Latest News

Pursuit of Safety

It was late the night of April 12. Sheriff's deputy Ryan Killian was on routine patrol when he spotted a blue Pontiac Sunbird that failed to signal while making two right turns in south Modesto.

After he turned on his emergency lights to signal the Pontiac's driver to pull over, the car made a lazy U-turn and stopped along the west side of Seventh Street, about 100feet south of Pecos Avenue.

Killian and trainee Jacob Varner got out and approached the Pontiac from both sides.

They had no clue the driver would take off and lead them on a 25-minute high-speed chase through eight red lights, 10 stop signs, 26 turns and about 25 miles around Modesto and Ceres and unincorporated areas of Stanislaus County.

"Situations like this are why we don't like to call them routine traffic stops anymore," Killian said. "They are continually evolving situations."

Pursuits can be chaotic high-speed trips that change quickly with each turn made by a fleeing suspect.

Law enforcement officers, however, have to follow strict guidelines from pursuit policies intended to keep them and the public safe during these chases.

Each law enforcement agency creates its own policy, which is based on traffic laws and case law from relevant court decisions.

"We have to act accordingly," Killian said. "I don't want to be responsible for causing (a fleeing suspect) to crash into someone else.

"Nothing is worth that."

One day, two chases

Ceres police were involved in two high-speed chases within 17hours on May 29, one ending in a fatal motorcycle crash and the other in an officer-involved shooting.

The first chase began when Brandon Eldridge, 23, of Modesto made an illegal U-turn on his motorcycle in Ceres and led officer John King on a brief 80-mph chase into Modesto.

As they neared El Vista Elementary School, King broke off his pursuit.

"The officer became aware they were approaching a school area and heading into a different community," Ceres Police Chief Art de Werk said.

If Ceres police initiate a chase, the policy dictates the officers must end it when the risks of continuing outweigh the risks of the suspect escaping.

Eldridge ran a stop sign at Encina Avenue and Trask Lane, crashing into a minivan, police said. He was pronounced dead later at a nearby hospital.

Modesto police still are investigating the fatal crash.

The second chase ended later that same day on the side of Highway 99 in Modesto when Ceres police officer James Yandell shot Kennya Mosley after Mosley reached into his waistband as he tried to escape on foot, de Werk said.

Mosley, 32, of Ceres, has since been released from Doctors Medical Center in Modesto. DeWerk said he has not been arrested or charged with a crime because an internal investigation into the shooting has not been completed.

Keep it safe or catch a suspect?

The Ceres chases brought to light an issue that faces law enforcement every day: How to apprehend a fleeing suspect while maneuvering through the inherent dangers associated with vehicle pursuits.

In June 1992, a chase of a burglary suspect that ended in the death of a Modesto woman led to a re-evaluation of Modesto police's pursuit policy.

StephenLesterHammond wasconvicted of second-degree murder in the traffic death of Linda Martin in March 1994. He was sentenced to 22 years to life in state prison.

Modesto police officers chased Hammond through residential neighborhoods after he stole a VCR from an electronics store.

Asthechasingcarsapproached her, Martin heard the sirens and pulled over to the side of Bodem Street at an S curve just south of Lucern Avenue.

Police estimated Hammond was going 50 mph when he entered the curve. He lost control and sideswiped a parked car before veering across the street and hitting Martin's car. Her neck was broken.

As a result of the Martin case, Modesto police revised its pursuit policy and eliminated a three-minute rule in high-speed chases.

The rule allowed officers up to three minutes to chase before having to decide if the pursuit created a danger that outweighed the suspect's escape. The policy change forced officers to make faster decisions.

About 300 people are killed each year in police chase traffic collisions in the United States and nearly one-third are innocent victims like Martin, according to a study by the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center of Seattle.

The research is based on analysis of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the Crashworthiness Data System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for 1994-2002.

During that period, there were between 260 and 325 police pursuits each year ending in fatalities nationally.

"Given the fact that one-third of the deaths are to innocent civilians, the costs and benefits of police pursuits should be more openly discussed and other options for stopping criminals more fully explored," the study's principal investigator, Frederick Rivara, said in a prepared statement.

In 2005, the California Highway Patrol reported law enforcement agencies throughout the state were involved in 7,942 pursuits, 32 of which ended in fatalities.

Policies and restrictions

The pursuit policies from agencies in Stanislaus County vary in specific details, such as how many patrol units should be involved, when an officer should terminate a chase and what happens when the chase travels through other jurisdictions.

For instance:

A Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy can initiate a pursuit when a vehicle fails to yield to a patrol unit with activated emergency lights.

The California Highway Patrol policy dictates that a pursuit should be initiated to apprehend a violator who refuses to stop.

Ceres police officers may initiate a pursuit when it is reasonable to believe that a suspect is attempting to evade arrest or detention.

Modesto police officials would not disclose when an officer can initiate a pursuit.

Capt. Joel Broumas said releasing such information would reveal their tactics. He did say the policy allows officers to chase those who try to escape, and the penalties are severe.

"But to get into details, into when we will pursue and when we won't, is going too much into detail," Broumas said. "If the severity of the crime does not outweigh the danger that pursuit itself creates, we will not chase."

Modesto police also would not reveal some of the techniques used to force a fleeing vehicle to stop. Assistant Chief Mike Harden said that information could serve to inform criminals how to avoid apprehension or harm to officers during a pursuit.

"We don't want it out there," he said. "This would just reveal some of the tools in our tool bag."

De Werk said there are some pursuit policies throughout the state that place restrictions on officers, such as limiting chases to three minutes.

The Ceres police policy does not have those restrictions but gives a basic set of guidelines for officers.

"We don't want to get the reputation of a predetermined cutoff point," de Werk said. "We place a lot of the responsibility on the officers."

Pursued from above, too

Helicopters can give law enforcement an alternative tool in chases that keep fleeing vehicles in sight without endangering other drivers, said deputy Roy-jindar Singh, the sheriff's spokesman.

A 29-year-old from Modesto suspected of stealing a car surrendered to a sheriff's helicopter pilot on Oct. 20 after a 30-minute chase that started in Ceres and ended in Modesto.

The pursuit started about 5:30p.m. when deputies spotted a stolen vehicle at Mitchell and Service roads. The helicopter soon joined and followed as the man drove to downtown Modesto, then to the airport neighborhood, sheriff's officials said.

Pursuing patrol units had backed off and allowed the helicopter to continue the chase alone, Singh said.

The suspect drove back downtown near Graceada Park and finally stopped at McHenry and Palm avenues and fled on foot. He went about a half-block, Singh said, before he stopped, looked up at the helicopter and raised his arms. Officers soon arrived and the man was taken into custody.

But fuel is costly and helicopters are not always available.

Lt. Barry Koenig of the CHP office in Salida said their officers are told to request air support immediately after starting a pursuit. Each CHP division has its own helicopter, so the Modesto-area CHP can ask for a helicopter out of Fresno or Sacramento, if necessary.

If those are not available or too far away, Koenig said they also will ask for the sheriff's helicopter.

The image and the reality

The public has developed its image of police chases mostly from live television news reports.

The most notable was the 1994 low-speed chase of O.J. Simpson along Los Angeles freeways as he fled his house in a white Ford Bronco driven by his friend, Al Cowlings.

In freeway-dominated cities ofSouthern California, the live televised high-speed chases hold audiences captivated as fleeing vehicles barrel through traffic.

Killian was a sheriff's deputy for 10 years in Los Angeles before coming to Modesto. He said his longest pursuit there was 90minutes.

There are some differences inchasingsomeoneinthe agriculture-based Central Valley, he said.

"I think it can be harder sometimes in the rural areas," Killian said. "Some of the road signs are down and it can be hard to know where you're at.

"In the city, everyone knows what the next street is."

Koenig said his longest chase was about 30 minutes while working for the Fresno-area CHP office about five years ago.

He said lengthy chases are rare in the Modesto area.

Referring to the chases shown by TV helicopters, Koenig said that people watching can't always appreciate the controlled response from law enforcement. Many in the audience may have a misconception of officers chasing bandits with only capturing them in mind.

"That's far from the truth," he said. "The officers know they're doing something that can be very hazardous."

The April 12 pursuit went through several jurisdictions: the county's unincorporated area, Ceres, Modesto and along Highway 99.

The Sheriff's Department patrols the unincorporated area, police cover the cities and the CHP is responsible for the freeway.

As soon as the blue Pontiac sped off, Killian was running to his patrol unit and talking to dispatchers. After reporting the direction of the fleeing vehicle, he told them to inform Ceres police of the pursuit.

He said the Sheriff's Department and Ceres police have a close working relationship on situations like pursuits.

"We cover for them and they cover for us," said de Werk, the Ceres chief.

'We need to stop him'

Killian's chase of the Pontiac, however, quickly left Ceres and headed north on the freeway. A dangerous exit and re-entry to the freeway in downtown Modesto was followed by a near collision on Briggsmore Avenue.

The Pontiac continued east on Briggsmore, but in the westbound lanes, the wrong way.

"This is why he is a danger and why we need to stop him," Killian said about the driver.

Killian stayed in the eastbound lanes and trailed until the Pontiac made a left turn onto northbound Carver Road, where it traveled about 60 mph in a 30-mph zone.

Killian said the two-lane residential road had little traffic and there weren't any collisions.

After heading east on Rumble Road, speeding south on College Avenue and almost colliding with Killian's patrol unit, the Pontiac made it to west Modesto, heading south on Carpenter Road and then east on Elm Avenue.

Modesto police deployed several spike strips along the way; some of them missed. It took three more strips to deflate the Pontiac's tires.

The Pontiac was on its rims and dropped its speed to about 20mph. It swerved all over the road heading south on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The deputies are amazed it didn't hit any parked vehicles.

The Pontiac spun out of control and stopped on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive just north of Spruce Avenue.

The driver jumped out and ran, jumping a 6-foot fence. Dep-uty Brock Condit and his dog, Rex, took off after him and caught him.

Chase over.

Training for pursuits

Killian said deputies take the same approach to chases in the big cities as they do in smaller towns throughout the state. Pursuit training is standardized through the state's Peace Of-ficers Standards and Training.

The CHP's Koenig said officers go through pursuit training sessions four times a year that include reviewing the policy, reviewing other chases on video, and driving.

"It's to make sure the officers are on top of things," Koenig said. "It might even include a ride-along with a supervisor to critique their performance."

Sheriff's deputies train annu-ally on chase procedures, including using a simulator and reviewing the pursuit policy, Killian said.

Condit said the policies were created to protect the officers as much as the public.

"We're not out there like cowboys on a chase with our hats in the air," he said. "If we're irresponsible, we're the ones who are going to pay the piper."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

  Comments