WATERFORD, MICHIGAN – After a Waterford police officer suffered severe injuries in a crash May 23, discussion arose online about the officer not using her vehicle’s lights and sirens while attempting to catch a speeding motorcyclist.
“She could have taken action to alert other drivers in the area that she was in pursuit,” said one commenter.
Coreen Darnall noted “officers need to recognize (during pursuits) that it’s not always possible to see/hear oncoming emergency vehicles, even with sirens.”
Officer Annette Miller has been unable to speak after suffering severe injuries during an accident on Elizabeth Lake Road near Huron Street in Waterford.
During the incident, a 20-year-old man driving a Volkswagen turned in front of Miller’s police vehicle. When she swerved to avoid the car, she crashed into a tree. Emergency personnel had to extricate her from the police SUV, and she has been hospitalized since. The Volkswagen driver was hospitalized for precautionary reasons, police said.
Waterford Police Chief Daniel McCaw said Miller’s lights and siren not being activated was “typical for police officers.”
“If they observe a violation, lots of times they’ll catch up to the vehicle and when they get behind the vehicle, they’ll go ahead and activate the lights and siren.”
McCaw said that Miller was not yet in pursuit mode when she was traveling along Elizabeth Lake Road.
“She was trying to catch up to the (motorcyclist),” he said.
He said police often do not use lights and sirens. For example, he said, when an officer is responding to a burglary call, “you would go in with no lights or sirens.”
McCaw said pursuit policy has changed in police departments over time.
“Years ago police would chase for everything,” he said. “You have to weigh public safety so you don’t see the pursuits as you did years ago.”
In the May 23 crash, many commenters noted that police can’t just abandon the idea of chasing a suspect.
“If you don’t chase them, then we let crime win,” said Pat Bernieri. “Let the police do their jobs as they see fit.”
‘As long as bad guys flee, cops will pursue’
While Waterford stresses Miller was not in pursuit, accounts over the years indicate pursuits come with serious risks. About 35 to 40 percent of all police chases end in crashes, Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina said in a USA Today story in April 2010. Alpert noted that the nation’s 17,000 police departments are moving toward more restrictive chase policies “because chasing someone for a traffic offense or a property offense is not worth the risk of people’s lives and well-being.”
Police pursuit records provide frightening statistics, according to a report presented online by the FBI in 2010.
“First, the majority of police pursuits involve a stop for a traffic violation. Second, one person dies every day as a result of a police pursuit. On average, from 1994 through 1998, one law enforcement officer was killed every 11 weeks in a pursuit, and 1 percent of all U.S. law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty lost their lives in vehicle pursuits.
Innocent third parties who just happened to be in the way constitute 42 percent of persons killed or injured in police pursuits. Further, 1 out of every 100 high-speed pursuits results in a fatality.
Most area police agencies contacted indicated that officers are to use lights and sirens during the pursuit.
Royal Oak Chief Corey O’Donohue said the department has a lengthy pursuit policy.
“Yes, we use lights and sirens,” he said.
After every pursuit, the results are “evaluated to make sure officers follow policy and use sound judgment,” he said.
Officers in pursuit must contact dispatchers. “The pursuit can be overruled by the shift supervisor,” he said.
Victor Lauria, Novi’s assistant police chief, stressed the main concern during pursuits is the safety of innocent residents, police and the fleeing suspect. “There is significant risk,” he said of pursuits.
The police officer is “constantly evaluating the situation. Lights and sirens must be activated,” he said. “They serve two functions — they alert the suspect to stop and yield, and they alert others there is an emergency vehicle on the road.”
Speeding motorcyclist ‘paced’
An example of a high-speed pursuit of a motorcyclist without lights and siren on occurred in Washington in 2010, according to a story by the News Tribune in Tacoma. A Washington State trooper spotted a motorcycle speeding and passing vehicles.
The officer drove onto the highway and paced the motorcyclist going 80 to 90 mph in a 60 mph zone.
“Pacing” is when a police officer follows a driver, checking speeds by looking at his own speedometer.
In the Washington case, the biker sped up to 100 mph. The trooper then activated his emergency lights and sirens. Eventually the motorcyclist lost control of his vehicle and laid the bike down. Arrested and charged with eluding a police vehicle and stealing the motorcycle, the biker said he fled because he was scared.
Terrence Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs Association, said police have always fielded complaints about high-speed pursuits.
“There were probably complaints about the (Old West’s) posse chasing bank robbers. As long as bad guys flee, cops will pursue,” Jungel said.
Law enforcement officials face liability if pursuits end badly.
Pursuits generally “put cops in a bad position,” he said.
“They have to try and second-guess what is going on. They have little information on why a driver is fleeing — it could be to avoid apprehension or to hide the fruits of a crime.”
As for using lights and sirens, he said “it depends. You don’t have cookie-cutter crimes. Police have to make split-second decisions that later end up in courts. Each situation dictates an appropriate response.”
Pursuit policies could differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, Jungel said.
“It depends if you are in cities or in a rural area,” he said.
Police don’t graduate without pursuit training.
Jungel stressed that pursuits are dangerous situations.
“We don’t like to face a man with a loaded gun and we don’t like to be in high-speed pursuits,” he said. “There are so many variables. The higher speeds mean greater liability.”
The Police Studies Council calls pursuits by police a “relatively dangerous, inexact undertaking.”
West Bloomfield Township Police Chief Michael Patton — whose department’s pursuit policy is 20 pages long — said pursuits are “a fact of life” in law enforcement, he said.
Patton worked with Officer Miller in the 1980s and said he is concerned about her recuperation.
Common sense and reasonableness apply during pursuits, he said.
“It’s a balancing act of risk versus benefit,” he said.
Patton has trained officers in pursuits. “We tell officers not to get caught up in the emotion of it,” he said. “That’s why supervisors step in (and are apprised during all pursuits).”
Police have authority of close the distance between a fleeing suspect and themselves, he said.
“Generally there is no such thing as a silent run pursuit,” Patton said.
The written pursuit policy for Michigan State Police outlines how troopers “shall weigh the hazard presented by the violator against that created by a vehicle pursuit. It is better to either delay the arrest or abandon the pursuit than to needlessly injure or kill innocent people, including our own members.”
When a pursuit starts, the officer “shall activate and continuously operate the emergency lights, siren and in-car video recorder on their vehicles until the pursuit has terminated or is abandoned,” according to the policy wording forwarded by spokeswoman Tiffany Brown.
Most departments contacted were reluctant to hand over their pursuit policies, saying they did not want everyone to know what tactics were employed by police. The City of Memphis, Tenn. posts its entire pursuit policy online. During a crime in progress or vehicle pursuits, classified as emergency calls, “officers will respond in emergency mode with both emergency lights and siren being used.”
USA Today reported that, according to professor Alpert, restrictive chase policies save lives. He stated in a National Institute of Justice research paper that police chases in Miami-Dade County dropped from 279 a year to 51 after the department implemented a more restrictive policy.