May 3, 2014

York officials review high-speed police chase, SLED findings on use of force still unknown

City of York officials are reviewing whether a high-speed police chase of a stolen car last month violated the police department’s pursuit policies.

City of York officials are reviewing whether a high-speed police chase of a stolen car last month violated the police department’s pursuit policies.

The April 4 midday car chase, which led to the arrest of a man, involved York Police Chief Andy Robinson. Video of Robinson at the arrest scene has raised questions about whether he stepped on the suspect, who was lying on the ground, handcuffed and surrounded by police officers. No injuries were reported during the chase.

York City Manager Charlie Helms asked the State Law Enforcement Division last month to review Robinson’s actions after the chase. The 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office is waiting for SLED to return findings from its investigation.

While SLED’s findings are important, the police department’s internal review of the April 4 chase is crucial, too, York Mayor Eddie Lee told The Herald last week. Police pursuits are dangerous, he said, “and should be used as a last resort.”

Lee questions whether the chase was necessary as York officers reached speeds of more than 100 miles per hour on S.C. 5 in pursuit of a man authorities say stole a car from the BP gas station and China Garden eatery. The car was unlocked when it was stolen and the keys were lying on the seat.

After reviewing video and audio footage from the chase and reading the York Police Department’s chase policy, Lee said he thinks the April 4 pursuit may have violated police rules.

One reason, Lee said, is because York officers engaged in the chase on a busy road even though the stolen vehicle had a working OnStar navigation system –– something that could have helped police make an arrest without chasing the suspect. Video footage and police records show that OnStar representatives led authorities to the stolen vehicle on Liberty Street in York shortly after the car’s owner called 911.

OnStar is a vehicle security software offering roadside assistance and car theft prevention services to customers of GM vehicles. OnStar representatives can work with authorities to track a stolen car using satellite technology and, on some models, there’s an option to release a signal that disables the vehicle.

During the pursuit, York officers asked whether OnStar could remotely disable the car. The company was unable to do so because it was an older-model car, a 2007 Buick.

Because the pursuit is still under review, York Police Capt. Brian Trail said he could not comment on whether any York Police Department officers violated policies on April 4. Robinson and Helms have declined to comment to The Herald about the April 4 incident.

York Police Lt. Dale Edwards initially tried to stop the suspect on East Liberty Street in York after OnStar representatives relayed the car’s location to police. Edwards, who had another York officer in the car at the time, pulled behind the suspect at a stop light. When the light turned green, Edwards turned on his sirens and blue lights. The suspect sped away and a pursuit began, police records show.

As the suspect fled, he weaved in and out of traffic along S.C. 161/Old York Road, the chase video shows. The chase reached speeds of more than 120 miles per hour, police reports show. At times, Edwards and the suspect were forced to drive into the road’s median to avoid traffic. Once, the suspect swerved around a car by briefly speeding off the road into the grass.

Edwards was driving the only car pursuing the suspect as the chase headed from York toward Rock Hill’s city limits. After encountering traffic at some intersections, Edwards slowed down and eventually stopped the chase because the suspect was too far ahead, the report states.

Pursuing the suspect with just one officer and slowing the chase speed in heavy traffic, Lee said, was an appropriately “measured” action on Edwards’ behalf. The rest of the chase, he said, raises concerns.

Mayor: Chase was ‘reckless’

After Edwards ended his pursuit, York County Sheriff’s deputies began chasing the suspect in a neighborhood just outside Rock Hill’s city limits after OnStar again led authorities to the stolen vehicle.

As a deputy in an unmarked car approached the suspect –– who was later identified as Jacob Floyd Bailey, 29, of Marietta, S.C. –– Bailey tried to hit “head on” the deputy in his car, a sheriff’s office report states. The deputy took “evasive action” to avoid a collision and authorities renewed their pursuit.

Both sheriff’s deputies and York officers chased Bailey down S.C. 5.

The chase first headed back toward York. Bailey later turned around on S.C. 5 and sped towards Rock Hill after noticing three officers controlling traffic at the intersection of S.C. 5 and S.C. 161, police reports state. As the chase continued on S.C. 5, at least five police vehicles pursued Bailey at a high rate of speed, police reports state.

York Police pursuit policy states that no more than two emergency vehicles should actively chase a suspect. Exceptions to the number of cars allowed in a chase are made based on several factors, including the nature of the crime committed and the number of suspects involved.

Several drivers who were not involved in the chase were forced to the shoulder of the road, the video shows. It is unclear which officers were involved at the height of the police pursuit.

Near school zones and on a heavy-traveled road such as S.C. 5, the police pursuit showed signs of “recklessness,” Lee said. “And, all the while, people had to take shelter on the side of the road.”

The mayor said he’s heard from some people who were driving on S.C. 5 during the chase. “They felt uneasy,” he said.

It’s fortunate, Lee said, that no one, including police officers, were injured that day.

The chase, he said, could have been avoided considering the help law enforcement had from OnStar in tracking the suspect. He points to the York Police Department’s policy that states officers and supervisors should consider whether another means of making the arrest will be likely without chasing a suspect.

Edwards was the supervisor at the time of the pursuit, Police Capt. Brian Trail told The Herald last week.

Still, Lee said he considers Robinson, as the police chief, to be responsible for how the pursuit was conducted because he was involved.

Officers in the video footage of the chase seem “wrapped up in the hunt,” Lee said. There appears to be disregard, he said, for what he considers the most important aspect of the department’s pursuit policy: recognition of the “potential danger to the officer, suspect and the community.”

Officers must weigh their decision to chase with the potential danger a suspect poses to the public against the risks in a pursuit, according to York Police Department’s policy. An exception is made when an officer is pursuing a “known and extremely dangerous fleeing felon.”

Police documents and video footage from the chase indicate that authorities did not know Bailey’s identity or his history until he was arrested.

Bailey is awaiting trial on an October 2013 attempted murder charge in Greenville County, court records show. His criminal history includes convictions for driving under suspension, unlawful carrying of a weapon and receiving stolen goods, according to SLED records.

After the April 4 chase and arrest in York County, local authorities charged Bailey with grand larceny, failure to stop for a blue light and possession of controlled substances, police records show. He was also charged with driving under the influence and third-degree assault and battery, according to the sheriff’s office report.

He was released on bond from the York County Detention Center a day later. After his arrest in York County, state probation officials issued a warrant for Bailey for violating his November 2012 probation. By Friday, he had not been arrested.

City manager reviews April 4 pursuit

All police chases require internal review, according to York Police’s pursuit policy. Typically, the review includes the department’s captain of police and two lieutenants who forward their findings to the police chief.

In the case of the April 4 pursuit, Robinson is not a part of the internal review and Helms is serving in his place, Trail said. The department’s policy says the police chief makes a decision on whether policies were followed after police pursuits.

“The decision to initiate a pursuit is made by the pursuing officer,” Trail said, adding that officers are not allowed to chase suspects for minor traffic violations.

While the department’s policy does not limit police chases to cases involving felony offenses, it does require officers to consider “the nature of the offense committed.” Some misdemeanor violations may still warrant a chase, Trail said, depending on some criteria.

“An example ... that may be a good pursuit for a misdemeanor violation would be a pursuit that occurred at 4 a.m ... with no traffic and good road conditions,” he said.

All officers receive annual driving training and attend the department’s pursuit policy review every year, Trail said. York’s last pursuit policy review was Jan. 17.

Officers learn to immediately notify a dispatcher when it’s evident a suspect is fleeing. A supervisor monitors the pursuit and decides whether the chase should continue, Trail said.

Police records and video footage show Edwards and others notified dispatchers at the start and throughout the chase. Police records also indicate that Edwards kept additional officers from joining the pursuit and directed backup units to control traffic at busy intersections, in case the chase went through them.

Department policy calls for mandatory termination of a pursuit for many reasons, including if the officer is lost, loses contact with dispatchers, loses sight of the suspect car for more than 15 seconds or “when it is obvious that the fleeing suspect is going to do whatever is necessary to get away.”

Examples of a suspect doing “whatever is necessary,” Trail said, could include a range of behaviors, such as going the wrong way down one-way streets, firing a weapon from the car, driving at extreme speeds or leaving the roadway.

York Police officers are allowed to chase suspects three miles beyond city limits. If the chase goes beyond three miles from York’s city limits, the pursuit requires supervisor approval, Trail said, which would take into consideration the suspect’s alleged crime and road and traffic conditions.

‘Speed kills’

York’s pursuit policy isn’t flawed, Lee said, but some decisions on April 4 may have violated rules and need to be reviewed.

The policy is clear, he said, and stresses that pursuits are dangerous. Put simply, Lee said, “speed kills.”

Speed during a police pursuit can kill people, and chases aren’t always necessary to catch a criminal, says Jonathan Farris, board chairman of PursuitSAFETY. The nonprofit group is a nationwide organization, based in California, that advocates for safer police chases.

He questions whether the April 4 York chase was handled responsibly, given the grave risks to public safety. Whether authorities conduct car chases in the safest manner is an issue close to Farris. His oldest son was killed in 2007 in a car chase.

Farris and others with PursuitSAFETY believe police officers shouldn’t engage in car chases unless suspects have committed a violent offense, he said.

Grand larceny of a car isn’t a violent offense, Farris said, adding, “no one was put in danger because he stole a vehicle.”

But, officers must also consider the potential harm a fleeing suspect can cause to others if they are not caught, said Capt. Florence McCants, a spokeswoman with the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy. More, she said officers’ suspicions are often raised when suspects flee for what could have been a stop for a minor violation.

“It very well may be something more,” she said. “You don’t know who you’re chasing all the time or what they’re wanted for.”

While in pursuit, officers are thinking “why” a suspect flees, she said.

“That is sometimes why (police) will continue a chase,” McCants said. “That biggest unknown factor is what else has that person done ... and you won’t know that until you get that person stopped.”

Instructors at the justice academy teach officers to keep their adrenalin in check, she said, but also maintain their focus. Officers in chases are juggling responsibilities such as making quick decisions, relaying information to dispatch, answering supervisor’s questions and avoiding accidents.

“You’re making a lot of judgment calls in a short amount of time,” McCants said.

No chase should be entered into lightly, she said. Factors police should mull before entering a chase include: the charges they plan to file against the suspect, the time of day, the weather, conditions of the road and the potential for civilian harm.

“If you’re speeding down a busy, busy street 100 miles per hour and you’re chasing someone for shoplifting ... is that really something you need to engage in?” she said. But, “if you’re chasing someone you do not know, you have to ask yourself, ‘why are they running?’”

Still, “we always err on the side of public safety,” McCants said.

OnStar’s capability to track the car should have kept officers from pursuing the suspect, Farris said. “They could have had everyone back off, turn off side streets, sit there, have OnStar report to the lead agency and wait” until the car stopped to make an arrest.

Police chases can overwhelm officers with adrenalin, Farris said, which is why “the decisions (on pursuits) need to be made before you get deep into it.”

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