Police: Chases can turn dangerous, must follow protocol
Frantic cries of “officer down, officer down” flooded the York County emergency radio waves shortly before midnight Oct. 7, drawing swarms of emergency personnel to the scene of a major police-on-police car crash in the east side of York City.
The two-cruiser crash that occurred during a police pursuit ended up sending three officers to the hospital and demolishing both police vehicles.
A month later, on Nov. 8, emergency crews in Spring Garden Township worked as quickly as they could to pull the bodies out of the car jutting out of a demolished garage, but it was too late for two of the injured people. Cousins Brandon Moultrey, 22, and Elijah Moultrey, 19, were dead by the end of the day, after the driver of the car they were riding in lost control while fleeing police in a reportedly high-speed 1.8-mile chase, according to authorities.
Six years ago, someone speeding away from police killed a York City man who was on his way to pick up his three young children from school.
With more than a third of police chases in Pennsylvania ending in crashes, officers have to weigh numerous factors in deciding whether to pursue and how long to do so, decisions that rest largely on their snap judgment, according to police and reports compiled about Pennsylvania police car pursuits.
Every police department has to have protocol in place regarding police chases, said Dane Marryman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.
The departments’ policies have to include the criteria by which officers decide to pursue, and then by which they decide to call off the chase, as well as pursuit tactics, the responsibilities of officers during the chase and communications protocol. Some opt not to ever give chase.
Marryman’s association checks to make sure all departments do have policies in place, but doesn’t give policy recommendations.
“We don’t tell them what they have to put in their policies,” he said.
State law governing pursuits eschews specifics, too. It says the pursuing vehicles can exceed the speed limit and ignore almost all traffic regulations, as long as the officer “does not endanger life or property,” according to the section of the state vehicle code that addresses the rights of emergency vehicles that have lights and sirens on. It also notes that section of the law “does not relieve the driver of an emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons.”
Departments have to make their policy within those stipulations. Law enforcement investigating the police chase would decide whether the officers’ actions during a pursuit did follow those state laws. In both the city and Spring Garden Township chases, state police are investigating, and will give their findings to the York County District Attorney’s Office.
Judgment: Sgt. Peter Montgomery of the York Area Regional Police Department said many different calculations have to fly through an officer’s head when a suspect takes off in a car. The policy lays the considerations out, including how busy the area is, the time of day, the seriousness of the offense they think the person fleeing from them has committed, the weather, the area and whether there are people around, he said. If the officer’s quick calculus comes to the conclusion a chase could be too dangerous for the officer, passersby or the suspect, police won’t give chase.
Montgomery said it’s the officer’s call whether to pursue, and then either that person or the shift supervisor can decide to call it off.
“Every situation is totally different,” the sergeant said.
State Trooper Adam Reed agrees there’s a certain level of subjectivity to it.
“There’s no set checklist you’re gonna be able to run down” to completely objectively decide whether to give chase — a lot relies on the officer’s judgment, the state police spokesman said.
Reed, who said he has been in some chases himself, illustrated the complexity of the decision be giving the example of thinking about the time of day. When it’s nighttime and dark outside, none of the drivers can see as well, which might make an officer lean toward not following. But there’s also likely to be fewer cars and people out — not as many obstacles to navigate. The officer would have to mix that thought process in with all the other factors that could make a chase more or less dangerous.
Northeastern Regional Police Chief Bryan Rizzo said that like all other departments, his has a policy on police chases, but he declined to elaborate on it, saying he didn’t want to put out information criminals might be able to use to their advantage.
Spring Garden Township Police Chief George Swartz said via text message that the investigation is ongoing into both the chase and the aggravated assault investigation that lead to it; he declined to comment further on either the specifics and the pursuit, or his department’s policy in general.
York City Police Chief Wes Kahley could not be reached for comment.
Crashes: Montgomery estimates his department engages in about half a dozen car chases per year. He said most end pretty quickly — and usually with a crash.
“The majority of the time they cause their own capture,” he said.
He remembers a time one time when a car zoomed away from him so quickly there was no way police could safely pursue them.
“They crashed so far ahead of us we just kind of came up on it,” while checking the area out, he said.
Data: State law requires that all departments relay information about all car pursuits to state police, who compile and analyze the data, and then issue a public report each year. According to the most recent one, for 2014, a little over 34 percent of the 1,506 chases reported to state police last year ended in crashes.
The report, which doesn’t paint an optimistic picture for the prospects of anyone who does decide to flee from police, says 199 of those crashes caused injuries. Usually it’s the person being chased who ends up hurt — 173 of the 234 injured were people in the vehicles that were fleeing. Chases also injured 30 officers and 31 bystanders in 2014, which appeared about average in most regards for police pursuits over the past five years.
And for the person fleeing, the chase usually ends up all for naught, anyway — just under 76 percent of chases statewide in the past two years have ended in arrests, as Montgomery said the situation he was talking about did.
It’s also worth noting that anyone fleeing from police may well face a charges of “fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer.” Basic refusal to pull over ends up as a misdemeanor, but the charge becomes a felony if the driver “engage(s) in a high-speed chase” that puts the officer or anyone else in danger, according to state law.
In 2013 and 2014 combined, 16 people died from the injuries they suffered in police chases. Like the Moultrey cousins, all of those 16 were riding in the cars that were fleeing from police.
— Reach Sean Cotter at email@example.com.