MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — A professor who studies police policies says departments should always have written policies about when officers should start a chase, detailing how they should weigh the risks of the chase against letting the suspect go.
An innocent passerby was killed early Tuesday when a driver who the Muskegon County Sheriff’s Office says was fleeing a deputy caused a crash east of Muskegon. The sheriff’s office on Wednesday confirmed he was Brian Frey, 53, of Cedar Creek Township, which is near Twin Lake.
The name of the 23-year-old Grand Rapids woman who led the deputy on a chase has not yet been released pending charges. Deputies believe she was drunk. A county prosecutor is expected to release a decision on charges soon.
Ken Sanford, the Muskegon County undersheriff, told News 8 that the deputy responded to a report of a road rage incident shortly after midnight Tuesday and that when he tried to pull the woman over, she took off. The chase ended when the woman’s car collided with Frey’s at the intersection of Hall Road and Maple Island Road in Egelston Township.
It’s up to each Muskegon County Sheriff’s Office deputy to decide whether to chase a suspect’s vehicle, though they must explain why.
“Anytime an officer’s involved in a chase, they have to articulate the reasons for the pursuit and what they’re dealing with,” Sanford told News 8 Tuesday. “And make decisions as they go as the pursuit is happening. Is it safe to continue the pursuit? Is it not? Taking in all the environmental factors, that being traffic, speed, the ability of the driver, how well are they driving, the ability of the officer and how comfortable he is with the pursuit itself.”
The undersheriff said part of the reason the deputy chased the Grand Rapids woman is because the roads were dry, it was the middle of the night and there wasn’t a lot of traffic.
“Based on the area, based on the weather conditions, based on the traffic, all of those things were minimal,” Sanford said. “There wasn’t a lot of that. It wasn’t 3 in the afternoon on Apple Avenue. It was just after midnight on a weekday evening on a rural road.”
Joshua Dressler, a professor emeritus at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, has studied chases for decades.
“What worries me from the story is whether there is a written policy in this department to deal with chases,” Dressler said.
More police departments are creating written policies limiting chases, Dressler said.
“As the focus on police behavior has become greater, I think you’re going to see more written policies so that police officers don’t have unbridled discretion in deciding what to do,” Dressler said. “Particularly as lawsuits may begin to mount against police departments, they’ll want to reduce the risk of lawsuits.”
Dressler said that “high-speed chases are obviously very risky.”
“The person who is fleeing is obviously going to make reckless decisions because they want to avoid arrest,” Dressler said. “It’s also very hard for a police officer once he or she starts a chase to stop.”
The professor suggested creating a policy encouraging a “presumption against high-speed chases.”
“A presumption that can be overridden by certain factors,” he explained. “It’s not no chases under any circumstances. But the officer would have to meet certain criteria before they would start a chase involving the seriousness of the reason why they need to stop the person.”
Specifically, he said there should be a distinction between chasing someone accused of a minor traffic violation versus a more serious offense.
“Is it necessary to get this person right now?” Dressler said. “If this person represents an imminent danger to other people if you don’t capture them now, then yes a chase would be necessary. But on the other hand, if you can stop the person an hour from now without doing a chase, then why not do it that way?”
Sarissa Montague, a criminal trial attorney with Levine & Levine in Kalamazoo, has represented law enforcement before. She said officers consider the danger a suspect could pose to the community, traffic and road conditions.
“It’s really about risk,” she said. “How much risk does chasing a suspect cause the community?”
Like Dressler, Montague said it’s important for law enforcement to consider safer alternatives to a pursuit.
“Is this chase really necessary right now?” she said. “Maybe they don’t pursue the chase and they investigate the situation a little further. They look at the license plate and see if this is someone I can find later and not necessarily put other people in danger.”
Montague agreed with Dressler about the relevance of the seriousness of the suspect’s offense.
“There’s a real difference between someone they’re pursuing for driving with a suspended license versus someone who is suspected of murder,” she said.
When it comes to a suspected drunken driver, like with the Muskegon County case, Dressler said it gets tricky.
“A drunk driver, in some areas, you want to get them off the road because they’re a high risk to other people,” he said. “But drunk drivers by definition will be even more reckless in their driving by the very nature of that.”
No matter what the police department’s policy is, both said that training is key.
“If you’re going to let officers use their own discretion about whether or not they’re going to engage in a pursuit, there should probably be a significant amount of training to those officers about these different factors,” Montague said. “Is it worth it? Is it not?”
Dressler emphasized that officers often have to make a critical decision in a moment, which is why training is especially important.
“The individual officer has to make split-second decisions,” Dressler added. “That’s always going to be there unless you have a flat no-chase policy for all cases, and that just isn’t going to happen. The important thing is that there be training in this area and written policies, not just, ‘Hey, here’s the sorts of things you might want to think about,’ but they be out there in writing.”
—News 8’s Rachel Van Gilder contributed to this report.