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News 5 Investigates: Police chases and what’s at stake

Posted at 4:20 PM, May 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-08 14:41:05-04

Time and time again car chases involving law enforcement have proven to be dangerous and costly, with suspects leaving behind a wake of destruction in our southern Colorado communities. Investigative Reporter Patrick Nelson uncovered suspects continue to test officers on the roads and the damage is adding up.

For law enforcement across our state the rules for engaging in a car chase are more strict than ever before. In many cases they’ll just let the bad guys go because going after them is just too dangerous for the public. Our investigation reveals what’s at stake when officers make the choice to chase.

In September 2016 on the streets of Pueblo body cam video we acquired through an open records request shows officers are chasing a suspect driving a truck fleeing an armed robbery. In a smoke filled scene with guns drawn the chase comes to an end after officers forced the truck off the road. The suspect is put in cuffs, a gun is found on the ground and the suspect’s pockets are full of cash. This was a chase with several dangerous moments caught on surveillance camera. Officers desperately tried to end this chase, but the driver with two others inside wouldn’t stop. Continuing to drive even as one passenger is thrown from the vehicle. With the suspect driving in reverse, other cars are hit too. Amazingly, nobody was seriously hurt in this wild scene, but Pueblo Police Chief Troy Davenport says it’s an example of why so many law enforcement agencies hessitate to start a chase.

“We pursue less today, much less today than we did we did in the past for obvious reasons most of them connected to safety,” said Chief Davenport.

Three police vehicles were damaged in this one incident. Our investigation found these chases are taking a toll on Pueblo’s police vehicles. Between 2016 and 2018, 21 cruisers were damaged in car chases.

“We’re trying to be wise with dollars by using parts from other vehicles that that may have become incapacitated and were no longer safe to to drive as far as police vehicles. You know having said that it’s a difficult atmosphere that we find ourselves in,” said Chief Davenport.

Pueblo’s police chief says because of the dangers officers are now held to sticter policies and chasing less, but he believes suspects are running more.

“Those folks that run from us I think run with more desperation. I think they do crazier things and so we have to account for that,” said Chief Davenport.

According to the latest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers:

416 people were killed in police chases nationwide in 2017

1,594 were killed between 2014 and 2017, that’s an average of 399 a year, or at least one person a day.

Officers in Pueblo are training, hoping to stop this trend.

“The sooner we can get a pursuit stopped, the less danger there’s going to be,” said Pueblo Police Sergeant Eric Gonzalez.

Working with Sgt Gonzalez, I took part in a PIT maneuver training exercise. The goal, to safely see why Pueblo officers rely on the PIT maneuver to end chases.

After spinning out, my vehicle comes to a stop. It’s a success. I’m unharmed, my vehicle is stalled, and now i’m surrounded by police. But the challenge for officers is getting the location and timing right to use this tactic. Plus, damage is often done to police vehicles in the process.

“You know I want the officers to be cognizant of potential to damage to police cars, but I don’t want that to be their primary decision-making process. It has to enter into there somewhere. I want them to make decisions based on what’s the safest thing for the community for themselves and the suspect as well,” said Chief Davenport.

In the Denver area Arvada Police are using a tool of their own. The StarChase GPS tracker deploys a sticky dart on the back bumper of the suspect vehicle allowing officers to track that suspect from a safe distance rather than engaging in a risky high-speed pursuit.

“The people we are dealing with in these cases are people who are usually heavy, or hardcore drug addicts. They are not in their right mind and we can’t predict whether that car is going to pullover or not when we turn the lights on,” Detective David Snelling of the Arvada Police Department

Snelling says the investment in this technology has paid off. In 2018, 21 officers deployed 63 darts resulting in 54 arrests. Aurora Police also use the technology and say so far this year tracking darts helped recover 14 vehicles and led to 13 arrests.

“Is this a cost effective tool? I think we will have to weigh that out over many years.> <I think in the big picture it’s a small amount to pay for just that comfort of feeling like we may not have to chase a car,” said Detective David Snelling of the Arvada Police Department.

But in some cases there is no avoiding the danger, like when a suspect stole a state patrol vehicle in the Pueblo area a few weeks ago. With traffic on the road, a high speed chase started as the suspect drove down the highway.

“The suspect sped up to speed of upwards of 100 miles per hour and on his own crashed our patrol car rolling it into the center median,” said Ivan Alvarado of Colorado State Patrol.

The Colorado State Patrol’s $40,000 vehicle was destroyed. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt. Members of the Pueblo Police Department offered support to the state patrol during the chase. Chief Davenport says it’s another example of the tough decisions facing officers anytime someone fails to stop for police.

“Officers in that situation they have to weigh all of these factors. Could it be argued that it might have been safer to just let the person go? One could make that argument. Could it be argued that this person is absolutely a threat to the public and we have to get them stopped some way? Absolutely. You know sometimes given the situation that officers are in there just is no good answer and it it just a difficult process to to go through,” said Chief Davenport.

So what’s the safest, most effective, and cost efficient way to handle suspects who run from the law? These are questions police departments across the country are trying to answer. Here in Colorado the departments who use the tracking technology tell News 5 it’s led to a decrease in chases, less damage to police vehicles, and has helped them gather evidence they wouldn’t have had if the suspects got away.