In hot pursuit: Local police policies discourage the chase

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:55

    CHESTER-Ever since the days of the Nickelodeon, police chases have been much glamorized in the popular culture. In TV shows like "Cops" and videogames like "World's Scariest Police Chases," the bad guys always get caught, the good guys never get hurt, and a good time is had by all. But real-world experience shows there's nothing good about a chase gone bad. On average, one person dies every day in the United States as a result of police chases. Forty percent of all chases result in a crash, 20 percent in injury, and 1 percent in death. Chases are more dangerous to police officers than armed confrontation. (Please see sidebar.) That may explain why more and more cities — like Baltimore, Md., Long Beach, Calif., and Charleston, S.C., — are adopting no-chase policies. Two high-profile chases have pointed up the problem in local towns. In the Town of Warwick last year, a man was fatally shot after a lengthy chase involving three police departments. In the Village of Chester this past summer, a town officer, the driver he was pursuing, and driver's passenger were injured in a crash after a chase that also involved multiple departments. Most local police departments allow for chases. But a review of their pursuit policies shows a universal awareness of the dangers inherent in giving chase. In fact, some policies read like arguments for avoiding them altogether. The towns of Woodbury and Goshen discourage most chases. Their 10-page pursuit policies are mostly filled with warnings: • "The patrol vehicle is potentially as dangerous as the service revolver." • "There are many police vehicle pursuits that are considered to be unjustified." • "The department does not consider it a disgrace to break off a pursuit that has become too dangerous; such action is proper police procedure." • "Since all pursuits involve some risk, an officer should always consider possible alternatives." • "Discontinuing a pursuit does not mean giving up nor is it a reflection of an officer's ability." Again and again there are injunctions to consider public safety, to use good judgment, to give chase only in the direst emergencies, to obey speed limits and traffic signs as much as possible, and to allow for a whole range of factors, like weather, traffic, and road conditions. If the movie cops in "Lethal Weapon" heeded this policy, there would never have been a "Lethal Weapon 2." Woodbury is one of only four police departments in Orange County with state accreditation and so follows the same policy the state police do. The police chief in the Town of Goshen, which has an identical policy to Woodbury's, is a former state trooper. The Village of Florida discourages pursuits and has no pursuit policy at all. Officer-in-Charge Jim Coleman said officers are allowed to use discretion in some cases. But by the time an officer stops a violator, he should already have called in the license plate number. If the driver flees, the officer must radio ahead using the countywide 800 frequency. Pursuit is not necessary if the officer knows the driver, Coleman said, because then it's always possible to apprehend him later. More important than stopping the driver is protecting the officer, the driver, and the public, he said. Although not as comprehensive as Woodbury and Goshen's, the Town of Chester's policy is detailed and abounds in caveats about public safety. Like Woodbury and Goshen, Chester limits pursuits to two police cars, the primary unit and the assisting unit. The policy encourages officers to end any chase that may endanger the public, especially when speeds "dangerously exceed the normal flow of traffic." Unlike some other municipalities, Chester provides no specific instructions about how to communicate by radio. The Village of Chester has a short, two-and-a-half-page policy not nearly as detailed as some of the others. It touches on the main points about safety risks and the need for a good reason to pursue. It does not limit the number of cars in a chase, although it speaks only of a primary and secondary chase vehicle. Chief James Watt of the Village Goshen Police Department said that when an officer gives chase, he must continually assess the hazards before him. He must notify other agencies, the county 911 center, and his supervisor. Only two vehicles are to follow a fleeing vehicle. If one Village of Goshen officer is in pursuit, only one vehicle from an outside agency may join in, he said. Police engaged in pursuit should use the countywide 800 channel. The village also has access to a statewide channel if the county channel is blocked. n Real-life chases Policies may be perfect, but people are not. The Town of Warwick's policy recognizes that officers can easily get caught up in the fever of the chase. "Discontinuing an intense pursuit that has progressed beyond the initial stage [is] crucial," the policy states. "Excessive determination and excitement too often prevent even consideration of such action, though the risks involved outweigh the possible gains. The accident potential will build rapidly in any pursuit. Sustained pursuits often terminate with the crash of the car being chased. An officer should consider if he is pressing a pursuit too vigorously or unnecessarily." The policy also calls "needless" and "unjustified" any chase in which the identity of the driver is known, the offense not "grievous," and the driver's behavior "not endangering others." The Warwick chase that ended in a fatal shooting seemed to have progressed far beyond the initial stage. According to news reports, the chase started with a call reporting an erratic driver. It extended over 20 miles — from Warwick, through the Villages of Florida and Pine Island, into New Jersey, and back again — and lasted for a half-hour. The police managed finally to stop the vehicle with a tire deflation device they put in his path. But trouble only escalated from there. The driver, 32-year-old Anthony Costello, reportedly hit several Warwick officers with his car and ran over them, repeatedly in one case. (His family disputes this.) Officer Ronald Donnatin then shot Costello. It has since emerged that the officers knew Costello — the call reporting his erratic driving came from Costello's sister-in-law, who is married to a Town of Warwick officer. A grand jury cleared Donnatin, but the Costello family soon launched a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Town of Warwick and the Warwick police. Citing pending litigation, the town police department would not discuss or provide a copy of its pursuit policy. But The Chronicle obtained the policy from the Costello family lawyer, Michael Sussman of Chester. A lawsuit also prevents officials from speaking about the Chester chase that ended in the injury of three people, including Officer Robert Ferrara, now recovering and recently promoted to detective in the Town of Chester Police Department. Ferrara's notice of claim says the village police, and three village officers in particular, were irresponsible in the way they conducted the chase. The pursuit policies of the village and town differ in enough points that the question arises: when departments are not following the same policy, how well can chases be coordinated? Even where policies agree, complications may still arise. The policies in both the village and town assume a local officer will initiate the chase. But in this case, it was the county's 911 dispatcher who put out the call for help. According to the stat's pursuit policy, this is not among the dispatcher's duties. The dispatcher is responsible for clearing the radio airways except for vehicles involved in the pursuit, notifying the shift supervisor, notifying surrounding police agencies that the pursuit may be coming in their direction, and, if time permits, calling up the subject's criminal record. When putting out the call for assistance, the dispatcher drew four departments into the chase, far in excess of the two pursuit vehicles recommended by most local policies. The coordination of first responders is the main concern of Walter Koury, commissioner of the Orange County Department of Emergency Services. He recommends that all police departments become accredited so that they will, literally, be working off the same page. At present, only four out of 31 departments in the county are accredited. Besides Woodbury, the other accredited municipalities are the towns of New Windsor and Cornwall and the Village of Monroe. Further complicating matters is that the 911 center dispatches for only some police departments. Others wish to retain their own dispatcher. The patchwork of policies was "a political decision," Koury said. Another step toward coordination would have all departments using the county's 800 channel instead of the patchwork of channels local departments now use. Still, accidents can happen even in well-coordinated chases, which is why local pursuit policies tend to discourage them. There is always the chance that some criminals will become emboldened and attempt to act with impunity. But, the policies seem to say, letting a few petty lawbreakers slip away is far better than subjecting police and the public to the perils of the chase. (David Gordon contributed to the reporting in this article.)