Allegheny County police departments revisit high-speed chase policies
The small Fawn Township Police Department doesn't get involved in many high-speed car chases, but Chief Tim Mayberry remembers chasing down a suspect last year who was wanted in a break-in.
“It went to speeds of over 100 mph,” he said. “If I had to do it again, I wouldn't do it. It's not worth the risk.”
There's almost always a better, safer way to apprehend a suspect than a high-speed car chase, he said.
Mayberry plans to update the township's pursuit policy within the next month or two, joining several local police departments taking a close look at how they handle car chases.
The issue was highlighted in November, when a man fleeing from police in North Versailles after he was pulled over for making an illegal left turn sped off and crashed into a car, killing two adults and a 2-year-old girl.
Police were considering how best to handle pursuits before the crash. The Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association regularly updates its suggested policies and revised its model pursuit policy in early 2016.
“A lot of chiefs put a lot of time and efforts into working on best practices,” said association President and Castle Shannon police Chief Kenneth Truver.
The association does not implement policies but instead drafts models and encourages local departments to adopt them.
By state law, each police department must have a policy dictating when officers should “initiate, continue and terminate a motor vehicle pursuit.”
The East Deer commissioners will discuss updating their police department's pursuit policy at a meeting Thursday, possibly voting to adopt new guidelines based on the chiefs' association model.
“There (are) a lot of aspects about it that are better,” commissioners Chairman Tony Taliani said. “It basically limits and reduces the situations where you would be in pursuits. Not many good things come from pursuits.”
He does not remember when East Deer's policy was last updated but said the new model adds many new safeguards.
It lists 13 criteria that must be met for officers to start a chase and six reasons why a chase should be stopped.
It states no more than two police vehicles can be involved in a chase, and officers cannot chase suspects against the flow of traffic.
Mayberry said Fawn's current policy largely leaves the decision of when to begin and end a chase up to officers.
“Ours is pretty simple, but it's not as stringent as the other ones that are out there,” he said, adding that making the policy stricter could make the public safer.
Truver said he didn't want to discuss the specifics of the association's model policy, because publicizing the details of how officers handle police chases could allow criminals to exploit that knowledge.
“If you have bad intentions and you know what the policy is of an individual agency, you can take action to subvert the intent of that policy,” he said.
State law says departments should keep the details of their pursuit policies confidential.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala has long called on departments to update and standardize their policies.
Police should initiate a chase only in case of a violent felony or to stop an immediate threat to public safety, according to Zappala.
The North Versailles police pursuit policy says pursuits should be limited to suspects wanted for safety-threatening felonies. The driver involved in the fatal pursuit was wanted on a probation violation.
The chiefs' association revisited its policy after the crash but decided the recently updated version was stringent enough.
Wisconsin resident Jonathan Farris started the advocacy group Pursuit for Change after his son, Paul, died in a car crash in Massachusetts in 2007. Paul was in a taxi, and the driver who hit his vehicle was being chased by police.
Pursuit for Change calls for stricter and more consistent policies nationwide, as well as better record-keeping about crashes related to police chases.
“It seems like there are way too many pursuits that could be resolved in a different way,” he said. “They can get that person another time.”
Police departments are not required to submit reports on chase-related fatalities to any government agency.
The most comprehensive recent analysis was a 2015 report by USA Today, which found 11,500 deaths in high-speed chases from 1979 to 2013, including 374 in Pennsylvania.
Henry Wiehagen, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 91, which represents officers in Allegheny County, said stricter rules are a good thing. A chase can escalate a bad situation, he said.
“You're better off letting the individual go,” said Wiehagen, former chief of the North Braddock Police Department. “When you put that red light and that siren on, it might make him go faster.”
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.