The question of risk vs. reward was recently tested following a recent high-speed pursuit by Newnan Police Department and Coweta County Sheriff’s Office.
The pursuit of a person suspected of armed robbery began outside the Newnan Pavilion retail area. The chase lasted only six minutes before the driver hit stop sticks and eventually crashed into another police vehicle at the intersection of Bullsboro Drive and Old Jefferson Street.
No one was seriously injured, and the suspect was taken into custody for several charges, including aggravated assault for allegedly targeting a police officer with his car during the chase.
After the incident, several voiced their concern about the necessity for a high-speed chase. While it was later discovered the suspect was wanted for shoplifting, the initial 911 call indicated the suspect “had a paintball gun, and just robbed” the store.
“If we had known it was a misdemeanor shoplifting, we would not have chased,” Newnan Police Chief D.L. “Buster” Meadows said. “The call came out as an armed robbery and we had no knowledge until he was on his way to jail.”
The decision to pursue is never taken lightly, according to Meadows. Factors such as pedestrians, heavy traffic and weather often play a large role in the extent to which police will pursue.
“Pursuits develop quickly, travel fast, and we have to process a lot of information in a short amount of time,” he said. “We’re going off the facts at the moment.”
In their vehicle pursuit policies, both the Newnan Police Department and Coweta County Sheriff’s Office have policies that pursuits can be terminated if the risk of continuing outweighs the danger of letting the suspect escape.
Each pursuit is subject to an administrative review. Reports are required along with reviewing camera footage taken from the patrol car and body cameras.
“The review process ends with me,” Meadows said. “And in the most recent case, there were absolutely no policy violations."
In 2016, the Newnan Police Department logged a total of 17 vehicle pursuits. The majority lasted less than a mile and averaged 31-40 miles per hour over the speed limit. The sheriff’s office saw a total of 31 pursuits, averaging around five minutes in duration.
Statistics for the Georgia State Patrol were not immediately available for the local post. Most states do not gather statistics on police pursuits, pursuit crashes, injuries or fatalities for annual review.
A recent study conducted by USA Today revealed that between 1979 and 2013, more than 11,500 people, including 6,300 fleeing suspects, have been killed because of police car chases. An average of 329 people are killed annually – almost one person a day.
Bystanders and the passengers in chased cars accounted for nearly half of the deaths reported. Most bystanders were killed in their own cars by a fleeing driver, the report revealed.
In the state of Georgia, approximately 585 people have been killed in high-speed chases since 1979, the report indicated. Of that total, 342 were fleeing drivers, 239 were non-violators and four were law enforcement employees.
The general rule of thumb of a pursuit is “follow your instinct,” according to Major Mark Fenninger with the sheriff’s office who oversees the patrol division. The rule applies from the pursuing officer all the way up to the commanding officer.
“Officers know when the chase is getting beyond your driving ability, it’s time to call it off,” Fenninger said. “As a supervisor, you listen to their tone on the radio. If he’s clear and in control, we’re confident."
The chase itself is a fluid incident and is approached in a reactive manner, according to Fenninger. However, if the pursuing officer seems overwhelmed in their tone, that’s a problem.
“If they’re screaming and I can’t understand them, that means they aren’t in control and we won’t hesitate to call them off,” Fenninger said. “We’ll get them one way or another. It may be today or it may be next week.”
Authorities maintain that high-speed pursuits are necessary when uncooperative drivers or suspects flee the police. Some believe that by not pursuing them, it sends a message to criminals that if they take off, they won’t be chased.
“I have a responsibility to the 150,000 people who live in our community,” Fenninger said. “My duty is to protect the public, but they don’t see what we deal with in the totality of the circumstances."
Generally, law enforcement will only pursue people suspected of committing felonies such as murder, assault and robbery, or those whom they believe to pose an immediate threat to the public.
At the Newnan Police Department, Meadows said their strict chase policy has seen a decrease in incidents. If the call is a misdemeanor, there is no pursuit.
"We know the danger of it,” Meadows said. “It might seem like Monday morning quarterbacking to some, but we have to ensure we’re doing what we can to ensure everyone is safe. We don’t take it lightly.”
One of the most conflicting aspects of a police pursuit is the issue of public safety. Both departments adhere to the belief that if a chase poses more danger to the public than those directly involved, it will be called off.
“I’m proud to say we’ve terminated many pursuits due to safety reasons,” Meadows said. “We’re selective in what we pursue, and taking security measures to protect citizens. Public safety trumps everything.”
Clay Neely: email@example.com, @clayneely