What are the rules for police chases?
There are few more controversial activities that law enforcement officers can engage in than high-speed chases.
It is rare when the outcome of these chases involves the death of a suspect or innocent victim, but that is exactly what happened twice in Carbon County within a span of less than five years.
The more recent occurred Dec. 18 when a police pursuit of a van that began in Beaver Meadows ended about 17 miles away on Route 209 in Franklin Township.
Until Tuesday, authorities had said nothing since giving some information the day of the incident. According to state police public information officer Anthony Petroski, that is because police were completing their investigation, which they turned over to Carbon County District Attorney Jean Engler.
A news release from Engler’s office Tuesday said that after the van had stopped, the suspects were given multiple commands to get out of their vehicle. During a struggle between a police officer and one of the occupants, they bumped into an assisting officer whose gun went off, wounding the suspect, the release said.
The wounded occupant, who later died at St. Luke’s Allentown Campus, was identified as Danny Washington, 27, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The four others in the van, also from Florida, were taken into custody and charged with multiple offenses, the release said.
During the chase, police said items thrown from the van were retrieved and found to be stolen blank bank checks.
According to Engler, during the 17-mile chase through six Carbon municipalities, the van wove erratically, forcing motorists off the road and, in general, put the public at risk. The van and pursuit vehicles were at times going more than 90 mph, she said.
Engler did not identify the municipal police officer whose weapon discharged the fatal bullet. She said that after an exhaustive investigation she has determined the shooting to be accidental, and no charges will be filed.
“It is unfortunate that Mr. Washington lost his life … but it is also abundantly clear … that Mr. Washington’s own conduct … contributed to his being shot and killed,” Engler’s news release said.
The other recent high-speed chase incident involved former Nesquehoning police officer Stephen Homanko, whose car crashed into an uninvolved vehicle in 2014 on Route 209 between Jim Thorpe and Nesquehoning that killed a passenger in that vehicle.
Homanko, who said he was pursuing a fleeing motorist for a traffic violation, pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle and reckless endangerment. He was sentenced to three to 23 months in jail.
These and many other cases across the country raise concerns about high-speed chases. As I see the issue, an officer must balance conflicting interests of apprehension of offenders versus the safety of police officers, fleeing motorists and their passengers and innocent bystanders.
Is a high-speed chase of 100 mph or more along a curvy stretch of Route 209, as in the Homanko case, justified to apprehend a motorist who may have committed a traffic violation? At first blush, you might not think so. Too many things can go wrong.
High-speed chases put a police department at high risk for loss of life, serious injury and extensive property damage. If those injured or killed are police officers, the department suffers the loss of competent, experienced officers. If those killed or injured are private, uninvolved citizens, the department and/or governmental entity may be liable for civil damages.
The downside of not pursuing violators is a loss of credibility. If the public — whether law-abiding citizens or violators — knows that a police department has a no-pursuit policy, it could encourage bad behavior and decrease the probability of apprehension. Let’s not forget that unapprehended speeders and other reckless drivers most likely will continue to put innocent motorists at risk.
Throughout the country, police participate in hundreds of high-speed chases daily. Enough result in injuries and property damage — sometimes death — to make police pursuits a major concern. It all comes down to a police officer’s judgment call.
Does the fleeing suspect pose a substantial and immediate risk of serious physical injury or a threat to others?
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org