Imagine if five innocent bystanders — an elderly couple, a grandmother and two cute kids — were killed in gun battles as metro Atlanta police shot it out with druggies or suspected car thieves.
There’d be one hell of a shinola storm brewing here.
The scenario above didn’t originate from an ambulance-chasing plaintiff’s lawyer or a bullhorn-lugging street activist. No, it came from a bull-necked cop who has become an evangelist when it comes to reining in police on high-speed chases.
For years, Tulsa Police Maj. Travis Yates has traveled the nation telling fellow cops you don’t have to catch everyone right away. Each chase has a high-stakes risk/reward quotient that cops must almost instantly weigh during stressful moments. His training focuses on making chases more rare and teaching officers to make better choices.
I called Yates after two wrenching cases here in just a few days.
On Thursday, retired doctors Kryzysztof Krawczynski, 77, and Elzbieta Gurtler-Krawczynska, 78, were killed when a Ford Crown Vic speeding away from Johns Creek police plowed into their car. The 47-year-old driver, Larry Thomas, was charged with vehicular homicide and a host of drug crimes. Cops were pulling him over for a tag light before he sped off, reaching speeds of 80 mph in a 4-mile chase.
Three days later, College Park police were chasing a 2015 Chevy Suburban they thought was stolen. The chase lasted 10 miles and ended when the SUV broadsided a Buick sedan driven by Dorothy Wright, 75. Wright and her grandchildren, Cameron Costner, 12, and Layla Partridge, 6, were killed. They were headed to church. The suspect ran off.
“Police pursuit is different,” said Major Yates. “It’s the only police activity where innocent third parties are involved. They might even be 10 miles away when the event starts.”
“It amazes me how quiet we are on this issue and how loud we are on deadly force,” he said.
He’s been involved in countless pursuits himself, from chasing shooting suspects to minor traffic offenses. Chases jack the heart rate, bring on tunnel vision, memory loss and even “auditory exclusion,” he said. “You can’t stop (those symptoms) but you can mitigate them with training.”
He noted police are, rightfully so, obsessed with firearms training. “I’ve been on 23 years, I could have shot several people justifiably,” he said, “but I have never fired my gun.”
But many police forces are not nearly as interested in pursuit training, even though high-speed chases are much more likely than gun battles.
“We don’t kill innocent people in shootouts; we don’t kill people walking down the street minding their own business,” he said.
From 1982-2004 there were 7,430 fatalities due to police chases, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. More than a quarter — 1,994 — were innocent bystanders. There were 5,335 in the car being chased and 81 police officers.
Cops didn’t join police forces to let wrongdoers get away. It’s part of their DNA.
Hard-headed, maverick cops and head-long chases are part of American lore. There’s Popeye Doyle desperately chasing an elevated train in New York City in “The French Connection” and Frank Bullitt terrorizing the streets — and hills — of San Fran in his Ford Mustang. Of course, both fictional cops got their bad guys.
Real life’s a lot more equivocal.
Dan Murphy, a pizzeria owner now of Fayetteville, was a New York police sergeant and the veteran of many chases. Each one was terrifying and the sum of a rash of life-and-death decisions, quickly made. Often, they tailed off rather than making the streets of Manhattan more dangerous.
“Is it worth shutting down chases and letting the guy get away?” he asked. “If the bad guys know you won’t chase, then everyone of them is going to run. It’s a fine line. It’s a tough call.”
Yates said that oft-noted quandary isn’t necessarily so. “We haven’t seen that in this country. That’s not a theory any more.”
An article for the Police Foundation publication by professor Geoffrey Alpert exploring a court case about a police chase: “The Court espouses one of the classic myths about pursuit driving: if the police don’t chase, then everyone will flee. As an example, research by the Orlando, Fla., Police Department documented that only 107 suspects fled from more than 40,000 stops between March 2004 and February 2005. This occurred after the department’s highly restrictive pursuit policy was made public.”
In the week before Christmas 2001, an airport worker and karate enthusiast named Kevin Francis Golden Jr. was killed by a man fleeing College Park police, the same force involved in the chase that killed three people last week.
The driver, Brian Jerome Frazier, is doing every bit of his 15-year sentence, not to be released until late this year.
Wendy Golden, the dead young man’s mother, worked with organizations to make changes that would call off many of the kind of chases that killed her son. Now living in Arizona, Ms. Golden was disheartened to hear about the recent deaths.
She said she attended a legislative session at which a lawmaker “suggested to one of the other mothers in attendance to consider her son as ‘collateral damage’ in the fight to uphold the law.
“When I was asked to speak, I immediately told the legislator my son was not ‘collateral damage’ to uphold any law in the state of Georgia and that although I do not expect to tie the hands of law enforcement, something needs to be done to eliminate unnecessary chases. The man who killed my son had two priors for DUI. They knew who he was. It is a game of cat and mouse and we are disposable ‘collateral damage.’”
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