Police officials put the brakes on street chases

July 29, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien

Officer Pat Bassler remembers the adrenalin rush that rippled through him the night a year and a half ago that he hit 115 miles an hour chasing a motorcycle down a Carroll County highway.

It all happened so quickly, it was hard to believe, he said.

Just after midnight, the Westminster police officer had clocked the cyclist at 45 mph in a 25 mph zone. When the 18-year-old rider refused to stop, the officer chased him west on Route 140, quickly cracking 100 mph in his Chevy Caprice before the cyclist pulled over.

"You look down at the speedometer, and you're doing 100 miles an hour, and it feels like you're doing 60. It can be very deceptive," said Officer Bassler, 32.

But the eight-year veteran, who has been cited for his speed enforcement and drunk-driving arrest records, said that when he teaches driver safety to other officers, he discourages high-speed chases.

"We try to instill the notion here that it's very seldom warranted, that it's pretty near a last resort kind of thing," he said. "We're on the verge of discouraging them altogether."

Anne Arundel County police went on a high-speed chase of their own Tuesday that involved 46 police cars, a police helicopter and 90 mph speeds, that lasted for 105 minutes and that left two county police officers injured and two Toll Facilities police cars damaged.

It ended when Edward Thomas Crenshaw, 22, who allegedly had threatened his wife earlier in the day, was arrested without incident near his parents' Glen Burnie home.

Police departments in the Baltimore area say that although high- speed chases still are fairly common, they are discouraged because of the risk of injuries, deaths, damaged cars and lawsuits.

In driver-training sessions and in police manuals, most departments either discourage them or have banned them altogether.

"They're not worth the risk," said Dennis S. Hill, a spokesman for the Baltimore police department, which banned hot pursuit 20 years ago.

There are no accurate figures on the number of high-speed police chases in Maryland or in the United States.

But a series of studies conducted in the 1980s by the University of Miami, Michigan State University and the California Highway Patrol found that one in three high-speed chases results in an accident, one in 10 results in injuries and one in 100 ends in a fatality.

About 70 percent of the injuries are suffered by occupants of the pursued vehicle, according to the studies.

"Many officers don't consider, but should consider, that the person they're chasing can sue them and collect," said Wayne Schmidt, executive director of Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, a Chicago-based group that gives seminars on police conduct and traffic safety.

Mr. Schmidt said that public pressure is mounting to curb high-speed chases.

"Effectively, a lot of departments have banned them by letting supervisors know that they will be responsible for any injuries or damages that are involved," he said.

But most police officers say some high-speed chases are a necessity to catch speeders, drug suspects, robbery suspects and anyone else who tries to flee a crime scene.

Police and law enforcement experts say most departments have re-evaluated policies in recent years and are discouraging hot pursuit.

The Annapolis Police Department is rewriting its pursuit policy -- along with the General Orders manual that spells out most department policies and procedures.

The new policy will tighten up guidelines specifying when an officer can initiate a chase, said Lt. Gary Simpson of the Annapolis Police Department.

Sgt. Edwin Lashley, a state police spokesman, said troopers are given guidelines on when to pursue a vehicle and that a supervisor can call a trooper off a chase if the risks seem too great.

The guidelines instruct troopers to "weigh the urgency of the pursuit against the risk of danger" and to consider such factors as the seriousness of the offense, conditions of the highway and the amount of traffic, Sergeant Lashley said.

In Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties, the decision to begin a chase also is left up to the officer, and a supervisor can call it off.

Howard County police are supposed to stop pursuing a suspect if he crosses into a neighboring county and police in that county have taken up the chase, said Sgt. Gary Gardner, a department spokesman.

"There's no sense risking your life or the lives of others, particularly if it's something like having a tail light out," said Sergeant Gardner.

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