GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Dino Russo remembers the Michigan state trooper “making every move I made” as they weaved through traffic.
“We’re going down Lake Michigan Drive doing about a hundred, hundred plus,” Russo recalls.
It was about as typical as a high speed chase gets. It started with a traffic violation. Russo was driving 25 over on I-196 downtown when the trooper tried to stop him. Two-thirds of police chases start with a traffic violation, according to a law enforcement policy center issue paper.
Russo was 21 when he floored it rather than stop in January of 2015. The report says pursuit suspects are typically young men between 19 and 35 years old.
The chase ended with a crash in Standale when Russo clipped the back of an SUV, slightly injuring the two women inside and, after bailing and running, put Russo in the hospital for three days.
About one-third of chases involve a crash, according to some studies.
But those numbers are estimates based on research. No one nationally or in Michigan keep a big book noting every chase and the result. Target 8 was able to get a better idea of how many crashes there are during chases. There are federal and state databases that track vehicle crashes, but sometimes they don’t agree.
Target 8 investigators analyzed the Michigan State Police traffic crash database for pursuit crashes and found big numbers. In a recent ten-year period, high-speed chases in Michigan injured 2,286 people and killed 134. We found 6,774 crashes across the state in those ten years.
If the Michigan experience parallels the research, two-thirds of those crashes started when a police officer tried to pull drivers over for traffic violations. That’s a fact that has led police departments across the country to question the value of the chase against the high risk of injury and death.
Or, as noted chase expert Professor Geoffrey Alpert put it to roomful of cops captured in a YouTube video, “If your daughter or your son were injured or killed in a pursuit being done by your fellow officers, how would you take that personally? You just lost a child for what, a traffic offense?”
MOVING AWAY FROM PURSUITS
A few police departments across the country are now saying no to most pursuits. Target 8 investigators found that includes two major urban departments in West Michigan: Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. It’s not been a secret, exactly, but those departments have quietly —over more than a decade – ratcheted down what they are willing to chase for.
“No, we won’t chase for those kind of civil infraction type of offenses or event misdemeanor or felony property offenses,” said Sgt. Terry Dixon, spokesperson for Grand Rapids Police.
The effect is dramatic. In 2000, Grand Rapids police were involved in 102 chases. In 2015, that number was down to seven.
“We are limiting our police pursuits to chasing only violent, fleeing felons,” Dixon said.
Kalamazoo Public Safety Director Jeff Hadley told Target 8 that pursuits are very dangerous and unpredictable, so his department since 2003 has gradually reached a point where it, too, limits chases to high risk cases of violent, fleeing felons.
“There are other ways to catch a criminal than putting so many others at risk,” Hadley said. “It just doesn’t serve the greater good.”
Hadley said his officers have gotten used to the idea over time, and – to younger officers in particular – not chasing is just the way they do business. But he admits “absolutely, it’s a hard sell,” to get police officers to give up something that’s traditionally been part of their culture.
“You kind of get into it to catch the bad guys,” he said. Letting them run is counter to the premise of being a cop, he added, but the sell becomes easier when officers consider the upside.
“Pursuits are stressful,” Hadley said. “They are high-risk, and they are very dangerous so if you eliminate that out of the question for most officers, that’s less they have to worry about.”
Hadley said he doesn’t see any way it has hampered his officers’ ability to do their jobs.
QUESTIONS TROOPERS MUST ASK THEMSELVES
Most police departments have policies for chases. They vary from agency to agency because departments get to make their own rules.
They are more of less like the policy Michigan State Police follow where each trooper has the authority to decide whether to chase or not, and managers are required to monitor the action.
“It’s written in our policy now,” said Michigan State Police 1st Lt. Chris McIntire. “There are seven questions our troopers have to ask themselves. Questions about traffic, the weather, the reason for the chase, the trooper’s familiarity with the area. If any of those cause them concern, they won’t chase that person.”
McIntire said MSP continually updates the policy and did so recently after an 18-month period in which five people died in MSP chases.
Even though police departments are trying to make chases safer, crashes still happen and most are reluctant to stop chasing for even minor traffic violations.
“That person that’s in that car speeding may have killed a family two blocks down the road,” McIntire said. “You just don’t know, so at the end of the day, we need to talk to that person inside the car.”
That’s a position voiced often in police circles. But widely quoted chase expert Alpert considers it a myth.
“There’s not a dead body in every trunk,” he said. “In other words, just because some idiot runs from you doesn’t mean he’s committed a homicide or a serious crime.”
Alpert said most people who run are young men who make bad decisions when an officer tries to stop them. Possibly like Dino Russo, who said he didn’t have any particular reason to run – such as drugs or alcohol in his car.
“HE DIDN’T STOP, SO I DIDN’T STOP”
Russo told Target 8 he didn’t give it much thought when he floored it rather than stop. He even said he was ready to pull over.
“I dropped from 90 mph to 60 mph getting ready to pull over, and I didn’t like [the trooper’s] actions,” he said. “The way he was going about it, so I just took off.”
Russo said the trooper flashed his spotlight in Russo’s rear view, and it made him angry. That explanation is helpful in understanding why some people run rather than stop.
From what Russo told Target 8, the chase would end only if he could get ahead of the trooper and ditch the car, or crash.
“There was no stopping until he was gone,” Russo said. “He didn’t stop, so I didn’t stop. I wanted to get away.”
Professor Alpert told police officers in that video that there is growing evidence that if police stop pursuits, the fleeing driver will fairly soon slow down and try to blend into traffic.
“I think the dynamic of these pursuits are that people will continue to run as long as you continue to chase,” he said.