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‘When does it stop?’: Police car chases over petty crimes can kill, maim innocents

The dangers of police vehicle chases

When law enforcement vehicles engage in high-speed pursuits, the results can be dangerous.
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When law enforcement vehicles engage in high-speed pursuits, the results can be dangerous.

The high-speed chase began Saturday, moments after Raytown police officers spotted what they suspected was a stolen pickup truck.

Seconds later, the chorus of blaring sirens was joined by flashing police lights as the pursuit weaved through traffic near 59th Street and Raytown Trafficway.

The chase crossed into Kansas City and ended when the pickup crashed, hitting two vehicles in the intersection of Blue Ridge Cutoff and Raytown Road.

Three innocent bystanders in two vehicles not involved in the chase were injured. All three were taken to a hospital, one with serious injuries and two with injuries police called minor.

Similar episodes have played out many times in the past several years in the Kansas City area. In police chase crashes since 2014 reviewed by The Star, at least six innocent bystanders have been killed, and others have been grievously injured.

“They’re unnecessary,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina who studies police pursuits. “If I let this guy go, how bad is it for the community?”

Officers should be allowed to engage in a vehicle pursuit only if the fleeing suspect committed a violent crime, such as murder, rape, armed robbery or kidnapping, Alpert said.

“If he committed a property crime or a traffic offense, what the hell do we care?” he asked.

The impacts of these chases are often deadly.

Suspects fleeing from police caused a crash with an innocent bystander in Independence Tuesday afternoon, April 30, 2019. The traffic wreck occurred shortly before 1 p.m. along westbound East 39th Street at Viking Drive. Two people were arrested.

From 2007 to 2017 in Kansas, 57 people were killed and 1,294 were injured in crashes from police chases, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Missouri does not collect statewide data on police pursuits that lead to crashes. The Missouri Highway Patrol said to get data for the entire state, every law enforcement agency would need to be contacted individually.

Some agencies, such as the Kansas City Police Department, don’t count their vehicle pursuits.

“We do not track them but we have very clear policy and rules of engagement when we initiate a pursuit,” Kansas City police Capt. Tim Hernandez said in an email. “Through policy changes over the years the number of pursuits have decreased from the policy perspective.”

Federal transportation authorities reported 416 people were killed in police chases in 2017. From 1979 to 2017, at least 13,100 people were killed in pursuits.

That’s an average of 336 deaths a year — or about one a day, according to FairWarning, which analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The review also showed that more than 2,700 of those killed were innocent bystanders, which included pedestrians and passengers in vehicles who were hit by a fleeing suspect, or in rare cases by police.

However, those who study chases say related deaths are frequently underreported and the actual number is much higher.

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In Kansas City, victims include Thomas Colatrella, who was killed in August going out to get ice cream for his girlfriend’s kids when a pickup truck allegedly fleeing from police slammed into his Chevrolet Impala at the intersection of Smart and Monroe avenues in the Northeast neighborhood.

In recent decades, law enforcement agencies across the country, including Kansas City police, have limited pursuits to situations where the occupants have been involved in a violent felony or there is an immediate danger to the public.

Some agencies in the Kansas City area still allow officers to chase at high speeds for any infraction, regardless of how minor. And in the decade before 2015, there were more than 700 pursuit-related crashes in the metro area, The Star previously reported.

Those crashes have left dozens with life-changing injuries.

In one recent case, a Jackson County sheriff’s deputy crashed into a motorist while speeding through a red light without warning, a traffic violation that chase experts said was clearly his fault.

The motorist, who had the right of way, was Christopher Reed, 30, of Raytown. He was thrown from his car by the impact and suffered extensive head injuries, a spinal injury and a broken clavicle.

The deputy, Sean Stoff, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor careless and imprudent driving. The criminal charge was an unusual outcome, as officers involved in chases seldom face significant discipline.

Stoff was sentenced to a year of probation.

Stoff remains a deputy with the sheriff’s office and has a valid Class-A driver’s license, according to Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

O’Connell said authorities with the Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission, the state agency that licenses law enforcement officers, were aware of the incident. The Jackson County Sheriff’s office did not respond to email requests on whether Stoff was disciplined.

Since then, the Jackson County sheriff’s office has changed its pursuit policy. The new policy gives guidelines for when a pursuit should be stopped.

But more needs to be done, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum. Neighboring departments should collaborate to ensure their pursuit policies don’t conflict.

It is common for law enforcement agencies to cross city limits, state or county lines to pursue a fleeing suspect, as in last weekend’s chase from Raytown to Kansas City.

“This is where policy matters and departments who don’t have these types of restrictions inevitably wind up with some tragic consequences,” Wexler said. “Cops need to know what is expected of them and they need to know the restrictions. This is nothing new.

“Some of this is avoidable, these tragedies, but they have to have policies and they have to have training,” he said.

Last month, Sherry Ross sued the city of Independence after she and her elderly father were injured when a fleeing suspect struck their SUV.

She was driving her father to a 4 p.m. church service Jan. 26, headed westbound on Blue Ridge Boulevard, nearing Sterling Avenue. That’s when a vehicle driven by James Mathis struck them as he was being chased by an Independence police officer.

The reason for the pursuit: The officer believed Mathis was driving without wearing a seat belt, according to a lawsuit Ross filed last month against Mathis, the city and the officer, Nick Langsdale.

Ross and her father suffered displaced sternal fractures. They have ongoing symptoms from their chest and rib injuries, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claimed the officer failed to follow the department’s procedures for vehicular chases, and in particular, calling off pursuits.

He could have obtained the license plate number on the vehicle and enforced the seat belt law later. Instead, he chased Mathis’ vehicle, which hit 83 mph during the chase, according to the lawsuit.

Two Independence police chases on 23rd Street, both headed west into Kansas City, have killed innocent bystanders.

Last June, four people were killed and four were seriously injured when the driver of a Jeep fleeing Independence police T-boned a Dodge Avenge in Kansas City. The chase started over a reported stolen car and reached 90 mph.

Four years earlier, a nearly identical police chase and wreck on the same road killed an innocent man.

The Kansas City Police Department’s policy says offers should not initiate a pursuit for a traffic violation, DUI or stolen vehicle unless the occupants have been involved in a dangerous felony or there is an immediate danger to others.

“There are many factors considered when initiating a pursuit,” said Capt. Tim Hernandez, Kansas City police spokesman. “Discretion is used even when the suspect vehicle or occupant meet the criteria for a pursuit.”

Officers may decide not pursuing a fleeing vehicle is the safest course of action, he said.

“The result of the arrest is worth the risk when the decision is made that the threat of the offender remaining at large exceeds the danger of the pursuit,” Hernandez said.

In February, a couple in their 80s were critically injured when Kansas City, Kan., police started a chase that crossed the state line into Kansas City and ended in Brookside. Police said the chase reached speeds up to 80 mph in densely populated areas.

A juvenile that led police on the pursuit now faces criminal charges in Wyandotte and Jackson counties.

A police chase Saturday in Kansas City reached speeds up to 80 mph on Brookside Boulevard before a wreck that injured an elderly couple, according to recordings of police radio on Broadcastify.com.

Kansas City, Kansas, police said they reviewed the pursuit and determined the officers were within policy, said Maj. Steve Haulmark, an assistant to Police Chief Terry Zeigler.

Police departments can’t stop all pursuits. When departments choose to eliminate chases entirely, suspects know they can drive away to avoid being arrested, said Dennis Kenney, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who has 35 years of experience in the field.

But they should incorporate more training in decision-making and creating policies, he said.

It’s typical for departments to model their policies based on neighboring police departments or the International Police Association. Those policies, Kenney said, are made with the intention of protecting officers from civil litigation as opposed to creating policy based more on research.

As an example, research on a suspect’s thought process during a police pursuit is available, Kenney said. It should be factored into the department’s policies and individual officer training more often, he said.

Suspects kick into a “run or not” mentality, and once they’ve made the commitment to flee, they won’t stop until there’s a collision, they run out of gas or until they’ve managed to get away, according to Kenney.

“Officers should be well-trained in understanding how those decisions are made, not just by them but by the person they’re chasing as well, and the consequences of the pursuit decision they’re going to make,” he said.

In Raytown, officers are supposed to weigh the offense the person is wanted for against a number of risk factors, such as weather conditions, hazardous maneuvers and the number of cars on the road. High-risk factors include chasing in an unmarked car, if the driver is a known juvenile or if the officer is “excited — not in control of emotions.”

The Raytown Police Department’s 2018 annual report counted 45 pursuits, down from 92 the year before. Because the city is just 10 square miles and surrounded by highways, the report noted, many chases lead outside the city limits.

Raytown police are not allowed to pursue vehicles in a situation with high risk factors for people wanted for misdemeanors or traffic violations and infractions. They can chase for violent felonies in any condition but are advised to discontinue if the risk of the chase exceeds the known threat to public safety.

Thomas Colatrella decided to go out one evening last August to buy ice cream his girlfriend and her four children.

What happened next was totally avoidable, said Remington Smith, an attorney representing Colatrella’s parents in a civil lawsuit filed against the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.

Police said the man officers chased that evening, Samuel Delozier, 22, of Kansas City, was driving a gray 2015, Toyota Tacoma pickup truck like one that had been used by someone who shot at a person the night before. No one was wounded in the shooting. Officers also learned the truck was stolen out of Lee’s Summit.

The chase reached speeds of 75 mph. The truck blew through stop signs, sped the wrong way on a one-way street and raced through several narrow roads in Northeast Kansas City.

Smith said police didn’t have to chase Delozier, who is now charged with manslaughter in Colatrella’s death.

License plate scanners mounted on patrol cars and at various intersections would have allowed police to track down the fleeing truck without chasing it, he said.

“That’s the problem,” Smith said. “They have got these great new technological tools but I don’t think they are necessarily using them in their determination of whether to further a pursuit in an area that has a heighten risk of danger to the public.”

For Colatrella’s parents, Jane and Tom, their only son dying was a tragedy.

“If the pursuit policy doesn’t change course, when does it stop?” Tom Colatrella asked.

Dashcam video from a May 9, 2018, traffic collision shows a Jackson County sheriff's deputy run a red light and crash into another vehicle, severely injuring the other driver. The deputy was involved in a pursuit that started with a broken taillight.

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Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.
Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.
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