ALLEGAN, Mich. (WOOD) — A nationally recognized researcher who has spent a career studying hazardous police actions called the high-speed pursuit of traffic offenders ‘ridiculous,’ among other adjectives.
“Ridiculous. Dangerous. Without justification. Unreasonable,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina.
For 30 years, Alpert has conducted research on high-risk police activity, taught at the FBI National Academy and testified before Congress, several state legislatures and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Target 8 reached out to Alpert regarding a fatal crash involving a former Allegan County sheriff’s deputy who was reportedly trying to catch up to a speeder.
Thomas Goggins, 42, was allegedly driving more than 90 mph without lights or siren before he slammed into a SUV, killing a 74-year-old great grandmother.
Allegan County Prosecutor Myrene Koch on Sept. 29 charged former deputy Goggins with misdemeanor moving violation causing death in the June accident.
“Speeding without lights and sirens is never appropriate,” Geoffrey Alpert said in a Monday Zoom interview with Target 8.
“Putting everyone’s life at risk is not something we do in 2022. It’s not something we did in 2020. It’s kind of the historical ‘chase until the wheels fall off’ that we got rid of in the ’80s and the ’90s,” Alpert concluded, noting large police agencies and the better smaller ones moved to restrict pursuits long ago.
Though he declined to comment specifically on the Allegan County crash, citing lack of details, Alpert did urge Sheriff Frank Baker to review his department’s policy.
“I would suggest the sheriff revamp and look at his policy to see what’s going on in the rest of the state, the rest of the United States and the rest of the world,” Alpert said. “We in South Carolina have what’s called an ‘overtake statute’ where the legislature allows cops to do some of that, but it’s a very, very short time to catch up to a car, and you still have to drive with due regard for the safety of all motorists and driving 90 miles an hour without lights and siren doesn’t do that.”
Goggins, who has since resigned from the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office, collided with a SUV carrying Jose and Ofelia Nunez, killing Ofelia and seriously injuring Jose. The couple, married 53 years, was five minutes from home on the evening of June 12, driving south on 54th Street near Fennville. Jose Nunez was behind the wheel and paused briefly at a stop sign at 54th Street and M-89 before proceeding across M-89. According to the accident report, Nunez failed to make a complete stop, and Goggins was driving too fast when he struck the left rear of Nunez’ SUV as it crossed the intersection.
“Due to the impact, the front seat passenger … exited her seating position despite using the seatbelt,” a state trooper wrote in the accident report. “This passenger was pronounced deceased on scene due to injuries sustained in the crash.”
Goggins and a second deputy in the cruiser were treated at a hospital and released.
“The risk to the public seems enormous based on the speed and the location,” Alpert said. “My view is, if it isn’t a violent crime, it isn’t worth chasing. I published that in the ’90s. We did a big project for the (U.S.) Department of Justice and made that suggestion.”
Allegan County Sheriff Frank Baker has declined to share his agency’s policy regarding the pursuit of traffic offenders.
Mike Hills, defense attorney for Goggins, has said his client was doing exactly as he was trained by the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office. Goggins, who was in his second month with the department, reportedly had a field training officer in the cruiser with him at the time of the crash.
West Michigan’s largest police department, as well as Michigan State Police, are transparent about their guidelines for pursuing offenders and chasing fleeing felons. The Grand Rapids Police Department, which publishes its guidelines online, restricts officers from initiating a pursuit for civil infractions (like speeding), felony property crimes or misdemeanors unless there is a “pursuit exceptional circumstance.”
“ONLY initiate and/or engage in a pursuit if the suspect vehicle contains an inherently violent fleeing felon or is fleeing from a violent felony crime unless the officer can articulate a pursuit exceptional circumstance,” read GRPD’s emergency police vehicle operations policy.
Michigan State Police has published official orders governing pursuits. One such order says troopers can exceed the speed limit without using lights and siren to catch up to an offender when “the nature of the mission requires that a law enforcement officer travel without giving warning to suspected law violators.”
But the order goes on to say, “this statutory exemption does not protect the (trooper) from the consequences of the reckless disregard for the safety of others. As such, (troopers) shall use due care and caution when attempting to catch potential violators.”
In an order regarding the pursuit of fleeing suspects, troopers are told they can only initiate or engage in a pursuit if the driver has committed a felony (outside of fleeing and eluding), the pursued vehicle is being operated on the freeway opposite the normal flow of traffic (wrong-way driver) or the driver of the pursued vehicle poses an “imminent threat to public safety.”
In general, Michigan law allows police to exceed the speed limit to pursue offenders, but they must use lights and siren when doing so unless “the nature of the mission requires that a law enforcement officer travel without giving warning to suspected law violators. This exemption shall not however protect the driver of the vehicle from the consequences of a reckless disregard of the safety of others.”