The serious injuries to a police officer that resulted from a pursuit in Waterford Township in May has prompted questions about when a police chase is warranted and what protocols are in place when police actively pursue people at high rates of speed.
Annette Miller, a 16-year veteran of the Waterford Police Department, was critically injured around 3 p.m. on May 23 when her vehicle crashed into a tree while in pursuit of a speeding motorcyclist in the area of Elizabeth Lake and Scott Lake roads in Waterford.
While attempting to follow and identify the motorcycle, a 1999 blue Volkswagen driven by a 20-year-old Waterford man turned in front of Miller’s patrol vehicle, which struck the Volkswagen, veered off the road and crashed into a tree.
According to Waterford Police Chief Daniel McCaw, Miller was in the early stages of pursuing the speeding motorcycle when the crash occurred. Her vehicle’s emergency overhead lights were not flashing nor was the vehicle’s siren activated at the time of the crash.
“The motorcycle was fleeing from police in other jurisdictions before Miller came across him and she was attempting to make a traffic stop and trying to catch up to him,” McCaw said. “It often happens, like when officers must turn around to follow (a speeding vehicle), that lights are not activated until (the officers) catch up. Otherwise, the vehicle will try to elude and the goal is get close enough to get a (license) plate number.”
Miller had contacted police dispatchers to see if the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department was on the lookout for the motorcycle. Apparently the motorcyclist had been driving at a high rate of speed, weaving in and out of traffic.
“She was in the preliminary stages of making a determination and catching up, and was in touch with dispatch,” McCaw said. “We pace the vehicle to get a documented speed of the target vehicle and once we lock on that speed, then she would activate her sirens, but she didn’t know what she had at the time.”
Miller, who will be the beneficiary of a Sunday, Aug. 19 fund-raising event detailed on Page 3 of today’s edition of the Spinal Column Newsweekly, sustained injuries to her upper and lower extremities, as well as her upper chest cavity as a result of the crash. She underwent multiple surgeries to repair major damage to her pelvic region and a leg.
The police dog injured along with Miller, Tondo, lost a toe as a result of the accident but has fully recovered.
“Annette is doing pretty well and has been reunited with Tondo,” McCaw said. “She attends five days of therapy and (has) a few operations to go, but she has the determination and ability to recover and come back to work.”
Waterford police have identified and questioned the individual they believe to have been riding the motorcycle — a white male in his early 20s from west Oakland County.
The man was released after questioning. Since then, police have been interviewing more witnesses to compile a case for the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office to review.
“We’re still investigating and asking for anyone with information to come forward to put the case together,” McCaw said.
The Waterford Police Department’s high-speed pursuit policy grants discretion to the officer to determine when to initiate and terminate a pursuit.
“Various incidents initiate a pursuit, such as when law enforcement attempts to stop someone and the person disregards the officer’s actions to pull them over,” McCaw said. “The officer or supervisor can terminate the pursuit and often (does).”
The Waterford policy was developed back in the 1970s and is reviewed every few years. The last revision was made in 2010.
Police officers in most area communities are trained in emergency operations such as pursuits and attend refresher courses every two or three years, which is the case in Waterford, as well.
In general, law enforcement pursuit policies are very similar. West Oakland departments contacted for this report generally declined requests for a copy of their pursuit policies, stating they don’t want the public to know so many details that the policies would become compromised. However, representatives of all the departments contacted for this report were willing to talk about the policies in general terms, and they all stated that most departments use essentially the same pursuit policies.
Any decision to initiate, continue, or terminate a pursuit is typically based on the following:
• The level of vehicular and pedestrian traffic;
• The location of the pursuit;
• The time of day or night;
• Weather and road conditions;
• Speeds involved;
• Police vehicle and driver capability;
• The apparent capability of the suspect driver and his or her vehicle;
• The likelihood of success;
• Whether driver is known by the officer as a juvenile; and
• The potential for later apprehension, should the pursuit be terminated.
Unlike with the Michigan State Police (MSP), certain tactics are prohibited during local police pursuits, such as road blocks; caravaning a stream of pursuing patrol cars; pit maneuvers (intentionally ramming into another vehicle so that its driver loses control and stops); and paralleling (having one or more additional patrol cars travel alongside the target vehicle on the next parallel street on either side so that if the pursued vehicle turns in either direction, it can be intercepted), although some departments at times would utilize tire deflation devices and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit, if necessary.
A pursuit is defined as “an attempt by a police officer in an authorized emergency vehicle to apprehend one or more occupants of another moving vehicle when the driver of the fleeing vehicle is attempting to avoid apprehension by maintaining or increasing speed, maneuvering in an evasive manner or by ignoring the police officer’s attempt to stop the vehicle.”
Pursuit policies mandate that only marked units participate in pursuits. High-speed pursuits are categorized as an emergency method of motor vehicle operations, and require an immediate response usually utilizing emergency warning lights and a siren.
However, under state rules, while apprehending a violator, officers may operate their vehicles without using overhead lights and/or sirens. A siren may be used when necessary to warn other motorists or pedestrians. Emergency responses are permitted when an officer has reasonable grounds to believe that an immediate response is necessary, and that a delayed response is likely to result in death, injury, serious property damage or the escape of a criminal who committed a serious felony. That said, an officer is not relieved of the duty to drive with “due regard” for the safety of all persons, nor is an officer protected from the consequences of any reckless disregard for the safety of others.
Vehicles carrying witnesses, citizens, prisoners or suspects can’t become involved in a high-speed pursuit. Any officer engaging in a pursuit must notify dispatch as soon as reasonably possible and relay their location, direction of travel, reason for the pursuit, a description of the suspect vehicle and occupant description and speeds involved.
Normally no more than two marked police vehicles would become actively involved in an actual pursuit.
Terminating a pursuit would be appropriate if the risk to the officers or others outweigh the benefit of apprehension or when a supervisor orders it; when road or traffic conditions indicate the futility of the pursuit; when the offender’s identity is known and the original offense is not life-threatening; when the driver is known to be a juvenile and the offense is not life-threatening; and/or when a traffic accident is observed during the course of the pursuit, and no other units are available to render aid.
A pursuit should also be terminated when it continues beyond the department’s jurisdictional boundary, except when the crime is a serious felony.
McCaw said that it can be frustrating when police departments are criticized for high-speed pursuits when officers are only trying to catch a perpetrator.
“Ask yourself if it was your family member abducted or if your wife was assaulted, would you want the police not to pursue them?”
He also said law enforcement could use a hand up from the state Legislature and auto manufacturers to help limit high-speed chases.
“Why does this country continue to manufacture cars or motorcycles that run between 160 and 180 mph when there’s no place you can drive a car over 75 mph? And why not give us the technology out there to shut down a vehicle? It would solve a lot of crashes, injuries and deaths. The Legislature should give us the technology and laws to do that.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over the last few years, Michigan fatalities in high-speed chase traffic crashes have risen. In 2008, there were 10 Michigan fatalities due to high-speed pursuits. There were 15 in 2009 and 18 in 2010. Yet, the numbers are not that disparate from over a decade ago, when 20 fatalities were reported in 1998.
Howell Police Chief George Basar, who is the chairman of the Legislative Committee for the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said one enacted law stiffens the penalties for those fleeing and eluding police.
“It used to be a misdemeanor (for fleeing and eluding), and now it’s a felony charge,” Basar said. “What we look for in the legislation is to hold these individuals responsible for their actions.”
Basar added that many times any liability as a result of a police chase falls on law enforcement rather than the individual who committed a crime and/or is leading police in a high-speed pursuit, which he said he finds frustrating.
“A lot of time, people aim (the blame) at police, who they think have deep pockets, and place fault on police saying it shouldn’t happen, but what about the person who chose to flee? Now that the charge has been changed to a felony, hopefully it will be a deterrent,” Basar said.
Last year, Senate Bill 387 amended the Michigan Penal Code by imposing harsher penalties on people fleeing and eluding police, depending on the degree. If convicted, those fleeing and eluding could face a minimum of two years in prison and hefty fines.
What follows is a look at other lakes area police department high-speed pursuit policies and recent experiences, as well as the model policy drafted by the Michigan State Police.
MICHIGAN STATE POLICE
According to its vehicle pursuit policy, the MSP underscores that vehicle pursuit situations are hazardous and the high speeds often associated with those pursuits increase the potential for becoming involved in or causing serious crashes.
While officers are expected to make every reasonable effort to apprehend the drivers of fleeing vehicles, they must weigh the hazard presented by the violator against that created by a pursuit. The MSP says it’s better to either delay the arrest or abandon the pursuit than to needlessly injure or kill innocent people.
The MSP policy states that while engaged in a pursuit, law enforcement personnel shall activate and continuously operate the patrol vehicle’s emergency lights, siren, and in-car video recorder until the pursuit has terminated.
State troopers are required to immediately terminate a pursuit if their emergency lights and/or siren fail, and notify their dispatcher of that failure. They are also required to discontinue the pursuit if the suspect vehicle is fleeing from a civil infraction or misdemeanor violation, if the lead local agency discontinues the pursuit within its jurisdiction, or if the pursued vehicle’s location is no longer known.
Troopers can’t participate in pursuits while riding MSP motorcycles. They must notify the primary dispatcher and provide pertinent information. Unless approved by a supervisor, no more than three patrol units can be engaged in a pursuit at one time.
A caravan of patrol vehicles is to be avoided because it increases the risk of serious crashes and “contributes little to the apprehension of the violator.”
The use of tire-deflating devices is a permissible means of ending a pursuit. Use of a tire-deflating device on a motor vehicle with less than four wheels is considered fatal force, and is only permitted when use of fatal force is justified.
The Wolverine Lake Police Department rolled out its high-speed pursuit policy in 2004. Although it’s reviewed every year, there have been no “significant” changes to it since it was drafted.
Officer training on pursuits is conducted every three years.
Wolverine Lake Acting Police Chief John Ellsworth said that typically only one high-speed chase may occur in the village each year.
“It’s rare that we engage in this type of pursuit,” he said.
Ellsworth agreed with Waterford Police Chief McCaw that an officer must first “close in” on a target vehicle and then must determine when the time is right to turn on the patrol vehicle’s emergency lights and siren so as not to alert a fleeing suspect.
“The hard and fast rule, if engaging in a situation is to stop the vehicle by closing in on it,” Ellsworth said. “If the car is going 70 mph, to catch up you have to go 80 mph, which is not necessarily pursuit but catching up, and if you turn the lights on too early, the suspect may take evasive action.”
Ellsworth said his officers rarely cross jurisdiction lines during a high-speed pursuit.
“We don’t pursue outside the village unless it’s a life-threatening felony offense,” he said.
While the department does not initiate roadblocks or use tire-deflating tools, ramming, or paralleling as a rule, if the situation calls for drastic measures, Ellsworth said the officer may deem it necessary.
“I hate to say we ‘never’ (use those tactics) because officers have to have the leeway to effectively do their job,” he said.
In June 2011 there was a high-speed chase in the lakes area that started in Orchard Lake. The Orchard Lake Police Department put out an all points bulletin (APB) on a white van carrying at least two black males reportedly seen stealing a resident’s belongings.
The West Bloomfield Township Police Department responded and spotted the vehicle. They followed the van up to the vicinity of Northwestern Highway and I-696 in Southfield, at which point the suspect vehicle began surpassing speeds of 100 mph.
According to West Bloomfield Police Lieutenant Tim Diamond, the chase was called off because police didn’t want anyone hurt on the freeway and chasing the suspects was not worth the lives at risk.
Orchard Lake Police Chief Joe George reiterated that pursuits are conducted only when the offense is serious in nature.
“We reserve pursuits for serious felonies and if they can be conducted in a safe manner, depending on certain factors, that’s fine, but it’s not worth the officer or someone innocent getting hurt,” he said. “We do what we have to within limits.”
He added that Orchard Lake’s topography doesn’t lend itself to pursuits in general.
“We have kind of a unique area — a lot of traffic and winding roads,” George said. “(A high-speed pursuit) couldn’t be conducted during the day without some danger, but at night it would be left to the discretion of the officer.”
When a pursuit is determined appropriate, George concurs with other law enforcement officials that emergency lights and/or sirens may not be activated at first.
“Inevitably what happens is the officer follows a car and his lights are not on initially until he gets up to them in a prudent way,” George said. “Then if it becomes an actual pursuit, he would put on his lights and/or sirens. There are a lot of factors that go into this determination, but most officers are well schooled on that.”
An innocent motorist was killed during a 1991 high-speed chase in the lakes area. Walled Lake police officers were investigating suspected prostitution activity at E. V. Mercer Beach around 1:45 a.m. on Sept. 7
When an undercover officer approached his car, Wixom resident Kevin Vigna allegedly sped recklessly out of the parking lot, almost striking another officer.
Walled Lake Police Sergeant Donald Sanderson tailed Vigna down East Walled Lake Drive and west onto Pontiac Trail in order to illuminate Vigna’s black Mustang, which was driving without its headlights on. Sanderson observed Vigna’s vehicle constantly weaving over the center line, leading him to believe that the driver was under the influence of alcohol and/or controlled substances.
Vigna reportedly ran a red light, was passing and narrowly missing vehicles, and was weaving through traffic before crossing Beck Road and hitting a car driven by 20-year-old Commerce Township resident Sara Pantke at Indian Trail in Wixom while driving over 60 mph.
She died at the scene from her injuries, but the passenger with her survived.
Vigna pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 14 to 30 years in a state prison. He has since been released. His insurance company paid a $100,000 settlement to the Pantke family. Intoxicated at the time of the chase, Vigna had no recollection of the incident.
The Pantke family later filed a civil lawsuit against the city of Walled Lake, Sanderson, Michigan Bell and Genessee Underground Construction for liability contributing her death.
The plaintiffs claimed police had no reason to begin the chase in the first place and pursuing Vigna caused more danger than letting him go. The defendants argued that the police pursuit was justified and that letting a drunk driver get away would be gross negligence.
The Pantke family said they could not comment for this report due to a signed settlement agreement with the parties involved in the lawsuit.
According to Sanderson’s testimony, he was driving his marked patrol vehicle with flashing lights and sirens. He decided to pursue the vehicle after it “accelerated directly toward him” and on a second occasion drove directly at another officer. Vigna’s actions were cited as a felonious assault on a police officer.
Ultimately the jury ruled in favor of the defendants and absolved each defendant of blame. Prior to the decision, an officer had to be the primary cause of an accident due to gross negligence in order to be named as a defendant. Under a later ruling, the officer only had to be named as one of the causes, not the primary cause.
According to current Walled Lake Police Chief Paul Shakinas, the department has had a high-speed pursuit policy in effect since 2002 and it’s reviewed annually.
“At this point there has been no reason to change it,” he said.
Emergency vehicle operations training for officers is conducted every other year.
“Training is expensive and hard on the cars,” Shakinas said. “They burn up the tires and brakes, so we do it when the Michigan State Police offer it.”
Officers in the city typically would pursue a subject only if the crime justifies such an operation.
“We would pursue if there’s a serious felony, such as an armed robbery, felonious assault with a weapon or kidnapping, or if the crime is more dangerous than the pursuit,” Shakinas said. “A lot of time pursuits create more danger and safety comes first.”
As evidence, Shakinas noted an incident a few years back during which a kidnapping and felonious assault was in progress. Officers were trailing the suspect in a high-speed pursuit when a crash occurred and the women who reportedly were being abducted were injured.
Shakinas said he can recall only two high-speed pursuits in the city in recent years.
“In our opinion, the subject must be more dangerous than the pursuit itself because it’s a greater danger to the officer and the public,” he said. “In actuality, 99 percent of people will pull over when we turn our lights on to stop them.”
The only time a misdemeanor case would warrant a chase would be for drunk driving, according to Shakinas.
“Only if the driver is so intoxicated and poses a danger to society,” he said.
Shakinas was adamant that officers must use their overhead flashing lights and sirens when in pursuit to comply with state law.
Wixom public safety officials said their policy is written with safety as the No. 1 consideration when determining whether a pursuit is warranted.
“The goal is safety of the officer, people in proximity and the protection of property,” said Public Safety Director Clarence Goodlein.
Factors considered before initiating a pursuit include knowing the subject in the target vehicle, to whom the car is registered, the type of crime involved, and weather and traffic flow.
“We also consider what’s the risk to stop the vehicle, the speed they are traveling at and how the driver is acting during driving — whether he’s cutting in and out of traffic, and the number of traffic signals in the area,” Goodlein said. “We put all that into a formula and come to a decision on whether it’s worth pursuing, but it’s a difficult decision for the officers and not easily made or made quickly.”
If a pursuit reaches a high rate of speed, many times that would warrant termination.
“If a supervisor thinks the suspect is driving too fast, he would discontinue (the pursuit),” Goodlein said. “Some cars drive in excess of 100 mph.”
He added that there is always some attempt to stop the subject regardless, but in many instances, if the subject travels too fast or too far, the pursuit is terminated.
Wixom’s pursuit policy is reviewed internally on an annual basis.
“These policies are all so similar because law enforcement officials talk together with traffic experts and attorneys to understand risks and liability,” Goodlein said.
While the department does not utilize other tactics in conjunction with high-speed pursuits, Goodlein agrees with Waterford Police Chief McCaw that new technology could help limit high-speed chases and the risk of injury or death.
“The only tool we would use is a signal to cars to have the engine slowly shut down by contacting OnStar on newer vehicles,” Goodlein said. “The most important thing is everybody’s safety. It’s good to get the bad guy, but not if someone is killed.”
COMMERCE AND HIGHLAND
Both Commerce and Highland townships contract for law enforcement services with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, which follows a high-speed pursuit policy that is similar to those used in other lakes area communities.
According to Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant Chris Wundrach, high-speed pursuit policies are “pretty standard throughout the country.”
The procedure is revised whenever changes in the law require corrections.
As for initiating a pursuit, Wundrach said deputies have to consider a variety of factors very similar to those outlined in the MSP policy.
“Above all, you have to use due care and caution,” Wundrach said. “When the risks outweigh the reward, you want to break it off.”
While the Sheriff’s Department does not use road blocks or caravans, it does sometimes use stop sticks.
“We do try to block off roadways if we have other cars in the area and we know the pursuit is coming through in order to protect other motorists,” Wundrach said.
Support from the Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit will come if the unit is already in flight.
Officers receive training on the Sheriff’s Department pursuit policy and will periodically go through a high-speed pursuit driving course.
“The last one we had was a year ago,” Wundrach said. “It’s a periodic thing that you have to maintain.”
High-speed pursuits have tapered off over the years, according to Wundrach.
“Maybe it’s because officers are using better judgment for when to pursue and when not to pursue,” he said.
The White Lake Police Department’s high-speed pursuit policy is based on the MSP’s policy.
“It’s a standard policy that most agencies in Oakland County use,” said Police Chief Ed Harris.
White Lake does not use road blocks or stop sticks and will request support from the Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit if an aircraft is already in the air.
“Ninety-nine out of 100 pursuits are short in nature,” Harris said. “If they are not up in the air when a pursuit begins, the pursuit is usually over by the time (the Aviation Unit) gets in the air.”
However, Harris said high-speed pursuits are “very infrequent” in White Lake. However, that doesn’t mean the department’s officers are not prepared for the possibility. He said they attend training every few years.
“We send officers to driving training as part of our annual core training, and they receive additional high-speed training at the State Police Academy,” Harris said.
West Bloomfield Police Lieutenant Diamond said the department has had a pursuit policy for the 28 years that he has been on the force. It’s changed based on current case law, whether that’s at the state or federal level.
“If there are changes in court rulings, we adjust our policy to reflect the changes,” Diamond said. “Our current policy was revised in April of 2007. The date on the policy says July of 1985, but we had a policy in place before that, as well.”
West Bloomfield Police Chief Michael Patton said he helped update the department’s pursuit policy a number of years ago. During that revision period, he compared 30 to 40 other policies, mostly from other departments in the state.
“We make critical decisions based on the reasonableness of the situation,” Patton said. “It’s like a risk-benefit analysis. What are the benefits? Pursuits should not be done without serious consideration of what’s at risk, including our own lives.”
Diamond said that the department’s policy prohibits paralleling or caravanning. But in the case of trying to apprehend someone who has committed a life-threatening felony, road blocks may or may not be used.
“Naturally we try to keep the danger to the public at a minimum,” Diamond said. “In our policy road blocks are permitted if (the situation meets) seven or eight (certain) conditions. The first would be if the violation is a felony and we set up at a location where the safety of the public is not unreasonably jeopardized. A pursuit should not be used with the intention to provoke or cause any collisions. It has to be serious, more likely a life-threatening felony.”
Officials said public safety is the department’s primary concern and that sometimes in the heat of the moment, officers may be compelled to get involved in a pursuit that they shouldn’t be. The department tries to keep that involvement to a minimum due to the danger involved.
Patton said that there is also a significant aspect of supervisor oversight where a supervisor has to monitor a pursuit, and in some cases, terminate it if the situation calls for it.
Diamond said that the Sheriff Department’s Aviation Unit would only be called in to assist with very lengthy pursuits.
“(The pursuits) either end or leave our jurisdiction,” Diamond said. “That’s when we terminate. I don’t know that we’ve ever contacted the Sheriff’s Department to assist us from the air.”
West Bloomfield officers train once a year when it comes to handling pursuits.
“We have three different courses for driving instruction that we use,” Diamond said. “There’s a precision course, there’s a high-speed course, and there’s a pursuit course.”
Diamond added that the department is rarely involved with pursuits.
“In the last two or three months, we assisted the State Police in a pursuit of a motorcycle,” Diamond said. “That guy eventually crashed and I understand he’s out of the hospital, but there will probably be charges forthcoming for fleeing and eluding.”
Staff writers Angela Niemi and Michael Shelton contributed to this report.