Crime

Are high-speed police chases a ‘necessary evil’? How Middle Georgia agencies handle pursuits

Here’s the procedure Bibb County deputies follow when pursuing another vehicle

Bibb County sheriff's Capt. Brad Wolfe talks about the procedure Bibb County deputies follow when they decide to pursue a vehicle.
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Bibb County sheriff's Capt. Brad Wolfe talks about the procedure Bibb County deputies follow when they decide to pursue a vehicle.

A Bibb County Sheriff Department’s administrative review of a short high-speed chase in June that ended in a crash that ejected three teens determined that the officer followed the department’s policy on pursuits.

Policies in Bibb and Houston counties give officers the discretion of when to pursue someone if they fail to respond to an officer’s lights and sirens. However, due in part to a 1994 deadly accident involving a police chase, Warner Robins has a much more restrictive policy.

Georgia state law allows individual jurisdictions to determine whether to engage in pursuits and to develop their own policies as long as officers ”exercise due regard for the safety of all persons in pursuits.”

However, the often-controversial issue came up in the state legislature last session with a proposed bill that would limit high speed pursuits.

A review by The Telegraph of state laws and some local policies shows that police and experts consider police pursuits a balancing act between the need to arrest a fleeing suspect and the responsibility to protect the public from danger.

Pursuits are “kind of a necessary evil of our job,” said Bibb County sheriff’s Capt. Brad Wolfe.

One night in June

During the Macon pursuit on June 7, the unlicensed 15-year-old driver was clocked at 66 miles per hour as he passed another vehicle in a 35-mph construction zone on Riverside Drive near College Street just before 11 p.m., according to a sheriff’s office incident report.

The report obtained by The Telegraph details what officials said happened that night:

The deputy turned on his lights but the maroon Mercedes Benz ML430 failed to stop. The driver turned onto Madison Street, sped off, and the deputy notified the communications center and activated sirens.

The deputy could not see how many people were in the vehicle because of the dark tinted windows and because it was night.

The teen driver lost control of the vehicle when he crossed over Monroe Street from Jefferson Street onto First Avenue.

The 90-second chase ended in a rollover crash that ejected the teen driver and his two teen passengers from the vehicle. The teen had taken the vehicle for a ride without his mother’s permission. She had been test driving the vehicle for possible purchase.

“Our policy as written pretty much gives us the right or the authority to pursue for any violation,” Wolfe, who is over patrol operations, told The Telegraph. “But immediately when a motorist fails to stop, you begin evaluating the circumstances as far as what kind of charges you may have against that person, weather conditions, traffic conditions, how many people may be in the vehicle.

“All kinds of factors that have to be evaluated instantaneously when that pursuit starts,” Wolfe said.

Bibb County’s pursuit policy calls for:

  • Activation of lights and sirens
  • Immediate notification of the pursuit to the communications center
  • The pursuing deputy to provide specific law violations, location, direction and approximate speed of travel, a vehicle description, and if known, age and description of occupants.

Although there was a delay in notifying the communications center of the pursuit and activation of sirens in the June 7 crash, deputy J.S. Johnson was found to have acted within the pursuit policy following a standard internal review, Wolfe said.

“There was a period of time when the pursuit was going on that he was waiting on a break in the radio traffic so he could tell them he was in pursuit,” he said. “As soon as that break came, he (Johnson) let them know he was in pursuit and it wasn’t long after that when the crash occurred.”

Johnson “was justified in the decisions he made,” said Wolfe, noting the brevity of the chase, which Wolfe said lasted 90 seconds. Wolfe also said that it was late in the evening and traffic was light.

Bibb’s pursuit policy also requires the communications center to notify a sheriff’s field supervisor on duty when a chase is taking place.

“This chase didn’t last very long for it to even get to the point where a supervisor above him got involved to evaluate those circumstances,” Wolfe said.

While Wolf said he hates that the crash happened and that the teens were hurt, the driver did make the decision to flee, however.

Stop Sticks, rolling roadblocks and due regard

As in Bibb County, the pursuit policy for the Houston County Sheriff’s Office is discretionary.

The policy calls for deputies to make “a reasonable determination” whether to engage in a pursuit.

Deputies are to consider the nature of the offense, the potential danger to the public if the suspect is not immediately taken into custody and the probability of the suspect’s arrest at a later date, according to the policy.

The policy states officers should also consider existing traffic conditions, road surfaces, visibility, whether the area is urban, residential or rural and other factors.

“You have to take all these things into account and that goes back to officers making these split-second decisions,” said Houston County sheriff’s Capt. Ronnie Harlowe, who’s over the patrol division. “There’s a lot of moving parts that go on in this.”

Houston and Bibb counties policies also allows deputies to draw on other tactics meant to stop a driver who is attempting to flee.

For instance in Houston, some officers may use a device called Stop Sticks that are placed on the road to puncture the tires of fleeing suspects causing them to halt or rolling roadblocks can be used to force a suspect to stop.

Some Houston County sheriffs also are allowed to use the Pursuit Intervention Technique, which forces a fleeing car to turn sideways abruptly, causing the driver to lose control and stop.

You've seen it on TV and in the movies, but what is the PIT Maneuver? Check out these DPD Recruit Officers as they train to keep the streets of Denver safe.

The department allows the use of Stop Sticks only by deputies trained to use them and the PIT maneuver only by those trained in that technique.

The Bibb County Sheriff’s Office does not favor the use of the PIT maneuver, Wolfe said, although the policy allows deputies certified in the PIT maneuver to use the technique only if the field supervisor authorizes it, he said.

Deputies trained in Stop Sticks may utilize them, Wolfe said.

Pursuit policies and tactics in Warner Robins are much different than in Houston and Bibb counties.

Warner Robins police have a restrictive policy based in part on a 1994 Georgia Supreme Court case, Mixon vs. the City of Warner Robins, said Warner Robins Police Chief John Wagner.

In that case, a Warner Robins police officer was chasing a driver who failed to obey a stop sign during the pursuit. The driver hit another motorist and she was killed, according to online state appellate and Georgia Supreme Court summaries.

Pursuits by Warner Robins police officers are authorized only in instances involving forcible felonies. State law defines a forcible felony as any felony which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against a person.

“I think it basically comes down to liability,” Wagner said. “In layman’s terms, does a supervisor want to tell a family that one of their family members died because we were chasing them because they ran a red light?

“And I’m talking about an innocent victim,” Wagner said. “How does that weigh in the jury of the public?”

Warner Robins police are not permitted to use Stop Sticks, rolling roadblocks or the PIT maneuver, Wagner said.

All three law enforcement agencies that The Telegraph spoke with said their agencies require annual review of their written pursuit policies.

They also said that officers and deputies are required to go through a basic Emergency Vehicle Operations Course during mandate training required for certification as a law enforcement officer by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.

Also, Bibb requires an in-house, annual EVOC, Wolfe said.

However, basic EVOC does not cover training for vehicle pursuits, Ryan P. Powell, deputy executive director for GPOST, said in an email to The Telegraph.

He said the basic EVOC course is designed to provide training in the basic operation of an emergency vehicle.

Powell said police pursuits are discussed in the traffic law portion of the academy’s training, specifically the “due regard” requirements for emergency vehicles.

Georgia law states that law enforcement officers are to exercise due regard for the safety of all persons in pursuits. The law citing due regard is the result of the Mixon vs. Warner Robins case.

“The Georgia Supreme Court held that ‘if a vehicular pursuit is undertaken or performed without the requisite due regard for the safety of all persons and an injury occurs as a consequence, the officer can be held civilly liable even though the injury was actually inflicted by the fleeing criminal suspect,’ ”states a summary of the decision posted on the Georgia Municipal Association’s website.

“The court also found that whether the police officer exercised the requisite level of care would generally be a question for a jury. In this case, the court found that a jury would be authorized to find that the police officer failed to balance the risks to the safety of the other drivers in his pursuit,” the GMA summary said.

Need to apprehend against risk of chase

While current state law allows each jurisdiction to set its own pursuits policy, Sen. Gail Davenport, D-Jonesboro, wants to change that.

Davenport has been advocating for a statewide policy that prohibits any state, county or local law enforcement agency from engaging in chases unless probable cause exists for violent offenses.

Those offenses include murder, aggravated battery, kidnapping, false imprisonment, armed robbery or any other offense that creates an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to another person or a substantial threat to the safety of another person.

Introduced in February 2019, Davenport’s Senate Bill 63 languished in a subcommittee. A similar bill introduced in 2016 also failed to get any traction. Davenport said she remains undaunted.

“I plan to introduce that (bill) every year until we get some satisfaction on this because the families who have lost loved ones are asking for it,” Davenport said.

Davenport recalled a January 2016 crash in southwest Atlanta in which a grandmother and her two grandchildren were killed when a motorist fleeing College Park police crashed into their car as they were headed to church on a Sunday morning.

“We just want to make it uniform for the state of Georgia, and I think we can save some lives,” Davenport said.

Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, has conducted research on police pursuits for more than 30 years.

Alpert, who is a member of International Association of Chiefs of Police Research Advisory Council, said a good rule of thumb is balancing the need to apprehend against the risk of the chase.

He said chases should be allowed only when there’s probable cause of a violent crime.

“In other words, what did the person do? Rape, robbery, murder kind of justifies a lot more risk than speeding, or kind of a minor offense,” Alpert said. “If someone has committed a violent crime, then that’s going to justify the police being able to chase someone — not until the wheels fall off and not in school zones.

“But at least, that’s going to be the first line of police action — a violent crime. If it’s not a violent crime, then I’m just not sure it’s worth risking people’s lives for a minor offense,” he said.

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Becky Purser covers breaking and Houston County news. She previously covered crime and courts for Houston and Peach counties for The Telegraph. A graduate of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville with a bachelor’s degree in communications/news-editorial sequence, Becky also has covered city and county government for Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia newspapers.
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