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High-speed chases: Police make life-or-death decisions on the run

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Sometimes, police chases cross not just city borders, but state lines, like last week when New York state police pursued a Troy man wanted on a murder charge into New Jersey, where that state’s parkway police joined the chase and made the arrest. The pursuit neared speeds of 90 miles per hour, police said at the time.

Different police agencies maintain their own internal policies on pursuits. New York state police spokesman Beau Duffy did not give details on that agency’s rules, but said in a statement that its “pursuit policy integrates both officer safety and public safety concerns with a duty to enforce the law.”

“In the decision to continue a pursuit, the protections and safety of the public, occupants of the pursued vehicle and the pursing police officer must be weighed against the dangers involved,” he said.

In Yonkers, the department’s policy and procedure manual encourages officers “to avoid engaging in pursuits” in general and to terminate them “whenever the risk to police officers or the public outweighs the danger to the community if the suspect is not immediately apprehended.”

Randolph McLaughlin, a civil rights professor and attorney at Newman Ferrara in New York City, said police should only engage in a chase when a fleeing suspect has threatened an officer or committed a violent crime.

“Some sort of physical violence must be involved” to trigger a police chase, McLaughlin argued. “When deadly force presents itself in some fashion or form, we need to stop that person in some way.”

McLaughlin said officers should not engage in high-speed chase for minor crimes, such as traffic violations, due to the inherent risks involved to police officers and bystanders during a chase, and the additional liabilities police departments take if they injure bystanders. “There’s risk to the driver of the vehicle, … and there’s risk to the officers, and risks to the general public,” he said.

Those risks have resulted in more than 5,000 deaths of bystanders and passengers killed in police car chases between 1979 and 2013, according to a USA Today investigation. Those deaths account for nearly half of all people killed in police pursuits during that time, the investigation found.

McLaughlin said police departments need to establish specific guidelines for when officers can and cannot engage in a police chase so officers don’t make on-the-spot judgments. While officers are trained in when and how to use deadly force, McLaughlin said letting officers act in the heat of the moment makes all their training go “right out the window. And that’s dangerous.”

Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the decision for an officer to engage in a chase is a “matter of balancing the risk to the public against the need to apprehend.” While rules for police chases vary between departments, Kenney said a supervisor is typically monitoring the chase and helping the officer at the scene decide if the pursuit should be continued or not.

When White Plains Public Safety Commissioner David Chong served in the New York City Police Department, he said, he was “involved in quite a few pursuits.”

“It’s very scary,” he said. “Your adrenaline levels get very, very high and you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re operating a 3,000 lb. vehicle and that people may not pay any attention to your lights and sirens.”

Chong said like many other departments, his agency tries to avoid pursuits.

“Our policy is unless the crime reaches the point where the public is danger, we try not to pursue,” he said. “Obviously if a guy shoots someone we’re going to chase him, but in most cases we get as much information about the vehicle as we can, and turn it over to detectives to follow up on.”

He said if there is a chase, it’s monitored via radio by a supervisor, who can call it off if it seems to be getting too dangerous.

Haverstraw Police Lt. Martin Lund said a supervisor in his department questions the officers on the circumstances and whether the threshold to chase a car has been met. Lund said officers will launch a pursuit for serious felonies but also consider whether they know the suspect and can catch them another way.

“We have to decide if letting them go for the moment is less detrimental to the public as opposed to keeping up the chase,” he said.

Author: Steve Lieberman

Reporters Richard Liebson, Matt Spillane and Michael D’Onofrio contributed to this story.

Some other notable police pursuits in the area: 

  • Nov. 23, 2015: Yonkers police pursued a stolen van up Warburton Avenue after its occupants had been reportedly trying to steal a parking meter. The van crashed head-on into an oncoming car, killing a 46-year-old city woman. The 16-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl in the van were critically injured; the boy later died at a hospital. Police have said the chase appeared to be in keeping with their policy limiting when pursuits can be undertaken. The case remains under investigation.
  • Oct. 17, 2012: Police converged on a car exiting Interstate 287 in Harrison that had been seen leaving the scene of an Armonk burglary. The occupants included Daniel and Paul DiBiase, who had been part of the “Sound Pirates” burglary crew that targeted waterfront homes in the region in the late 1980s. A Harrison lieutenant set off a flash bang grenade and then his assault rifle fired two shots. The bullets smashed through the car; one struck Daniel DiBiase and fragments hit an officer on the other side of the vehicle. An investigation ruled the shooting was accidental. The three men later pleaded guilty in connection with more than two dozen burglaries and home invasions.
  • Oct. 12, 2010: Wardell Johnson, driving an all-terrain vehicle illegally on local streets, was shot to death in the Bronx by a Pelham Manor police officer who pursued him across the city line. Johnson crashed the ATV in the Bronx and ran into a local backyard, where a struggle ensued. The Bronx District Attorney declined to bring charges against the officer, Kenneth Stretz. 
  • April 21, 2010: A 15-year-old boy driving a stolen Ford Mustang who had run away from a Connecticut group home led police on a chase through the Rivertowns that ended with an Irvington police officer critically injured. The village of Irvington later sued Elmsford, charging that the officer who initiated the chase did so recklessly and failed to notify neighboring jurisdictions of his location or the circumstances. The teen was sentenced to serve seven years in jail.
  • July 27, 2007: One man was shot in the arm before he and another man were taken into custody during a chase with gunfire that started in Paterson, N.J., crossed two major bridges and six counties, and ended on a walking path in Rockland Lake in Clarkstown. The chase ended with a parade of police cars following the red pickup around the lake at high speeds, with the truck driver attempting to ram police cars before stopping in a wooded and muddy area.
  • June 18, 1993: Orangetown police pursued four bank robbers and exchanged gunfire with them during a 20-mile chase, with one bullet cracking the windshield of a police car.
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