commit a violent felony, because the vast majority of the time, you don’t know who you’re pursuing.”
Still, a review of the department’s pursuit records showed that officers explicitly cited the new “special circumstances” to justify a pursuit fewer than five times since the policy went into effect in late 2016.
But Conrad continued to extend the special order before officially adding it to the department’s standard operating procedures in May 2018, police records show.
A father’s murder spurs more change.
This summer, following a spike in gun violence, Conrad again looked to the department’s pursuit policy for help.
Conrad told The Courier Journal he was particularly disturbed by the homicide of Tyrese Garvin, who police say was gunned down on June 23, just a few blocks from where he’d just visited his newborn twins.
Garvin was a victim of a drive-by shooting, shot by teens traveling in a stolen car, police said.
In response, Conrad issued another temporary special order: Officers could now chase stolen cars.
“This is intended to be focused,” Conrad said, noting the new rule requires a commanding officer be “in close proximity, engage in, and directly control the pursuit.”
“I hope and pray that no one, no one in this community, none of our officers, get hurt in a pursuit,” Conrad told The Courier Journal. “But I also don’t want anyone else being shot by someone who has stolen a car and is driving by their house or driving either past their place of business and using that as a tool to facilitate a murder.”
Metro Council President David James, a former Louisville police officer, said officers have told him they’re happy to have another “tool in their tool belt.”
“I do generally believe that we have a problem with gang members stealing cars and doing drive-by shootings,” James said, adding, “Police have to be able to do something.”
Porter, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said Fischer is confident the temporary policy “will be evaluated for its effectiveness and impact, including any need for adjustments in training.”
Though Conrad and other police officials have said there’s an increasing trend of shooters — many of them youths — firing from stolen cars, the department could not provide The Courier Journal with supporting data.
Within two days of the new “stolen car” rule being announced through news media, 11 stolen cars were dumped by thieves in the Fourth Division, where Garvin was killed, Conrad said.
“It told me we had struck a nerve,” he said.
Conrad’s officers, in turn, have put the new policy to use.
In July and August — the first eight weeks since the policy was adopted — officers invoked it eight times to justify a chase, according to Conrad. All but one driver was caught.
Five ended in crashes. Three people were injured, including a woman whose arm appeared broken when a fleeing suspect sideswiped another civilian’s car before striking her vehicle in July.
Sellers, whose car was struck in July, doesn’t know what she’ll now do for work, having usually taken temporary jobs that required lifting and physical exertion.
William Harris, the driver of the stolen Chevy Impala that hit her, faces charges of assault, wanton endangerment and fleeing police.
Although the pursuing officers didn’t know it, that same day, Harris had been due in court on a fresh charge of murder.
As for Sellers, her uninsured car is totaled and she finds her future uncertain. After a month of wrangling, she was finally able to see her car in police lock-up.
She had to ask for help as she pulled her belongings from the floor of the car, unable to bend over without pain.
“The inside of the car was just like smashed in,” she said. “It was like I had half a car.”
She’s not sure how she’ll pay her bills for the collision.
She’s concerned her back won’t fully heal. More than a month later, her forehead was still so tender that it hurt to comb her hair.
“My whole life has changed because of this,” she said, “and there’s nothing I can do about it, basically.”
The police chase sped through Old Louisville a week before Christmas.
The roads were dark and slick that night in 2008 as the fleeing car careened through the historic neighborhood, six police cruisers in its wake. The car’s passengers, three teen brothers and their friend, had accepted a ride — not knowing the vehicle was stolen.
All four died when the Honda Accord, which had reached speeds of nearly 80 mph, crashed into a tree on South First Street.
The force of the wreck split the car in half.
Years later, the city of Louisville would pay the boys’ families $1.6 million to settle the case, although it admitted no fault.
A decade after the Old Louisville wreck, the crashes — and the payouts — resulting from high-speed police pursuits continue.
In the past six years, more than half of the police chases — 94 in all — on Louisville’s streets have ended in crashes, according to a Courier Journal review of police records.
In cases big and small, The Courier Journal found the city and its insurers have paid out nearly $3 million among five cases, including the $1.6 million settlement, over the past three years to police chase victims and their families.
These settlements are reached behind closed doors, negotiated by attorneys outside the courtroom without any oversight by metro council members.
The Courier Journal found:
After 2012, when LMPD tightened its pursuit rules, the department saw chase numbers and injuries fall.
But those numbers are on the rise, particularly after Police Chief Steve Conrad issued a “special order” in June that allows officers to chase after stolen cars.
The relaxed pursuit policy raises the potential of more crashes — and more lawsuits and high-dollar settlements, attorneys say.
And it renews the question many cities, including Louisville, increasingly are asking: Are high-speed police chases simply not worth the risk?
To Louisville attorney Sam Aguiar, the answer is clear. Police officers should initiate chases far less often, he said.
“The thing that I always go back to with pursuits is, ‘What’s the reasonable expectation of how it’s going to end?'” Aguiar said. “Because if … they’ve (suspects) driven miles at 100 miles an hour, do you really think they’re probably just going to stop, put their hands up, get out of the vehicle and say, ‘You got us?’
“No. They’re gonna end in a wreck. And they’re going to end with people getting hurt.”
Officers also worry about the risks, said Nicolai Jilek, president of the union for Louisville Metro Police.
Pursuits speak to a core mission of policing: Catching suspected bad guys. But when things go wrong, Jilek said, officers can be traumatized by crashes while also dealing with the public and professional fallout.
“You’ve got officers that feel like, ‘OK, I’m expected to do this,'” he said, referring to the department’s newly loosened policy that allows officers to chase stolen cars.
“‘But if anything doesn’t look right, or anything goes wrong, I’m gonna be hung out to dry,'” Jilek said. “… And so there is absolute tension when they start to loosen those things. … Like, ‘I know you want me to do that. But are you going to have my back?'”
The crash that killed Alexus Gray, 16, and her boyfriend, Isaiah Basham, illustrates the complexity of Louisville’s pursuit crashes — and the desire to assign blame.
It was around 3:30 a.m. July 16, 2017, when Officer Lacey Ezell saw the teens’ SUV run a stoplight near Brownsboro Road and Herr Lane.
Ezell attempted to pull the car over, but it didn’t stop.
With her emergency lights and siren on, she chased the fleeing SUV. The teens’ vehicle eventually accelerated up to 80 mph or more, Ezell later told investigators.
But when the speeding SUV veered into oncoming traffic to pass another vehicle, Ezell said she turned off her lights and sirens and slowed down, giving up the chase.
Eleven seconds later, she saw a bright flash down the road.
The SUV had struck a telephone utility box before hitting a tree, turning on its side and catching fire in front of the Westport Village shopping center.
Ezell and her partner scrambled for a fire extinguisher and tried to pull Gray and Basham from the car. But the fire grew too fast, with the teens helplessly stuck. Flames engulfed the SUV.
The wreckage was so badly burnt, investigators couldn’t determine the car’s make, model or color. The teens were identified through their dental records.
An investigation into a possible violation of the department’s pursuit policy ended in a “not sustained” finding for Ezell and a fellow officer.
However, the Louisville Metro Police Department says what happened that night wasn’t a pursuit.
LMPD policy defines a pursuit as “an active attempt by a law enforcement officer operating a police vehicle, utilizing emergency equipment, to apprehend the operator of a fleeing vehicle, who is attempting to avoid arrest by using speed or other evasive tactics.”
But, according to the department, Ezell never caught up to the speeding car and had stopped trying to chase it before it crashed and burned. That doesn’t qualify as a pursuit under police policy, it determined.
Aguiar, who represented Gray’s family in the wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against the department, disputed that assessment, saying all the elements of a pursuit were in play the night the girl died.
While the department stands by its determination, the city settled the case with Gray’s family in June for $975,000 — without admitting fault.
Aguiar believes the large settlement agreement stems from the department’s recognition that Ezell failed to fully adhere to the department’s pursuit policy.
On the night of the crash, Ezell did not turn her cruiser around after she called off the chase. It was too narrow a road to have done so, she told investigators.
At the time of the chase, officers who were ending a pursuit were required to stop or drive in the opposite direction of the fleeing car. Experts say such a maneuver is intended to show suspects they are no longer being pursued.
In turn, officers hope the suspects lower their speed and become less of a danger to the public.
Eight months after Aguiar filed suit on behalf of Gray, the department amended the “stop or turn” provision from its policy to allow officers to follow while slowing to the posted speed limit.
In an interview with The Courier Journal, Conrad said the department at times changes its policies as a result of litigation.
But police spokeswoman Jessie Halladay said the department changed its stop-or-turn policy to address the needs of officers terminating pursuits on the highway, where it is impossible to turn around.
More than 75 years ago, a police chase in Owensboro ended with the suspect’s car crashing into a horse-drawn milk wagon, splitting the wagon in two and injuring its driver.
A resulting lawsuit made its way to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which in 1952 decided “police cannot be made insurers of the conduct of the culprits they chase.”
But in June 2019, the Kentucky Supreme Court overturned that precedent, which had prevented juries from assigning blame to officers when the people they chase harm bystanders.
That opinion followed a series of appeals involving the case of a bystander killed in 2014 during a police pursuit in Fayette County. The court’s 6-1 decision noted that times, as well as tort law, have changed.
Officers can now be held liable by juries for the damage caused by fleeing suspects during negligent pursuits.
The Louisville Metro Police Department issued a memo to all officers following the ruling, emphasizing that while the decision provides “an avenue of recovery which was previously not available,” officers still had legal defenses and protections.
“As long as they’re following our policy and clearly established law, they have nothing to worry about,” Conrad told The Courier Journal.
Still, Jilek said he is concerned for the officers he represents.
“When the officers of my lodge … pursue somebody, and it ends in a way where somebody is hurt — whether it be an officer or the citizen or the suspect — that officer is going to go through all kinds of hell,” he said.
Aside from the emotional burden officers feel when a pursuit ends poorly, they often face unfair media scrutiny, he said. Officers are just trying to do their jobs, Jilek said.
“Are you going to let us pursue? Then let us pursue,” he said. “But don’t get mad at the officer. Get mad at the department for making the policy.”
When a Louisville officer initiates a pursuit, a series of reviews are sent up the chain of command.
Officials flag any suspected policy violations, which can lead to the chief opening an internal affairs investigation and possibly disciplining the officer.
A review of 30 such chase investigations completed between 2012 and 2018, 24 of which resulted in disciplinary action, shows letters of reprimand and one-day suspensions were the most common disciplinary actions when officers violated policy.
The department’s Public Integrity Unit investigates any pursuit that leads to a death or serious injury. The unit’s findings can lead to criminal charges against any of those involved.
Ernestine “Tina” Tyus is still waiting for the department’s findings into the crash that killed her grandson, Ki’Anthony Tyus, last December.
Ki’Anthony, an eighth grader in Jefferson County Public Schools, died Dec. 22, 2018, when a Lexus SUV crashed into a utility pole on Fern Valley Road during a police pursuit.
Ki’Anthony was riding in the car, which had been reported stolen.
The SUV’s 17-year-old driver, identified by police as Reco Smith, was indicted on murder charges in Ki’Anthony’s death.
Tyus, who raised Ki’Anthony, said she had warned her grandson against accepting rides from strangers.
“I used to stress to Ki’Anthony, ‘Don’t let nobody drive you to your death. Don’t jump in these cars. You don’t know if they’re stolen or what,'” Tyus said. “… And look what happened.”
Tyus is now suing Smith, saying he made a “dangerous and reckless” decision to drive at high speeds through congested parts of Louisville.
She also has filed suit against the police department and the pursuing officer, Roger Marcum.
The complaint accuses Marcum of failing to follow the department’s pursuit policy, which, at the time, forbade officers from chasing cars unless they suspected a violent felony had been committed.
The Jefferson County Attorney’s Office, which is representing Marcum on behalf of the city, last month filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Marcum can’t be held liable for Ki’Anthony’s death because of the qualified immunity afforded to him as a public official and because his actions weren’t a substantial factor in causing the crash.
Ki’Anthony would have turned 14 on Aug. 18.
To celebrate his life, friends and family gathered in Smoketown’s Ballard Park on a sweltering August afternoon. A collage of family photos propped against a basketball goal post documented his brief life.
In one, a pint-sized Ki’Anthony huddled with his cousins around the family dog. Below, school photos indicated the passing of time, baby teeth making way for their permanent replacements. And below that, a photo of 9-year-old Ki’Anthony in a hospital gown, his right leg immobilized before him.
It was at Ballard Park, roughly four years ago, where a stray bullet tore into the boy’s right leg. He would later become known as an anti-violence activist in the Louisville community.
Ki’Anthony died three days before Christmas. The toy drone Tyus bought for her grandson still sits in her living room, unopened, she said.
“I hate that my baby lost his life,” Tyus said. “My baby did not get a chance to live his dream. And it just hurts every day when I wake up.”
Aguiar, the attorney in the Alexus Gray case, is representing Tyus in her suit against Smith and the department.
Years earlier, when Aguiar was a rookie lawyer, he represented the family of Aaron Shields, one of the boys who died in the 2008 Old Louisville crash.
Aaron and the other boys, brothers Marc, Demar and Jemar Claybrooks, had been on a field trip to a Christmas pageant with a local youth group. Afterward, when there weren’t enough seats left in the group’s van, chaperones directed the boys into a car driven by then 16-year-old Herbert Lee III.
A recording from a dashboard camera on the night of the deadly high-speed chase captured one of the officers involved, James Franklin, saying: “Nobody’s gonna want the city to get sued. You know we are going to be sued but who cares. We didn’t do anything wrong — period.”
Aguiar said he continues to take pursuit cases because of “the substantial risk that these pose to everybody.”
“I think there definitely needs to be a voice for these innocent bystanders,” he said. “Or the folks that just were in a car.”
Pressed for action after narcotics traffickers began turning their cars and trucks into “rolling drug houses,” the Milwaukee Police Department two years ago gave its officers freer rein to chase drug dealers down.
Over the next year, Milwaukee saw police pursuits soar 155%, surpassing 900 overall.
Six people died, including an officer. And more than 200 people were injured, a threefold increase.
Geoffrey Alpert, a nationally recognized expert on police pursuits, contends that Louisville could be heading down the same path: Pursuing a more aggressive pursuit policy that could get more people hurt or killed.
The Louisville Metro Police Department’s new temporary policy — which gives officers permission to chase stolen cars — may not be as lenient as Milwaukee’s rule allowing officers to chase down drug dealers and reckless drivers.
But, Alpert said, Louisville “is following down a dark path.”
It’s a path that major cities and some states are purposely avoiding, choosing instead to restrict police chases.
But pursuit policies in cities similarly sized to Louisville still vary widely, The Courier Journal found.
Few cities, however, are loosening their pursuit policies, as Louisville and Milwaukee are doing.
And as their pursuits rise, so do questions about the training and technology provided to officers.
“In policing, we will never be able to make it 100% safe,” said Nicolai Jilek, president of the Louisville Metro Police union. “But … the department and the city owe it to us to put us in that position to give us a shot of being successful.”
When LMPD Chief Steve Conrad ushered in the department’s 2012 policy limiting chases to suspects in violent felonies, Louisville joined a growing rank of cities clamping down on pursuits.
For decades, research has demonstrated the high risks of pursuit. From 1996 to 2015, roughly one person a day was killed in the U.S. in pursuit-related crashes, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Jim Dudley understands the dangers.
During his 32 years as an officer with the San Francisco Police Department, Dudley estimates he was involved in at least 500 chases. Over the course of those pursuits, he sustained two concussions and a broken wrist.
He also witnessed another officer’s pursuit end tragically.
Standing on the side of the road attending to another police matter, Dudley watched as the suspect — who was being chased over a purse snatching — barreled through an intersection and into an unsuspecting car.
Three of the car’s four passengers were killed.
“When you know the dire consequences of a reckless pursuit, then you know it’s not worth it,” he said. “But that’s hindsight.”
Alpert, who has studied pursuits since the 1980s, said he supports policies like those Louisville instated when Conrad arrived at the department: Only allowing officers to chase people suspected of a violent felony, such as murder or armed robbery.
To Alpert, a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina, the issue comes back to bystander safety.
In jurisdictions with lax pursuit rules, “going through an intersection is like Russian roulette,” he said.
“And cops need to understand that, even though they have lights and sirens, we don’t hear them all the time. We don’t expect that.”
Dudley retired from his position as deputy patrol chief in 2013 and now teaches at San Francisco State University. He co-hosts a podcast for PoliceOne.com in which he addresses issues facing police.
“Study after study shows that when your adrenaline pumps and your focus is narrowed, you might not consider all the possibilities,” he said, adding that officers, by nature of the job, want to apprehend criminals.
That’s why, Dudley said, supervision and training are especially important.
LMPD officers receive one hour of classroom instruction during academy training dedicated to pursuit policy. The 29-hour vehicle operations curriculum includes defensive and nighttime driving as well as evasive maneuvers.
Vehicle training includes two days at the vehicle operations track at the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Training in Richmond.
On the track, officers must decide whether to chase a “fleeing” car driven by an instructor while other instructors drive “civilian” cars on the roadway, said Lt. Brian Kuriger of LMPD’s Basic Training Section.
Though Louisville’s relaxed pursuit rules will put more officers in position to give chase, Conrad said the department has no plans to increase pursuit-specific training.
“As police officers, we drive for a living,” Conrad said, adding that officers drive in “emergency conditions” every day.
Before Louisville’s city-county merger in 2003, the department had a local drivers’ track, Conrad said. That land was sold and the area has since been redeveloped into a neighborhood. Conrad said the police department’s foundation once looked into constructing a new track, but the proposal fell through.
Without a local track, Conrad said his department has used parking lots throughout the city for driver training. But in general, he said, pursuit training hasn’t been the department’s focus.
Officers must receive 40 hours of training per year after leaving the academy. Conrad said he’s used those hours recently to provide training geared toward reducing officer-involved shootings.
“Every year, I’m trying to look at what it is we can do,” he said. “I wish we could do more training on it, (but) we don’t have the facilities here. And that is absolutely a budget issue.”
Jilek, the Louisville Fraternal Order of Police president, said he’s participated in the department’s parking lot “refresher courses.”
“The academy staff does the best they can with what they’re allowed to do,” he said. “… But at the end of the day, there’s a big difference between ‘refresher’ training and actual training.”
Metro Council President David James, a former Louisville police officer, acknowledged the possible dangers of pursuits and said training in a parking lot is no substitute for the city having its own drivers training facility.
“Loosening the pursuit policy is a needed action,” he said, “but just as needed is training officers how to properly do pursuits, which is impossible to do without a pursuit track.”
Dudley, the retired San Francisco officer, said alternatives to pursuit exist.
If the fleeing suspect isn’t driving a stolen vehicle, Dudley said, officers can use the license plate number to identify the car’s owner. They can then call off the chase and later go to the owner’s residence with a warrant.
Departments also can use air support to follow fleeing vehicles, Dudley said, adding that officers can then slow down and, rather than chasing from behind, follow a suspect along a lateral route.
Other techniques — which do carry their own risks — can be used to stop or slow fleeing vehicles.
Officers can deploy spike strips, which are laid across the roadway in the fleeing suspect’s path to puncture tires. Louisville police records show the devices have been used fewer than 10 times in the last decade.
Some departments also use precision immobilization techniques, otherwise known as “PIT” maneuvers, in which an officer bumps a suspect’s vehicle from the side near the rear wheel, causing the vehicle to spin out.
Dudley said San Francisco police do not use the maneuver because it can be risky on that city’s narrow, congested streets. Disarming the driver of a “1,500-pound missile” is inherently dangerous, he said.
Nationally, some departments are looking to GPS “bullet” technology as a solution.
Trevor Fischbach, president of StarChase, said his company’s technology allows officers to catch criminals while keeping roadways safe.
Fischbach said StarChase technology is being used by law enforcement agencies in more than 20 states, as well as Canada and Europe. The StarChase system is installed on the front of a police cruiser.
If a suspect does not pull over when an officer signals, the officer can use the technology to launch and affix a GPS-tracking tag on the back of the fleeing car. The officer can then end the pursuit.
Fischbach said his company’s research shows that on average, suspects slow to within 5 miles of the speed limit within 2 minutes of being tagged when patrols back off. Officers can then track the car’s location and make an arrest once it has stopped.
The technology, once affixed, has an 80% arrest rate, according to Fischbach.
It also comes at a steep price. StarChase systems cost $5,000 to $6,000 per vehicle.
Fischbach said departments typically don’t install the technology on their entire police fleet.
“Agencies know where their problems lie,” he said, adding that departments have opted to install StarChase systems on cruisers used by specific tactical forces.
Jilek said officers would support anything that allows them to catch criminals with “the least amount of physical contact.” But he worries about right-to-privacy issues associated with such technology.
“There will always be an attorney … that will say, ‘You didn’t have a right to do that,'” he said. “And the police will be billed as an overbearing Big Brother again.”
Conrad said he received a solicitation from a company selling GPS-tagging systems the day his June special order relaxing police pursuit rules was in the news. He didn’t initially understand what the technology was, he said, but added that it sounds “really, really cool.”
Conrad said he would be open a “technological fix.” But, he said, “the money just isn’t there.”
Law enforcement agencies can apply for federal funding through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, which, in fiscal year 2018, was allocated $269 million.
Grant records show the Louisville Metro Police have used funding from the JAG program in recent years to purchase in-car computers for its fleet of cruisers.
Jon Farris of Madison, Wisconsin, wants the federal government to earmark a portion of its JAG program money for pursuit-reduction training and technology. Farris founded the national advocacy group “Pursuit for Change” after his son, a bystander, was killed during a police pursuit.
In 2007, Paul Farris, 23, was in the backseat of a taxi heading home with his girlfriend to a Boston suburb when a fleeing suspect slammed into the cab, throwing Paul from the car.
Both Paul and the taxi driver were killed. Paul’s girlfriend was critically injured.
Police were chasing the suspect because he made an illegal U-turn.
Jon Farris now lobbies Congress, educating lawmakers about the dangers of pursuits.
“The story needs to get out,” he said. “… More departments are considering tougher pursuit policies. You don’t see too many that are doing what Louisville did, which is weakening it over a period of time.”
Farris also is calling on Congress to create a national pursuit database.
Previous government reporting has relied on the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which has been noted to undercount the actual number of pursuits.
Farris said nationwide pursuit-specific data, including property damage, injuries and deaths, is necessary for policymakers to understand the scope of the issue.
“Unless national tracking is mandated, we’re never going to know the extent of this,” he said.
In the meantime, Farris said it comes back to policy, which he believes should set strict guidelines.
Farris criticized a recent revision Louisville made, formalized in 2018, that allows officers to pursue people they believe are “about to commit” a violent felony.
“I don’t know anybody that’s prescient,” he said, adding that the provision appeared to give officers a “fallback every time.”
As for chasing stolen cars, Farris said, “there’s other ways to get them back.”
“Lord knows how many of them get totaled anyway,” he said. “So you’d be better off trying another way to find them and not putting innocent bystanders at risk.”
For Farris, witnessing last year’s pursuit spike in nearby Milwaukee was maddening.
Every time a new pursuit causality flashes across the TV screen, he’s brought back to the 4 a.m. phone call telling him his son was dead.
“How are you going to feel if you get a phone call and your son, daughter, mom, dad, spouse, grandpa, someone you love, was killed because of a decision to pursue somebody … for something that at that point in time, no citizen was at risk?” he asked. “How would you feel? And if you had a way to stop that before it occurred, why wouldn’t you?”
Reporters Matthew Glowicki and Mandy McLaren spent more than four months examining police use of vehicle pursuits on Louisville roads.
They analyzed seven years of police pursuit data and policy, combed court records and news clippings, and spoke with pursuit victims, police, attorneys and experts to better understand the costs of the chase.
Data shows that pursuits happen in every part of Louisville and pursuit narratives are filled with reckless cars at high speeds, blown red lights and near misses. Each pursuit is inherently dangerous, putting at risk the lives of officers, the fleeing suspect and innocent bystanders.
These three stories examine the changing nature of chases in Louisville, the factors that led to those changes and the human and financial toll that remains long after the heat of pursuit cools.
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