Niagara Gazette

July 8, 2013

GUEST EDIT: Safety first priority in police pursuits

By Larry Eggert
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — It is midnight on June 22. Lockport Police Officer Steven Tarnowski is running radar on Summit Street in the city.

He observes a dark SUV traveling at 50 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone. He attempts to stop the vehicle with the intention of issuing a traffic ticket for speeding. However, the SUV accelerates away, turning onto South Transit Road and accelerates to almost 100 mph.

Officer Tarnowski follows with the hope the driver will pull over. Unfortunately, the vehicle drives through every red light from the city line to Robinson Road without slowing down, almost causing several traffic accidents. 

One of the most important decisions that a police officer can make is when to chase a vehicle that refuses to stop. The wrong decision can result in a dangerous felon escaping or an innocent motorist or pedestrian being injured or killed during the pursuit. 

I am sure many of you have seen police pursuits on television. Reality shows such as “World’s Most Dangerous Police Pursuits” or “COPS” are famous for showing the best and worst of police pursuits. These shows are exciting to watch and it always amazes me the dangerous lengths a criminal will go to escape police.

Pursuits are equally exciting for a police officer. The blaring siren, the flashing blue and red lights, and the exhilaration of the chase can cast a seductive spell. However, when making a decision to pursue, it is important for a police officer to divorce himself from the excitement of the chase and balance the need for public safety with the desire to make an arrest.

When making a decision to pursue a vehicle, a police officer must take into account several factors. Those factors include: 

• Time of the day and location — A pursuit down Main Street at noon on a Monday could be much more dangerous than at three in the morning. 

• Weather and speed of the chase — Chasing a vehicle at 100 mph on ice covered roads is obviously very dangerous. 

• The reason for the pursuit — It would be far easier to justify chasing a vehicle occupied by a wanted murder suspect than for a simple speeding violation.

We must also be aware that any pursuit that ends in an accident where people are injured or killed will almost guarantee a civil lawsuit against both the police department and individual police officer.

Statistics illustrate some interesting information regarding police pursuits. The vast majority of pursuits begin as traffic violations (speeding, stop sign violations, etc.). In this country, one person each day dies as the result of a police pursuit. Thirty-three percent of deaths caused by pursuits are innocent civilians. Also, about 50 percent of collisions occur within the first two minutes of a pursuit. 

A number of studies have discovered that, depending on a number of variables, many drivers being chased by police will slow down within 90 seconds or about 2-3 city blocks after police stop chasing them. Drivers that flee police are divided into several categories. About 30 percent run because they are driving a stolen car, 25 percent run because they have no driver’s license, 25 percent run to avoid arrest for miscellaneous charges, and about 20 percent run because they are drunk.

In the pursuit described at the beginning of this article, Officer Tarnowski wisely stops following the vehicle due to the dangerous speed and the associated risk to the motoring public. The officer returns to the city, armed with the license plate number of the vehicle.

The vehicle, discovered to be a rental vehicle from Buffalo, is later found abandoned in a driveway in the Town of Lockport. A witness identifies the driver, a known local drug dealer on parole, and a warrant is issued for the driver’s arrest for numerous traffic charges. 

Our officers are trained in decision-making, high speed driving, and recognizing danger. I assure everyone that we will use our training and experience to make the best possible decisions in vehicle pursuits, both to maximize our effectiveness and ensuring the safety of those who drive our highways.

Larry Eggert is chief of the Lockport Police Department.

Larry Eggert is chief of the Lockport Police Department.