Police Departments Address Chases that Violate Policy

Four friends were driving home from a basketball game when a man fleeing from an Opa-Locka police officer drove on I-95 in the wrong direction, crashing head-on into an oncoming vehicle. The four friends died.

The April 2013 deadly chase began with an illegal right turn, an attempted traffic stop and a driver who refused to stop. The head-on collision killed Dennis Ryan Ortiz, 33, Albertson Almase, 31, Lily Marie Azarcon, 26, and Kristina Almase, 26.

Five months later, a Miami man who shot and killed his estranged girlfriend and her adult daughter led Miami-Dade Police Department officers on a high-speed chase that aired on local television that September morning. The pursuit ended at the western edge of Broward County after Antonio Feliu T-boned and killed an innocent bystander.

Maritza Medina, a 48-year-old wife and mother of two children, died in the crash.

Police vehicle pursuits in Miami-Dade County are 63 percent more likely to end in crashes and 100 percent more likely to end in injuries than the latest calculated national average, according to analysis done by the Miami-Dade Police Department.

The dangers of police pursuits – including those for suspects in minor, non-violent crimes – has drawn public scrutiny in recent years. Chases can also be costly to taxpayers when they lead to wrongful death lawsuits.

"Police chases are very dangerous. A car is a deadly missile," said Miami Attorney John "Jack" Hickey. "If you are speeding and running a light or a stop sign is a recipe for disaster."

Hickey says wrongful death lawsuits caused by vehicle pursuits are difficult to litigate because police often have immunity and Florida caps the maximum claim at $200,000 in compensation.

But these suits, he said, are about accountability.

"I want law enforcement to have all the tools and the freedom to be professionals," Hickey said. "But they can’t be cowboys."

In recent years, many metro-area police departments including Miami-Dade Police Department have made vehicle pursuit policies stricter to prevent officers from engaging in vehicle chases for minor offenses.

The pursuit of Feliu, who died moments after the crash of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, was clearly justified by law enforcement vehicle pursuit policies, which allow officers to pursue and apprehend violent felons.

But NBC 6 Investigators have found pursuits that violate department policy but disciplinary action against officers is rare. And that’s when police acknowledge that they were in pursuit of a fleeing suspect.

On Dec. 27, 2016, a woman was killed after she was hit by a car being driven by what Coral Springs Police say was a stolen vehicle.

"One of our officers attempted to stop Coral Springs Drive and Sample, failed to stop, continued at a high rate of speed, ran the red light at 101st Avenue and Sample Road, striking the white Mercedes," said Ernesto Bruna, a detective with Coral Springs Police Department.

The crash killed Christianne Weiner, a teacher, wife and mother of three children.

Coral Springs Police Department vehicle pursuit policy does not allow officers to chase stolen cars.

Coral Springs police say officers were following the car for six blocks, but it was not a pursuit.

Jerome Jones, who was a passenger in the stolen car, told NBC 6 Investigators that it felt like a chase to him.

“They were chasing us,” Jones said.

At the Broward Sheriff’s Office, such chases were not always prohibited by policy.

But after Sheriff Scott Israel took office, the policy was changed.

“Bad policy leads to people being hurt, killed or worst,” Broward Sheriff Lt. Col. Jim Polan said. "We changed the policy that would restrict at least from initiating a pursuit. The biggest change was that the officer was only allowed to pursue for forcible felony."

Changing the culture has been a challenge, according to Polan. He says, many expressed frustration and resisted the policy because they saw it as a restriction to do their jobs.

"We want you to be safe and the people to be safe around you," Polan recalled top brass stressing to deputies. "We are not restricting you, but we are giving you more of a scope to follow."

Since then, BSO officials have taken measures to address vehicle pursuits by issuing disciplinary actions against those who violate the policy, but also by reviewing every suspected chase closely to find pursuits that are not reported by deputies and supervisors. Another tool BSO has used is training, which they say helped to reduce the number of chases since 2012.

In 2015, 19 of its 46 pursuits did not follow policy, document shows. As a result, 21 employees were disciplined.

"Fifteen were given counseling slips," Polan said. "We got three that were given remedial training, two were suspended."

That same year, Miami-Dade Police Department did not issue any disciplinary actions in 52 reported pursuits including seven that clearly did not involve forcible felonies.

“There are instances, where we did not follow those policies on those pursuits and we are just as concerned, myself and my staff,” said MDPD Police Director Juan Perez.

Among those not disciplined, officers who chased a stolen police car into the Port of Miami Tunnel.

“They pursued that vehicle because it’s such as public safety concern to have a police out in the community with an individual where we didn’t even know what the intent was,” Perez said. “When there’s weapon in the car as well as other police equipment, we had to get that car back.”

After Perez took over last year, the number of pursuits began to drop from 52 in 2015 to 29 in 2016. Four officers were disciplined in 2016.

"We have to have a balanced approach," Perez said. "We have the pressure from the community, from the residents that they want us to catch the bad guys, we have the desire of the officers who want to do good in that community."

The police director said he trusts his command staff to emphasize that policies are to be followed.

"We are holding ourselves accountable so those incidents don’t occur,” Perez said. "The worst thing an officer can have is to have to live with the guilt of having someone die as a result of a pursuit that they were involved in. So in essence, these policies are there to protect the officers from those experiences."

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