Police chases a dangerous but necessary part of the job
When Marty Ludemann was on the street as a shift commander with the Missoula Police Department, he couldn't help but cringe every time he was informed that one of the officers under his command was involved in a high-speed pursuit.
"That was probably the scariest call I had to make as a supervisor - whether to allow the pursuit or to call it off," said Ludemann, who now serves as the patrol captain for the Missoula Police Department. "Within a split second, you have to make a decision that affects the safety of your officers, the public and the bad guy in your hands."
Ludemann's views on chasing criminal suspects who refuse to stop are shared by most veteran law enforcement officers who, unlike their television counterparts, see little glamour in flying down roadways in pursuit of often out-of-control, desperate drivers.
"It can be very dangerous depending on the circumstances, the traffic, the intoxication level of the person being pursued and the speed they are traveling," said Capt. Mike Frellick, who commands the Missoula division of the Montana Highway Patrol. "We certainly don't look forward to them or treat them lightly."
But like it or not, vehicle pursuits are part of law enforcement life. And lately in Missoula, chasing law breakers who refuse to stop for sirens and flashing lights has become a fairly common occurrence.
In the past two months, area law enforcement personnel have been involved in at least seven chases on local highways and city streets. In each instance, the suspect involved ended up facing many more problems than if they had not fled from authorities.
On Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, 21-year-old Michael Bailey led city police, Highway Patrol and Missoula sheriff's deputies on a 20-mile chase, at speeds up to 80 mph, that began in a west Missoula neighborhood and ended when the stolen truck Bailey was driving was forced off of U. S. Highway 93 south of Lolo. Bailey, a recently released ex-convict, was wanted by police for questioning in connection with a shoplifting incident the night before at the Missoula Shopko store.
On March 10, 19-year-old Salisha Old Bull allegedly fled from police after striking a woman with her car while leaving a downtown parking lot. In the course of fleeing the scene, Old Bull allegedly dragged two off-duty law enforcement officers down a parking-lot ramp as they tried to prevent her from leaving the scene. Old Bull was apprehended a short time later in a parking stall at Caras Park.
On March 23, 36-year-old Patrick Keith Lindburg was arrested after sheriff's deputies were forced to use nail mats to disable his vehicle on Interstate 90 near Clinton after he refused to pull over for alleged drunk driving. During the ensuing arrest, a sheriff's deputy suffered a broken finger and lacerations while trying to arrest Lindburg.
On April 14, 20-year-old Mickey Ryan Kearney allegedly tried to elude a Missoula police officer who spotted him driving a stolen truck on the Madison Street Bridge. Kearney was arrested after racing into the Rattlesnake Valley, abandoning the truck and fleeing through Rattlesnake Creek.
On April 15, a 16-year-old juvenile boy led a Missoula police officer on an early morning chase through the residential neighborhoods around Higgins Avenue. The chase ended after the boy drove a van the wrong way down a one-way street, across the front lawns of some houses and rammed the police cruiser in pursuit. Upon arrest, the police officer determined that the boy was intoxicated.
On April 18, 29-year-old Ian Frank Bruce allegedly refused to stop when a Missoula police officer tried to pull him over for suspicion of drunk driving. Bruce allegedly led the officer on a wild chase through the residential neighborhoods west of Stephens Avenue that ended when the truck he was driving rammed another vehicle in an intersection, drove across some neighborhood lawns and smashed into a tree. A 46-year-old woman driving the car Bruce allegedly rammed was injured in the collision.
On April 24, a motorcyclist traveling at speeds up to 70 mph in a 45 mph zone eluded Highway Patrol officers, who chased the suspect down Reserve Street onto Highway 93 South to the Blue Mountain area. Frellick said officers have identified a suspect who will likely be charged following further investigation.
Veteran law enforcement officers like Frellick and Ludemann are at a loss to explain why their colleagues have been involved in so many chases in the past few months.
"These things seem to run in streaks," Frellick said. "Typically we get a lot during the first part of spring. When it's a nice day, there are a lot of people out. … Some involve alcohol, some don't. Some are generated off of other types of criminal activity - domestic disputes, robberies, people wanted for other crimes or just young kids who shouldn't be driving. You really can't pin a reason on why people run."
Said Ludemann, "You can go a year and not have one and then you have five in one week. It's hard to judge why. Maybe people are just feeling their spring oats. Alcohol is another factor. Alcohol just clouds people's judgment."
From a law-enforcement standpoint, Ludemann said, the biggest decision is to quickly decide if a pursuit is worthwhile.
"You've got to decide why they're running - is it just over a speeding ticket or something else," he said. "If you know who the driver is, there's often no sense in pursuing further. The severity of the crime usually determines how far you go. You have to be responsible to the public. The worst-case scenario is that a member of the public gets hurt."
The on-duty supervising officer determines if the chase will continue, Ludemann said.
"The supervisor can terminate the chase at any time," he said. "You have to consider the traffic conditions and the time of day. We don't want to chase someone at Big Sky High School around 3 p.m. We shut down those kind of things all the time."
Every chase or decision not to chase is reviewed in the days following the incident. If an accident involving a patrol car occurs, another law enforcement agency conducts the review.
Forcing someone off the road is an option, but is only done in extreme circumstances.
"If we use our car, it's just like pulling a gun," Ludemann said. "We have to justify the use of deadly force."
Frellick said the Highway Patrol operates under similar policies regarding chases.
"A supervisor can call it off at any time," Frellick said. "And no more than two of our vehicles can ever be involved in a pursuit at one time. If more than two vehicles are involved, we refer to that as a parade. That's a poor utilization of manpower."
Frellick did say that his men are instructed to use nail mats to end a pursuit whenever possible. Every patrol car is equipped with the 3-foot mats that carry two-inch long, hollow plastic spikes designed to puncture tires and break off so that air can escape quickly.
The desperation level surrounding the chase suspect also is taken into account when deciding if pursuit is worthwhile. For example, Ludemann said, police are more likely to chase an armed bank robber than a traffic scofflaw.
But whatever the reason, both Ludemann and Frellick say they are constantly amazed that people run from law enforcement.
"A few get away, but not many," Frellick said. "It's a really poor, uncalculated decision that is made on the part of the driver. Legally it just gets them in worse trouble."
Officers usually have a pretty good idea who the fleeing suspect is, Ludemann said.
"When a driver makes a decision to run, they just don't understand how many resources we have available to us," Ludemann said. "If we want them bad enough, they won't get away."
Reporter Gary Jahrig can be reached at 523-5259 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.