Sometimes, police turn on the lights, hit the gas and race after the bad guys. Sometimes, the smart move is turning off the sirens and lights and slowing down.
That’s what happened Saturday when a Mountlake Terrace man sped away from police in a truck, reaching speeds of 100 mph. His 19-month-old daughter was on his lap.
Despite ending the chase, Mountlake Terrace officers still tracked down and arrested the man, 20. The toddler was safely returned to her mother.
Another police chase in Snohomish County, on Friday, ended when a Granite Falls man, 18, lost control, struck a tree and died. Sheriff’s deputies were following close behind, police said.
Car chases are dangerous for the bad guys, police and the public. Police experts are divided about how to balance the need to apprehend criminals with the risks involved in pursuits.
“This is an area where there is a debate among law enforcement agencies,” said Andy Cooley, a Seattle lawyer and an expert on police pursuits. He advises police departments on pursuit policies and has represented some agencies in lawsuits.
About 400 people die each year in police pursuits around the U.S., said John Phillips, president of PursuitWatch.org, a Florida advocacy organization.
Six people died in Washington in 2006, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
“It’s not worth the risk to the public to pursue for something that’s not a violent crime,” Phillips said.
His group is calling for police agencies to develop extensive training and write clear policies including mandatory termination for pursuits, except those involving people suspected of violent crimes.
Police today can use aircraft, surveillance video and sophisticated communications to track down criminals instead of giving chase, Phillips said. “There are other options now where we don’t have to rely on these Wild West techniques,” he said. “They need to keep the situation from getting out of control.”
It’s still too soon to know exactly what led to Friday night’s fatal crash, said Everett police Sgt. Robert Goetz. Detectives still are collecting evidence.
The Snohomish County Medical Examiner Monday said they are still working to confirm the identity of the man who died.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office has a discretionary pursuit policy. That gives deputies and supervisors real-time choices about when to continue a pursuit and when to call it off.
Snohomish County sheriff’s officials declined comment on their policy while Friday night’s fatal crash is under investigation. They did provide a copy of the policy, however, which is similar to that used by King County.
In both counties, deputies weigh a variety of factors to assess the danger to the suspect, the officer and the public.
In King County, when the pursuit becomes more dangerous than the need to catch the runner, the chase is called off, said King County sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart.
“That’s a subjective situation,” he said. “Given that policy, there are some people you will chase to the end of the earth and there are others if the chase goes two blocks, that’s too long.”
Despite a state law that makes running away from police a felony, some agencies consider the danger to the community and liability reasons to limit pursuits, Cooley said.
The alternative to a discretionary policy is a restrictive policy, Cooley said. The city of Bellevue is one example. There, officers pursue only those people suspected of violent felonies.
He’s not convinced that’s a good idea. Evidence suggests that when the crooks know police have rules that limit pursuits, the bad guys break the rules, he said.
At the Snohomish County courthouse, prosecutors aren’t seeing a rise in the number of pursuits, chief criminal deputy prosecutor Joan Cavagnaro said.
“But it seems as though we’ve had a spate of serious consequences,” she said.
On Monday, Kristopher Ryan Decker, 21, of Lynnwood was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for vehicular homicide caused while he was trying to elude a pursuing police vehicle.
High on drugs, Decker sped away after a Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy spotted him driving a reported stolen car on Feb. 22, 2007, according to court documents. His girlfriend, Harmony Thornton, 27, of Lake Stevens, a passenger, was killed in a head-on crash.
The chase was terminated quickly because the deputy had a passenger in his patrol car. The officer slowed down, rounded a curve and saw the crash.
In court Monday, public defender William Steffener asked the judge for a sentence of about four years. He said involvement in drugs by the defendant and the crash victim played a role.
“It was the defendant’s driving that killed her,” Superior Court Judge Richard Thorpe said.
Running from the cops is selfish and it doesn’t make sense, deputy prosecutor Ed Stemler said.
Drivers who run from police put other people at risk for “the small benefit they may gain for themselves,” Stemler said. “That’s absurd.”
The Mountlake Terrace man who ran from police with his toddler daughter Saturday was jailed for investigation of felony eluding and criminal mistreatment, according to court documents.
“He just didn’t want to go to jail,” said Mountlake Terrace police Sgt. Doug Hansen. “This is one of those snap judgements that people often make when they’re really emotional.”
In many cases, the decisions to run stems from the fleeing driver’s desire to avoid punishment for auto thefts, burglaries and a constellation of drug-related crimes, Cooley said.
“At the end of the day, the people who die here are victims of the crime, they’re not victims of the police,” he said. “These are crime-related, not police-related, fatalities.”
Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or firstname.lastname@example.org.