Two people died in a head-on crash after they fled a Georgia State Patrol officer on patrol on Buford Highway in Brookhaven. Their deaths were among several recent metro Atlanta collisions that have some local law enforcement agencies rethinking their vehicle pursuit policies.
At about 10 p.m. on Feb. 25, a Georgia State Patrol officer attempted to pull over a 2002 Saturn SL on Buford Highway for speeding. The Saturn driver did not stop and the trooper initiated a chase. The Saturn ended up attempting to elude the trooper by speeding away north on I-85 South at Clairmont Road. The trooper monitored the speeding Saturn from I-85 north when he witnessed the Saturn crash head-on into an Infiniti.
“The trooper continued north, turned around, and located the crashed Saturn. The Saturn struck a black 2012 Infiniti G37 head-on. The driver of the Infiniti, Lisa Jackson, 52, of Alpharetta, was transported to Grady Hospital with minor injuries,” GSP reported.
A woman in the back seat of the Saturn was seriously injured and transported to Grady Hospital. The male driver and front seat passenger of the Saturn were killed.
Although Brookhaven Police did not take part in the Feb. 25 chase, according to a spokesperson, the department is reviewing its policies following recent metro Atlanta high-profile law enforcement pursuits that led to crashes and deaths of innocent people, including a grandmother and her two grandchildren.
“Our chief asked us to update our policy. We’re not cutting it altogether, but it will likely be a little more restrictive,” said Brookhaven Major Brandon Gurley.
The department’s current police allows for police to chase felony suspects and serious misdemeanors as well as hit-and-run suspects where serious injury or deaths have occurred, Gurley said.
Other caveats come into play when deciding to chase a suspect, Gurley said, such as the time of day, traffic conditions, weather conditions and the pursuing officer’s training. When a chase begins, it is constantly monitored by the officer and his or her monitoring supervisor to weigh the necessity of apprehension, Gurley said.
Dunwoody Police only allow police chases in instances of forcible felonies, such as rape, murder, robbery, assaults and shoots, said Chief Billy Grogan.
Sandy Springs Police Department’s policy, developed using standards established by the Georgia Chiefs of Police and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, states “vehicle pursuits may be initiated only when danger to the public created by the pursuit is less than the imminent or potential danger to the public should the suspect remain at large.” SSPD officers are instructed that “the more serious or dangerous the crime, the greater the consideration to pursue.”
For the Atlanta Police Department, vehicle pursuit is only allowed when one of three standards are met by the fleeing suspect: the suspect possesses a deadly weapon or device that can cause serious bodily injury; the officer reasonably believes the suspect poses an immediate violent threat to the officer or others; or there is probable cause to believe the suspect has threatened to or seriously injured another.
Many factors come into play when deciding to pursue a vehicle, said Brookhaven’s Gurley. “It’s a constant balancing act,” he said. “Is the risk worth the need to apprehend?”
‘Public wants something done’
That risk is on many people’s minds after two police chases – one beginning in College Park and another in Johns Creek – resulted in five deaths within a few days span in January.
On Jan. 31, College Park Police pursued an SUV believed to have been stolen from a hotel near the Hartsfield-Jackson airport. The chase ended when the SUV crashed into another vehicle, killing a 76-year-old grandmother and her grandchildren, ages 12 and 6.
An elderly couple died Jan. 28 after their vehicle was struck by a car being chased by Johns Creek Police. Police arrested the father and son who were in the car that struck the couple. They now face drug charges as well as vehicular homicide and DUI charges.
These deaths and others catalyzed State Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) to introduce legislation Feb. 22 to provide a standard for state, county and city agencies that authorize police pursuits. “The public wants something done,” Davenport said. “We support the police, but we want to make sure no innocent lives are lost. We are trying to make sure they do not endanger the lives of the public.”
But her bill did not pass out of the Public Safety Committee this year. The law would have made it standard practice that state, county and city law enforcement could only pursue those suspected of murder, aggravated battery, kidnapping, false imprisonment “or any offense that creates an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to another person or substantial threat to the safety of another person.”
“Things have recently gotten out of hand,” Davenport said. “We are not trying to run the police departments. But if the chase involves something frivolous, call off the chase.”
‘Most chases over quickly’
Dunwoody chief Grogan acknowledges most chases do not end up in captures. “Most chases are pretty short and are over pretty quickly,” he said.
“We’ve initiated a few in the past. The majority of them have been terminated by the officer or the supervisor. We take into account many factors such as traffic, weather, time of day,” he said.
In 2015, Brookhaven police were involved in 17 pursuits. Most were canceled either by the supervisor or the officer. One involved an intoxicated juvenile driving without a license who refused to stop for police until he pulled into the driveway of his parent’s home and surrendered.
“We stayed at the speed limit or below in this case; we never got over 35 miles per hour,” Gurley said. But anytime an officer flips on their blue lights to go after another car, it’s counted as a pursuit.
Officers pursued several erratic and reckless drivers who refused to stop for blue lights, but those chases were typically called off after just a few minutes. In another instance, an officer ran a tag number to a car that came back as stolen. The officer sped after the car and ended up in a 100-mile-per-hour chase on I-85 before the police supervisor called off the chase due to icy rain conditions.
Another incident ended when the suspect vehicle being chased crashed into a utility pole. The passenger was arrested at the scene, but the driver fled on foot; he was later identified and arrested.
Only one chase ended in the apprehension of the suspect – officers were able to use a “rolling roadblock,” a move in which several police cars surround the suspect to stop him. The driver was charged with DUI and was driving on sidewalks, posing a serious risk, Gurley said.
Rules changed over years
The recent incidents in metro Atlanta are “very tragic for everyone involved,” Grogan said.
Grogan said he had been in “tons” of police chases himself, dating back to the 1980s. Although none of Dunwoody’s police chases have ever ended with an arrest, Grogan said, arrests have happened when an officer later recognized a suspect or gets the license plate number leading to the identification of a suspect.
Over time, he said, law enforcement leaders looked at the outcomes and the rewards versus the risks of high speed chases and made the decision that more restrictions were necessary.
“The rules now were not present then,” Grogan said. “Previously, all law enforcement chased everyone for any reason.”
The times Grogan was involved in chases were “pretty stressful,” he said.
“You don’t want to wreck, don’t want to get hurt and you don’t want to hurt anyone else,” he said. “But you don’t want to let the bad guy get away either.”