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Both this squad car and stolen vehicle being pursued sustained heavy damage last summer during a high speed chase that ended on Highway 34 near Osage. (Sarah Smith /Enterprise)

High-speed chases: A necessary risk?

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When a Hubbard County farmer had his fields torn up last summer during the high-speed pursuit of a stolen pickup truck, the three damaged squad cars that limped away from the farm told their own story - pursuits are risky business.

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"It's probably the most dangerous thing a police officer can do, the most dangerous thing that can occur to endanger society," said Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon.

"However if we get a call of someone traveling 100 going into a populated area at rush hour, does it warrant using all measures available? Absolutely," he added.

Chases of fleeing suspects often result in damage to both squad cars and the vehicles being pursued, according to a six-county, five-year study the Enterprise recently conducted of high-speed pursuits in the region.

Ironically property damage is one critical factor that determines whether officers should gun their engines in pursuit of a suspected lawbreaker. But a myriad of other decisions, paramount among them being public safety, must be made in a split-second.

"Depending on the circumstances, are we dealing with a felony or a misdemeanor?" Gordon asked.

"Officers and emergency vehicle operators in pursuits should not begin or continue if unreasonable risk exists to the public or citizens," said Cass County Sheriff Randy Fisher, paraphrasing his department's policy.

"When the risk outweighs the need of public safety (officers) for the actual pursuit, every one just needs to exert common sense," Fisher said.

Why chases start

Most chases - 65 percent - are initiated for traffic-related reasons, according to the Department of Public Safety, which tracks all pursuits by statute.

Only 9 percent of the pursuits in 2008 were for a stolen vehicle.

"Most of the stuff for us is a stolen car or a drunk driver that doesn't have a license," said Park Rapids police chief Terry Eilers, who was driving the lead car last summer in a spectacular chase of a drunken driver that went 50-some miles at speeds approaching 110 mph.

"My opinion is it's worth it to bring people into custody," said Beltrami County Chief Deputy Mike Bakke. "We don't want to create a lawless environment where people are free to drive away and know you're not going to do anything about it.

"I've weighed the pros and cons and I really feel it's in our best interests and the community's best interests to bring the people into custody that are going to endanger the public, but we also have to weigh the public costs too," Bakke said, adding, "we've had a real tremendous amount of chases," including a 50-mile chase Monday night that ended successfully on the Red Lake Indian Reservation with the apprehension of a burglary suspect.

The damage factor

The region's percent of damages to squad fleets, violator vehicles and other property mirrors the state average, which has a 38 percent damage rate DPS tabulated for 2008, when Minnesota officers were involved in 883 pursuits.

"That's a huge number," Gordon admitted of the damage percentage. "With the advent of the stop sticks, the steel spikes, it's been reduced so it's usually the bad guy now."

"Any time we damage property, whether it's ours or other property, it's definitely a concern," said Bakke. "We want to reduce that as much as possible."

Eilers used some ingenuity last summer when authorities enlisted the aid of a semi truck driver to help a deputy block off a highway near Itasca State Park that ended Eilers' chase.

"We got him boxed in," he said of the suspect. No car crashes occurred during the man's arrest.

Bakke said damage can occur when chase suspects take logging roads that can wreak havoc on the undercarriages of squad cars.

Both the state and region have a relatively low injury rate during police pursuits. In 2008, of the 1,618 individuals involved in pursuits statewide, 150 received injuries or possible injuries, with 106 of those being violators.

Of the 131 chases the Enterprise tracked from 2004 to 2008, only 18 persons were injured, with one person suffering potentially serious injuries, and one officer injured.

In that time period, however, 25 squad cars were damaged while 63 violators' vehicles were wrecked.

"All my patrol officers are trained and equipped with stop sticks and we have the Rhino bumpers for PIT maneuvers if it becomes apparent that will be the safest way to conclude a pursuit," Gordon said.

Rhino bumpers are wrap-arounds that go on the fronts of squad cars so they can nudge a pursued vehicle into a spin-out. It's called a pursuit intervention tactic or PIT maneuver.

With the Rhino bumpers "the squad car will sustain the least amount of damage," Gordon said. "The PIT maneuver, if it's done properly, is probably the safest way to stop a pursuit."

The policies and dangers

By state law, all counties have pursuit policies in place that mirror Peace Officer Standards and Training Board model statutes. The POST Board licenses and dictates training requirements for all officers in the state.

"The guys have to go to driving school every three years to get recertified," Eilers said of his troops.

"Police officers are subject to traffic laws," Bakke said. "They can drive as an emergency vehicle (above the speed limit) but they still have to use discretion and take responsibility for their car.

"The factors that must be considered are the safety of the public, the safety of the police officers, and the safety of occupants in pursued vehicles," Bakke said.

All officers interviewed agreed they try to keep chases in rural areas where there's not much traffic.

"What may be reasonable out in a rural area on a straight road, you know, should be looked at quite differently in a residential area or where children are playing," Fisher said.

And chase length plays an important role in the danger factor, Gordon maintains.

"I can tell you the longer they go, the riskier they can be to citizens," he said.

The safety of Eilers' 50-mile chase was greatly enhanced by a dispatcher on duty who knew the area.

"We were going through the pucker brush quite a ways out in the country," Eilers recalled. The dispatcher guided him through every landmark, curve in the road and upcoming intersection until his chase ended.

Pursuits are "the necessary evils of police work and they're dangerous in themselves," Gordon said.

Policies that are "set in stone" don't work, Gordon said, because if you abandon a chase at 105 mph pursuant to a policy, the suspects will simply drive faster. If your policy says you'll stop chasing after a mile, they'll go 2.

The gender factor

Most pursuits occur during the evening or early morning hours.

The majority of violators being pursued in the 131 chases examined were men in their teens and early 20s, by a wide margin.

But a surprising trend emerged when gender was examined. Of the women being pursued, they mainly were middle-aged, most in their 40s or late 30s.

"I can't explain that," Bakke said. "Were they lone occupants? Perhaps there was a passenger egging them on?

"I'm not sure in terms of the explanations of human behavior why that would be true or what would explain that," he added.

In fact, most of the women were alone when they decided to elude officers. Many were under the influence.

One case involved a 12-year-old boy who got into a chase with Bemidji police when he tried to steal a "bait car," one set up to entice car thieves.

Hubbard County's lone chase during that five-year period involved a 14-year-old boy. Park Rapids police pursued a 16-year-old girl. She was the exception to the gender age patterns.

Calling a halt

Every department's policy specifies that a supervisor must get involved, to armchair quarterback decisions made in the field in an adrenalin rush.

"You have the argument if you call it off, I've seen lawsuits where a pursuit was called off, the vehicle continued they'd been chasing and two blocks later it T-boned an innocent lady and killed her," Gordon said.

But there's the countervailing view that "you have pursuits where, even with the red lights and sirens to give citizens a little awareness, they've crashed into an innocent person, too," Gordon added.

"It's like everything else," Eilers said. "You have to look at the big picture sometimes to figure out the little picture of what's going on. Is it OK to let 'em go or should you make sure you get 'em to make sure he doesn't do it again and next time hurt someone?

"Sometimes there's gut feelings as to what to do," Eilers said.

Most of the officers agreed it's better to get the crooks, especially the repeat ones, behind bars for lengthy stays than have them on the roadways offending again.

But shutting the chase down allows the offending vehicle to continue without a squad car's lights and sirens to warn the public, Gordon said.

The reports examined showed that a number of chases were halted when officers feared for the public's safety.

"If you've got enough information and you know what's going on, it may be best to find 'em later," Eilers said. Cops try to identify the suspects, then abandon risky chases.

"I wish each squad car was equipped with an electronic shut-off so you could hit a switch" and stop the pursued car, Gordon said. "We don't have that but we try to use the tools we have."

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