When Cops Are High-Speed Chase Junkies
Chase debris, San Jose, November 2006. Teens were at the wheel.
A week ago in Ormond Beach, the small, ritzier burg glued to the north of Daytona Beach, cops got a report of an aggressive driver at the wheels of an SUV. Two cops on motorbikes spotted him and pulled him over into the parking lot of closed business. The driver never really stopped. He backed up instead, supposedly endangering the two cops, who were still on their motorbike and swerved from his path. I say supposedly: whenever a driver does anything cops wouldn’t script, it’s interpreted as a belligerent act. The driver of the SUV could merely have been backing up to get back on the road and elude the cops—which he did. The cops had had time enough to notice that the SUV was full: a passenger in the front seat, several in the back. They chased briefly but the SUV was weaving dangerously in and out of traffic, and took a turn down the wrong way of Ridgewood Avenue, otherwise known as the legendary U.S. Route 1 that goes from the tip of the Florida Keys to the tip of Maine.
The cops decided it was more dangerous to chase than to leave off and keep an eye on the driver. They alerted the county sheriff, who immediately sent a helicopter airborne. They also alerted the Daytona Beach Police Department. That Department last year came under the chiefship of a man called Mike Chitwood, a former cop in Philadelphia and elsewhere who sports a mustache, a grin and a fondness for calling homeless people and just about any suspect “scumbags.” He does so publicly and, apparently, proudly. Cops love him. His brief tenure has been styled around the Giuliani approach: carte blanche to aggressive policing, distaste for anything Earl Warren-like that gives suspects more benefit of the doubt than cops. Long story crashed: Chitwood’s cops gave chase to the SUV the moment it crossed into Daytona Beach. Ormond Beach’s cops had thought doing so might put other people (and themselves) at risk. Daytona’s cops apparently didn’t.
|Police chases kill 300 people a year, 100 of them innocent bystanders. They injure thousands and demolish property worth millions. Cops call it protecting public safety even as they go about wrecking it. The Supreme Court may be about to let the wreckage spread. The cowboy mentality isn’t restricted to Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the American Way.
Within a few minutes the SUV, going down the wrong way on Ridgewood, crashed into an oncoming small truck. The driver of the SUV was killed. The woman in the passenger seat died soon after. The three people (for there were three) in the backseat were taken to the hospital. The man driving the other truck was also taken to the hospital in critical condition. Add those deaths to the annual tally of 300 deaths caused by police chases. One hundred of those deaths involve entirely innocent people. The driver of the SUV may not have been innocent: he supposedly stole the SUV, although that wasn’t confirmed at the time. But what of the woman in the passenger seat? The whole clan of SUV riders was portrayed as scumbags, if not precisely so, by the police department’s release of their histories: the driver had supposedly “kidnapped” the woman he was riding with—a year earlier, and the charges never led to a conviction. So the man and the woman were apparently buddies, a couple, a team: whatever. The driver had served time for auto theft, and he may have been at it again.
None of that matters. They were not involved in a violent crime. No such violence had been reported in the run-up to the chase. No one knew that they had stolen a car, if in fact they had. They were driving aggressively, then—once cops launched the chase—dangerously. The Ormond Beach cops read the situation appropriately. They left off. The Daytona Beach cops didn’t, and deaths and mayhem ensued. The Daytona Beach police chief defended the chase because of the report he got from Ormond Beach—that the SUV driver had tried to mow down the two cops on the motorbike, which amounts to assault on an officer. But even if that had taken place as certainly as the chief portrayed it, the Ormond Beach cops themselves didn’t think the assault was aggravated enough to warrant a chase. Why did Daytona’s?
Because, as almost always with police chases, which take place as a result of minor crimes like speeding and the self-fulfilling charge of eluding, cops will be cops: they’ll chase (many of them, anyway) the moment they feel that they (not the law) have been offended. It’s for the rush, for the excitement, for the sheer hell of it. It’s certainly not for the safety of it, given that a chase by its very nature is the danger, and usually a danger significantly higher than any danger the driver being chased might pose. In urban areas, the chase is almost universally the higher danger. It obviously was in this case. A car thief poses no immediate danger to anyone as much as he does to certain things. The danger to others is triggered the moment cops trigger their chase, doubling that danger (or tripling, quadrupling or quintupling the danger, depending on how many cop cars they decide to let join the folly) the moment they join in.
It’s the cowboy way, and it’s immensely popular nowadays, and seductive to judges, too. All this is relevant beyond Daytona Beach because the Supreme Court for the first time will decide a case involving that very question: did a cop use unnecessary force when he chased a driver, intentionally bumped against him and sent him crashing down an embankment, rendering the driver a paraplegic. The Justices heard the case on February 26, on appeal from the 11 th Circuit, one of the more conservative federal appeals courts in the country.
The case involves sheriff’s deputies from Coweta County, Georgia—Deputy Timothy Scott and Sgt. Mark Fenninger and Victor Harris, the driver. The chase took place on March 29, 2001, between 10:30 and 11 p.m. over nine miles. Harris’ vehicle was clocked at 73 miles per hour in a 55 mile-per-hour zone. Keep that in mind: 73 in a 55, or the kind of offense every one of us driver commits about once a week. Harris was driving his own car. A deputy flashed his blue lights. Harris carried on. Harris sped up to 90 mph, passing cars on double-yellow and running red lights, but staying in control of the car and “utilizing his blinkers while passing or making turning movements,” as the circuit judge’s opinion has it. (“Scott disputes this version of events,” the judge footnotes, but “For purposes of summary judgment, we accept Harris’ version.”) The deputy who initially launched the pursuit radioed for help but didn’t say that he was pursuing Scott because of speeding. He just said that he was pursuing him.
Scott heard the radio call and joined the pursuit, eventually crossing into Fayette County, Georgia. The judge then writes:
After crossing into Peachtree City in Fayette County, Harris slowed down, activated his blinker, and turned into a drugstore parking lot located in a shopping complex, where two Peachtree City police vehicles were already stationed. Scott proceeded around the opposite side of the complex in an attempt to prevent Harris from leaving the parking lot and getting onto Highway 74, driving his vehicle directly into Harris’ path. Harris attempted to turn to the left to avoid hitting Scott’s car, but the two vehicles came in contact with each other, causing minor damage to Scott’s cruiser. Harris then entered Highway 74 and continued to flee southward at a high speed. Through Peachtree City, Scott took over as the lead vehicle in the chase. After getting on Highway 74, Scott radioed a general request for “Permission to PIT him.” A “PIT” (“Precision Intervention Technique”) maneuver is a driving technique designed to stop a fleeing motorist safely and quickly by hitting the fleeing car at a specific point on the vehicle, which throws the car into a spin and brings it to a stop. Harris’ expert’s report attests that “national law enforcement standards require than [sic] an officer be trained in all deadly force applications before being permitted to use those applications.” Scott had not been trained in executing this maneuver. He and the other Coweta officers did not undergo a training on PITs until after the incident.
The emphasis is mine. Fenninger, the supervisor on duty, also didn’t know why the chase was taking place, and apparently didn’t inquire, or feel the need to inquire. He granted Scott permission to PIT, telling him to “Go ahead and take him out. Take him out.” Fenninger, the court pointed out, “did not know how the pursuit originated, the speeds of the vehicles, the numbers of motorists or pedestrians on the roadways, or how dangerously Harris was driving. Fenninger also did not request further details about the pursuit prior to authorizing the PIT.” For that matter, he did not know if children or anyone else was in the car. “After receiving approval, Scott determined that he could not perform the PIT maneuver because he was going too fast. Instead, however, he rammed his cruiser directly into Harris’ vehicle, causing Harris to lose control, leave the roadway, run down an embankment, and crash. As a result, Harris was rendered a quadriplegic.”
In oral arguments before the Supreme Court in February, all the peripheral details of the case—the fact that neither the supervisor nor Scott knew what had begun the pursuit or who was at the wheels of the car and riding in it—seemed irrelevant. The justices, including liberal ones like David Souter and Stephen Breyer, took the old conventional line: If Harris was driving so fast, wasn’t he endangering others? Didn’t he have to be stopped? They seemed to buy wholesale that Deputy Scott’s purpose in bumping the car was to end the pursuit, not cause an accident. Fine. But in that case they could have bombed the road in front of him too and achieved the same result (the bombing analogy isn’t a stretch: in presenting his case to the justices on behalf of the cops, Philip Sarvin brought up the case of the Philadelphia Police Department dropping bombs on a MOVE house (the black group) in 1985: “The [3 rd Circuit Court of Appeals] found that was not deadly force because the officers were trying to gain access to the building and they reasonably believe that they were able to do that without the loss of life.” The bombing destroyed 61 row houses, left 200 people homeless and killed 11. And the court still found that it was not a use of unnecessary force, no matter what murderous mistakes the Philadelphia Police Department committed.
That, in essence, is what reason and civility is up against when attempting to convince juries and justices that the police use unnecessary force: a carte-blanche mentality that excuses everything for the sake of the very public safety being endangered. We see a corollary to that mentality in the Bush junta’s so-called war on terror, of course, as it destroys the very freedom it pretends to be defending. It’s the same source, the same boorish predisposition to violence as the cure-all. We think eminent justices can restore a little sanity. But they’re as human, as susceptible to unchallenged stupidity as anyone. Take this brief exchange between Souter and Savrin, the attorney I just mentioned:
Souter: “Why, why would it be reasonable to believe that a car could be bumped at 90 miles an hour plus without raising a substantial risk of death or serious bodily harm? How could such a belief be reasonable?” Savrin: “Because there are vehicle collisions every day, Your Honor, that do not end in death or serious bodily harm.”
Do vehicles traveling at 90 miles per hour get bumped every day outside of NASCAR tracks, and their drivers survive? Obviously not. But reasoning isn’t by nature reasonable, least of all when it’s cops and their lawyers preaching to the choir: what cops know these days is that it’s Giuliani time all over, and all the way up the robes of justices. These are law and order days. Cops are immune, invulnerable, untouchable. They know it. They act it. And people die as a result. Or end up in wheelchairs. The cops arte called heroes going above and beyond. It’s the usual refrain of any old police state.