High-speed chases are dangerous for officers, suspects and the general public, experts said, and a recent Miami County chase that ended in a crash and killed the fleeing driver and an innocent bystander has renewed the debate over them throughout Ohio.
“We as a community have a moral obligation to assure the cause was worth the effect,” say signs posted near where 19-year-old Jalen Alexander crashed his car March 30 after Troy police officers pursued him for nearly 11 miles. “Was the chase necessary,” the signs ask.
Alexander and 32-year-old Chelsey Vollmer, who was uninvolved in the chase and just driving in the area at the time with her infant, died in the crash at the intersection of U.S. 40 and state Route 202. The child survived.
Police chases have long been a topic of debate because of the risks to public safety. It’s not uncommon for chases to reach speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. The suspect is usually desperate, former Montgomery County sheriff and current state Rep. Phil Plummer said.
“It’s one of the most dangerous things law enforcement officers do, because these guys, they run and they don’t stop unless they either get away or crash,” Plummer said.
Gov. Mike DeWine has repeatedly commented about the dangers of police pursuits and the Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board issued standards it says Ohio police departments should follow when determining whether to pursue a suspect or not.
“I have long believed that vehicular pursuits, while sometimes necessary, represent a serious danger to both law enforcement and the public,” the governor said in a statement to the Dayton Daily News. “Law enforcement must weigh the immediate danger of a pursuit with the potential danger to the public should an offender stay at large. Ohio’s state standard is backed by research and best practices and can help law enforcement officers make these tough decisions.”
The Troy Police Department is continuing an internal review of the March 30 chase, per department policy. Troy Police Chief Shawn McKinney said officers make decisions every day based upon training, policy and procedures, and the law.
“We believe these things to be based upon the morals of our community,” he said. “I have already expressed my belief that the pursuit appears within our current policy and procedures, given the current status of our investigation. If the majority of the community does not agree that current law and policy agree with their morals, it can be changed through community dialogue and our governmental processes.”
Policing officials should use caution and consider whether the suspect is known, if there is access to the offender in some other way and what the offenses the person is wanted for when deciding whether to chase, Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services Executive Director Karhlton Moore said.
“Even with that as a backdrop, there are some other things you have to think about, like the time of day, the location, what are the weather conditions, conditions of the road,” he said. “There is a whole host of things that are part of the consideration as that decision is made.”
The state office released its 2021 public report recently that shows Troy police, along with other area police departments, follow the Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board standards and policies.
The public report says the standards were created because of the dangers police pursuits present.
“Law enforcement agencies have historically engaged in vehicular pursuits. Due to the extreme danger that these pursuits present, many agencies have limited the circumstances in which they will allow their officers to engage in pursuits,” the report says. ”Additionally, some agencies have outright prohibited the practice or limited them to the rarest of circumstances when deemed necessary based upon a variety of factors.”
Police departments should have explicit policies for pursuits, the report says, and all officers should know those procedures and have frequent discussions or training about them.
Law enforcement agencies also should consider allowing an outside agency to investigate decisions when a chase results in injury, Moore said.
“If there is a loss of life or serious bodily injury, the agency I think would probably be wise to ask someone else to come in and look at what they decided to do,” Moore said.
“And the reason I say that is because the standards are about transparency. Many of the standards we have in place and even the creation of the entire collaborative is about creating transparency, which will then help with the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” he said.
McKinney told the Dayton Daily News it would not be prudent for one department to review another’s policy because each community is different.
Dayton has seen more drivers flee attempted traffic stops in recent months, Dayton Police Lt. Col. Eric Henderson said.
Since the beginning of the year, Dayton Police attempted to pull someone over and the driver fled more than 200 times. That’s a 55% increase from the same period in 2020. In all of last year, drivers fled from Dayton police 517 times, a 21% increase from 2019.
But Dayton police have a restrictive chase policy, Henderson said, because of the safety risks to the community. So far in 2021, Dayton officers have pursued a suspect nine times.
“They are dangerous for the community, the general public that are just out there driving,” Henderson said. “They are dangerous for the officers that are engaged with them and they are dangerous for the suspect because it increases the likelihood of something tragic occurring.”
Police should only pursue a suspect at a high rate of speed on rare occasions, NAACP Dayton Unit President Derrick Foward said.
“If it is someone running a red light or a minor traffic offense, then it’s probably better to use their best judgment and use good common sense,” he said. “A life is not worth a petty crime. A potential loss of life is not worth a high-speed pursuit for a petty crime.”
Plummer said pursuits continue to be a necessary tactic police need at their disposal.
“You got to get the most violent people off the street who pose the most risk to citizens,” Plummer said.
Stricter punishments are need for people who run from officers, Plummer said, and he’s looking into state legislation for that.
The Troy police manual says chases are prohibited unless probable cause exists to believe the suspect is committing or has committed an offense that presents a risk of serious physical harm or death and there is an immediate need for apprehension.
In 2018 Troy police participated in nine chases, 10 in 2019 and 12 in 2020, according to records obtained from the department.
McKinney said officers must consider many factors, including the need to stop a violent offender who shows no regard for the safety of others.
“Alexander had committed a violent felony with a firearm where he fired that firearm recklessly into a house,” McKinney said. “He then failed to appear in court as ordered and a warrant had been issued. Through his reckless and horrifying actions, a young lady lost her life.
“I believe pursuits are necessary as long as they follow policy and are balanced against the risks. It’s tempting to cast judgment with 20/20 hindsight, and there is no guarantee that if a pursuit is called off the criminal will still not go on to hurt someone else.”
New technology might make it easier to end a chase quicker. That includes a device that shoots a GPS tracker onto a fleeing car, Moore said, allowing officers to virtually follow suspects.
“There will be more technology that either makes pursuits less necessary or easier to terminate sooner before you get into these dangerous situations,” he said.
Dayton police are always looking for technology that will protect the public, Henderson said.
“The thing that we started is partnering with the Ohio State Highway Patrol that utilizes helicopters and air assets, which can help our officers discontinue actually pursuing the vehicle. The aviation unit can keep them in sight and we are able to make an apprehension at a later time,” he said.
A lasting impact
Regardless of whether the decision to pursue a suspect was the correct call, when it ends in tragedy, it leaves a lasting impact with officers, other emergency responders and families.
Following the March 30 fatal crash, Miami County Sheriff Dave Duchak sent an email to Troy police inviting them to a crisis debriefing.
“We support a culture that encourages our officers to get help if they are having difficulty dealing with the stress of the job through things like event debriefings, counseling or peer support groups,” the Troy chief told the Dayton Daily News.
Law enforcement officials reached out to McKinney and Troy police in the days after the crash. A retired detective from Kingsport, Tennessee sent an email telling McKinney: “I know the deep hurt that (a law enforcement officer) carries. We chose to serve our communities in a way that most will never understand and even fewer can fully appreciate.”
Moore said he’s heard from an officer about the burden of approving a chase that ended badly.
“When you say these are difficult decisions to make, regardless of the decision, you go through all the factors and make the decision, even then if something bad happens, it’s a difficult thing to deal with,” Moore said. “And that’s one of the reasons why a lot of the agencies pursue for very, very limited reasons or don’t pursue at all.”
Ohio Collaborative Community-Policing Advisory Board pursuit standards
Law enforcement agencies shall establish a written policy that governs the pursuit of motor vehicles. The policy, at a minimum, shall include the following:
• Definition of a motor vehicle pursuit.
• Defining the criteria under which a pursuit can be initiated.
• Evaluating the circumstances (seriousness of the alleged offense, conditions of the road and location of the pursuit, time of day and weather conditions).
• A provision that prohibits or discourages pursuits when the suspect is known to the officers or easily identifiable, unless the officers have probable cause to believe the suspect’s escape poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to officers or others.
• Responsibilities of the initiating unit and secondary units.
• Specifying the roles and restrictions pertinent to marked, unmarked or other types of police vehicle involvement in the pursuit.
• Provide communication protocols addressing responsibilities for officers and telecommunications.
• Describing supervisors’ responsibilities.
• Specifying when and who has the authority to end a pursuit.
• Engaging in inter- and intra-jurisdictional pursuits involving personnel from the agency and/or other jurisdictions.
• A requirement that agencies provide training to officers prior to the use of pursuit termination tactics and intervention techniques (such as tire deflation devices and road blocks).
• Requiring a written report and an administrative review of each pursuit; and
• Conducting a documented annual analysis of pursuit reports, to include a review of policy and reporting procedures, approved by the head of the agency
– Law Enforcement Certification 2021 Public Report