Car chases and street brawls are a sure-fire source of excitement in many televised police dramas. But they’re a far more serious matter to real life police administrators, who have an obligation to ensure that all confrontations with suspects occur by the book – and not according to some would-be screenwriter’s script.
For Burlington’s police department, the careful analysis of these incidents is a routine requirement for the department to maintain its good standing with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
As part of the annual accreditation process, the department reviews any vehicular pursuits and physical confrontations with suspects that its officers had over the previous 12 months. This year, the department’s assessments revealed a few lapses in protocol that proved particularly concerning in the case of the two vehicle chases that the agency witnessed in 2019.
The department’s report on these pursuits, which was publicly released on Friday, concedes that violations of departmental policy occurred in both of the chases – one of which resulted in the death of a passenger in the fleeing vehicle.
Lieutenant Alan Balog, the author of the department’s report, acknowledged in his review that the city’s police force has seen a substantial reduction in car chases since it revised its policy on vehicle pursuits in 2016. While the department logged 10 chases in the year that it adopted these changes, it saw only 4 in the following year and none at all in 2018.
In an interview with The Alamance News, Balog said that the objective of the department’s current policy is to avoid high-speed cat-and-mouse games with suspects over minor traffic offenses and property crimes. The department still allows officers to give chase if they surmise that suspect poses a serious risk to public safety. Balog added, however, that the current policy aims to have this determination occur before a suspect makes a move to evade the officer.
“Here’s the crux of it,” the lieutenant explained: “being able to implement policy in the middle of a high stress situation.
“We chose to be more restrictive for when we allow an officer to pursue or not,” he added. “We have a high standard for our officers, and we have a policy that’s designed to ensure public safety…So, for property crimes and low-level traffic offenses, [the policy states] it’s not worth initiating a pursuit because of the risk it poses to safety.”
In his report, Balog acknowledged that neither of the two chases from 2019 involved violations that were serious enough for the officers to give chase under the department’s guidelines.
According to Balog’s report, one of last year’s pursuits occurred after an officer tried to pull over a vehicle with a missing headlight. Two other officers soon joined the chase and, with the approval of a supervisor, tried to use their vehicles to form a roadblock ahead of the fleeing suspect. The suspect continued to flee even after he crashed into one of the cruisers, at which point the officers broke off pursuit.
The other chase from 2019 occurred when an officer tried to pull over a stolen vehicle. The driver apparently floored the accelerator, which led to a pursuit that the officer ultimately terminated.
“Within seconds of the termination,” Balog adds in his report, “the vehicle crashed. The suspect vehicle was totaled…The driver was severely injured, and the front passenger killed. The rear passenger sustained minor injuries.”
Balog acknowledged that the officer in this case had called off pursuit before the wreck. Yet, the chase, short as it was, had been initiated in contravention of departmental policy.
In order to avoid similar policy violations in the future, Balog makes a number of recommendations in his report. He suggests additional training for veterans and rookies alike. He also proposes measures to “improve agency culture” about car chases so that officers internalize the potential consequences and low success rates of high-speed pursuits. Balog also advises the department to simplify its terminology on chases to make it easier for officers to make the appropriate call when they’re out in the field.
Balog told The Alamance News that an officer who encounters an evasive suspect needs to determine whether a pursuit would be warranted before he or she ever activates the blue lights or siren in preparation for a traffic stop. He added that the officer should turn off the siren and lights as soon as the suspect hits the accelerator or makes any other evasive move. In the event that a chase is warranted, the officer would give chase without the glare of the lights and wail of the siren to heighten the already-jittery state of the suspect. If the situation doesn’t merit pursuit, the officer should gather the information needed to make an arrest at some later time.
Policy violations are less of a focus in Balog’s second assessment on the use of force among officers. According to that report, the city’s police officers relied on various forms of force to make 45 of the 2,933 arrests that they logged in 2019. Although an increase over the previous year’s total of 25, Balog notes that last year’s figure was on par with the 46 instances that the agency has averaged since 2014.
Balog goes on to report that, in nearly three quarters of these cases from 2019, an officer resorted to force when a suspect assaulted another officer. He added that techniques used to restrain the suspects included textbook “takedowns,” arm and leg locks, and the deployment of Tasers and sprays, as well as punches and kicks.
Balog emphasized that in only one of these instances did an officer violate departmental policy in the application of force. “The lone non-compliant officer,” the lieutenant adds, “utilized an electronic control device (ECD) to drive stun a handcuffed and passively resisting suspect who was in crisis and refusing to sit down in the backseat of a police vehicle during an involuntary commitment.”