To pursue or not to pursue: Agencies have policies when chase is onWhen drivers see red and blue lights flashing and hear a siren, most pull over. But a few don’t, deciding to make a run for it.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
When drivers see red and blue lights flashing and hear a siren, most pull over. But a few don’t, deciding to make a run for it.
“Sure, I’ve had a couple. Eventually, you get there,” Mitchell Public Safety Chief Lyndon Overweg said. “You just never know when they’re going to happen.”
The officer must focus on driving at a high rate of speed while pursuing a driver who won’t, for some reason, pull over. It’s something officers are trained for, and their vehicle is equipped for such use, but it’s still intense, according to the Mitchell Police Division, the Davison County Sheriff’s Office and the South Dakota Highway Patrol.
Some local officers had a taste of high-speed action Sunday when a driver led them on a chase with speeds topping 100 mph. The chase started in Mitchell and continued into a rural area before officers gave it up due to the level of danger. Wednesday, Justin Jonathon Hofer, 30, of Ethan, was arrested for aggravated eluding and other charges.
If a chase ends with the suspect coming to a stop, the officer will treat it as a felony stop, according to Overweg. The officer will use the patrol vehicle as a shield, will order the driver and any passengers out of the vehicle and handcuff them.
Oh, and one other thing: “You’re going to be stopped at gunpoint,” Overweg said.
He said the Police Division has an eight-page written policy to determine how pursuits are handled. All officers are required to read and sign it and are given reviews as the policy is updated over the years.
When a pursuit occurs, the officer involved has to make several decisions while chasing the vehicle, Overweg said:
• How serious was the offense?
• How heavy is traffic and what are the driving conditions?
• What are the driving characteristics of the fleeing driver?
“We have to weigh out at what point is it more of a threat to chase them and put somebody else in harm’s way,” Overweg said.
In such cases, the pursuit is often ended.
At the same time, if the driver is believed to be drunk, on drugs or impaired in any other way, will he or she continue to drive in an erratic manner and risk other drivers’ lives down the road? If that is the case, the pursuit continues.
“So we have to weigh those things out at the time,” Overweg said.
The pursuit that occurred Sunday night was handled properly, according to Overweg.
There is a police video of the pursuit, which police declined to release, that shows the driver speeding through Mitchell and heading south. He had two very close calls, one at the Interstate 90 underpass on Highway 37 when the driver swerved around a vehicle pulling a trailer as it passed through the intersection, and later when he passed someone on the right side of the road using the shoulder, Overweg said.
The pursuit was called off when the driver turned onto 264th Street in rural Davison County, still at a high rate of speed. When the road turned from oil to gravel and the elevation dropped 2 feet, the decision was made to terminate the pursuit.
It was the right call, Overweg said. There was no sense risking anyone’s lives.
“Definitely there were other people on the roadway who were endangered by his driving,” he said.
Pursuits used to be more common, said Overweg, a 24-year veteran of the Mitchell Police Division.
He said there are about four or five pursuits involving Mitchell police officers each year. Some are in town, where the issue isn’t as much speed as it is constant turns as the driver seeks to flee.
“If they get out of town, they get higher speeds,” Overweg said. “On the highway and interstate, they get up to 100 mph.”
The officers are certified to drive at such speeds and are trained to hold the road at that speed, to lock their brakes and turn suddenly, and to do everything required to chase after a speeding vehicle, he said.
Overweg said the reason for stopping a runaway driver at gunpoint is simple: There has to be a reason they are driving so fast and so recklessly and won’t stop for a cop.
Often, it’s alcohol or drugs. Officers said Hofer had been drinking prior to Sunday’s chase. Sometimes, they have a suspended driver’s license or a warrant for their arrest. Or they have committed a crime, even if the pursuing officer isn’t aware of that.
“Sometimes there’s more there than we know about,” Davison County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Steve Brink said.
Brink said the office doesn’t have a formal pursuit plan in writing, but instead handles pursuits based on a number of circumstances.
“I wouldn’t call it a strict policy,” Brink said. “There’s a lot of things that come into play in a pursuit, the time, the location. We are out in the country a lot, so there’s fewer people, less traffic, so we have a different policy than say the police do. We’re probably a little more liberal than the city.”
He said deputies are required to contact either him or Sheriff David Miles. One of them listens in and asks a few questions to help determine how long the pursuit continues and when it should be called off, Brink said.
Ideally, there are two deputies in pursuit and while the first concentrates on the chase, the second calls in speeds and road updates, he said. But, Brink said, when only one deputy is involved, he must do everything.
And there are other factors.
“We don’t pursue with an SUV,” he said. “We do have some vehicles that are pursuit-rated. It also depends on the seriousness of the crime, time of day, weather and road conditions."
Brink said pursuits aren’t very common.
“We get one every couple of months, maybe not even that often,” he said.
Brink said he’s been involved in several pursuits over the years, and recalls two in which the driver wrecked a vehicle at the end of the chase. In both cases, alcohol was involved, but neither driver was seriously injured, he said.
He said he doesn’t want people to think if they drive fast and recklessly they can get away from law enforcement.
“Then everybody will run away,” Brink said. “It’s kind of a tightrope between yes and no.”
But the chief deputy also admits things have changed over the years.
“Things tightened up. Some of the old timers will say, ‘Chase them until you catch them,’” he said. “That’s kind of gone away. Some departments have a zero policy of ending pursuits. I don’t want us to ever go to that.
“Our guys, they’re really sharp, really smart and really careful out there,” he said.
Brink said the Mitchell Police did an excellent job in the recent pursuit investigation.
“I’m really impressed,” he said.
South Dakota Highway Patrol Sgt. Robert Mayer, who is based in Mitchell, said pursuits pop up from time to time.
“It’s hit and miss,” Mayer said. “Some weeks we’ll have one or two and then we’ll go months without one.”
He said the odds of stopping a runaway driver are based on a lot of things.
“It kind of depends how many officers are on duty, if we can lay down stop strips,” Mayer said. “If we have that opportunity, not many get away.”
Overweg said all law enforcement vehicles are equipped with stop strips, which deflate tires in an attempt to end a pursuit. Agencies offer assistance in pursuits, either by joining in the chase, working to stop the vehicle by arriving at a point ahead of it, or by providing radio communication, he said.
Mayer has worked for the Highway Patrol for 14 years. He said while he’s never been involved in a pursuit that ended with a crash that injured or killed a suspect or a trooper, he knows it has happened.
The goal in the last several years has been to prevent that from happening, even if it means an officer easing his foot off the gas and letting a speeding driver disappear down the road.
Mayer said the department has a policy troopers are trained to follow, but he said he was not authorized to discuss it with the media. No other South Dakota Highway Patrol officials were willing to discuss the department’s pursuit policy this week.