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Chasing bad guys: Is it good policing?

Published April 1, 2007 3:21 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In February, a South Salt Lake police officer attempted to pull over a stolen Jeep Cherokee. The driver jumped a curb and sped off.

The officer didn't go after the man. His department's policy allows chases only if the suspect is wanted for violent crimes.



But a nearby Taylorsville police officer did.

And another Taylorsville officer, Joseph James Corbett, apparently trying to join the pursuit, sped through a red light and crashed into a car, killing 27-year-old John DougĀlas of Tooele.

Corbett was charged Friday with negligent homicide in the Feb. 7 collision.

The chase, with its deadly outcome, highlights the difficult balance police departments attempt to strike between capturing bad guys and keeping the public safe.

While most agencies in Salt Lake County narrowly define when chases are allowed, officers have more discretion in three: Utah Highway Patrol, West Valley City and Taylorsville.

The upshot: Those three agencies led the county in chases - and related accidents - in 2006, research by The Salt Lake Tribune showed.

Craig Black, West Valley City assistant police chief, said policies followed by most Salt Lake County agencies tie offiĀcers' hands.

"We don't want to tell offiĀcers, 'Don't chase criminals,' '' Black said. "We feel the circumstances of each individual case should be evaluated by the officers on the scene at the time."

Giving chase

All other agencies in Salt Lake County have adopted restrictions similar to those created by Salt Lake City police in the 1990s. Those allow officers to chase fleeing cars only if the suspect is wanted for a violent felony, such as murder, robbery or aggravated assault.

Chasing a suspected car thief, for example, is not worth the risk, supporters of the policy say.

But UHP troopers and Taylorsville officers can pursue suspects for offenses as minor as expired registration or speeding. The suspect in the Feb. 7 chase was wanted for fleeing, theft and drug possession.

West Valley City is a little more restrictive, allowing its officers to chase for anything other than "non-hazardous" violations, such as an expired registration, or "completed" traffic violations, such as running a red light. Still, West Valley led all agencies with 68 pursuits in 2006, followed by Taylorsville police with 47 pursuits. Each agency engaged in more chases in 2006 than all other police agencies in the county combined.

The Utah Highway Patrol was involved in 19 chases in Salt Lake County.

By comparison, Salt Lake County sheriff's deputies entered 14 chases, followed by Salt Lake City police, which had 10. No other agency reported more than 10 chases.

Ending with a crash

In Taylorsville, vehicles were damaged in 16 chases, including six in which officers attempted to disable a fleeing car by bumping it. In only two of those chases was the suspect wanted for a violent felony: one for car-jacking and another for kidnapping.

In three Taylorsville chases involving crashes:

* A man driving a suspected stolen car crashed into a fence on Bangerter Highway on Oct. 4, after attempting to sideswipe a police car and nearly colliding with a car turning onto Redwood Road during a 10-minute pursuit. He was arrested for receiving stolen property, possession of drugs and fleeing.

* A man who was speeding and weaving on 4530 South eventually rammed a police car after running stop signs, sideswiping one officer's car and hitting another during a 10-minute pursuit. He was charged with fleeing and assault related to the April 30 pursuit.

* A man wanted for possession of a counterfeit controlled substance crashed into a truck while running a red light at 300 East and 800 South after a 22-minute chase on Jan. 18. He was charged with the outstanding warrant and fleeing.

Black, in West Valley City, acknowledged that with more police pursuits comes greater risk. But officers and supervisors are trained to evaluate factors such as road conditions and traffic, he said, to ensure the risks of a chase do not outweigh the risks to the public.

He pointed to the department's success rate: Of its 68 chases last year, 54 - or about 80 percent - ended in an arrest. Taylorsville officers nabbed a suspect in 35 of their 47 chases last year, or about three out of four times.

"You can't send a message that you can come into West Valley and commit a crime, and just by the sheer fact that you elude an officer, you're not going to be apprehended," Black said.

Two of the city's officers were injured in December when they took a turn too fast and crashed into a concrete barrier during a high-speed pursuit. They were taken to hospitals in serious condition. Black said the suspect was wanted for reckless driving and driving a stolen vehicle.

"Was that pursuit worth it?" he said. "The end result probably would have been, had we not had officers hurt. It was decided that the problem with that pursuit was not the policy but the actions of the officers."

Slower in Salt Lake

Salt Lake City police Chief Chris Burbank disagrees that officers should be free to chase suspects for traffic offenses and other minor crimes.

"It is a liability, and it's a danger, not only to the motoring public, but to officers in general," Burbank said. "I see no reason to be chasing people for traffic violations, for stolen vehicles. These are misdemeanors [and] things that we end up catching people for in the long run."

Salt Lake City switched to a more restrictive policy in 1993 after six people were killed during high-speed chases within two years. The husband of one victim sued.

"You always hear the argument that if we're not going to pursue them, then everyone's going to run from you," Burbank said. "And that's not the case. Over the 10 years or so we've been doing this, that has not occurred." A longtime proponent of less-restrictive pursuit rules, Salt Lake County Sheriff James Winder said he changed his mind. The county altered its policy in 2005.

"I've done a 180 on it," the new sheriff said. "I think our policy tends to balance the need to protect the citizens and at the same time allow us the ability to pursue when needed."

Coming through

The differing policies mean some agencies are forced into pursuits that violate their own rules. This happened to Salt Lake City police twice in two months in 2004.

* On July 18, a Salt Lake County deputy chased a man into the city near State Street and 2100 South, and asked for help. The suspect spun out on 400 West and regained control, reaching speeds up to 110 mph, according to police reports.

The chase entered South Salt Lake. Salt Lake City called off its officer when a dispatcher announced the man was wanted for misdemeanors.

The deputy continued - under the county's old policy - and the suspect eventually crashed into the deputy's car.

* On Aug. 20, a Utah Highway Patrol trooper asked for Salt Lake City's help in chasing a stolen car in the city. A Salt Lake City lieutenant allowed the officer to help in the chase until it reached West Valley City, where police there took over.

Officers commonly provide support for chases that enter their jurisdiction. When a pursuing officer is alone, most agencies will assist even if the suspect isn't wanted for a violent crime. But there are exceptions, said West Jordan Police Chief Ken McGuire.

"We have had chases where we say, 'OK. Have fun,' and we don't get involved," McGuire said.

West Jordan adopted its restrictions about four years ago, McGuire said. In that time, pursuits dropped from 25 in 2002 to four last year.

The policies in West Valley City, Taylorsville, and UHP spell out the importance of keeping all chases safe. Maj. Kathy Slagowski, an assistant superintendent for UHP, said her troopers need the flexibility to decide whom to pursue. But in light of Douglas' February death, Taylorsville may revisit its chase policy, said spokeswoman Sgt. Rosie Rivera. Chief Del Craig declined to discuss the issue.

"We are aware of the pursuits that have occurred in Taylorsville and we are constantly trying to make changes to keep the public safe," Rivera said. "And there may be changes."

rrizzo@sltrib.com

Favors pursuit:

You can't send a message that you can come into West Valley and commit a crime, and just by the sheer fact that you elude an officer, you're not going to be apprehended.

- Craig Black, West Valley City assistant police chief

Opposes pursuit:

I see no reason to be chasing people for traffic violations, for stolen vehicles. These are misdemeanors [and] things that we end up catching people for in the long run.

- Chris Burbank, Salt Lake City police chief

In the chase

The Tribune found that departments with less restrictive chase policies in Salt Lake County also enter into the most pursuits. Here are the agencies with the most Salt Lake County pursuits in 2006:

* WEST VALLEY: 68

* TAYLORSVILLE: 47

* UTAH HIGHWAY PATROL: 19

Source: Law enforcement agencies, Tribune research

 

 

 

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