By: John R. Roby and Sean Lahman, democratandchronicle.com
A police chase prompted by an alleged shoplifting incident at a CVS store in the town of Farmington last summer ended with a violent crash which took the lives of two passengers.
Each year, hundreds of people across the U.S. are killed in high-speed police chases, but this fatal crash on I-490 last year was the first pursuit in Monroe County in nearly a decade to end with a fatality.
Local police officials say that their policies, which define strict criteria under which pursuits can be conducted, have significantly reduced the number of dangerous pursuits.
But that progress has not been matched in other parts of New York.
An analysis of federal crash data by the USA Today Network found:
- From 1995 to 2015, there were 100 deaths tied to high-speed police chases statewide. Between two and nine people died each year, with a median of five deaths annually.
- Those 100 chase-related deaths occurred in 89 separate crashes in 38 of New York’s 62 counties. Two-thirds were outside New York City and Long Island.
- One-fifth of those killed were pedestrians or drivers who were not involved in the chase. Two law enforcement officers were killed, and the remaining 78 were people in vehicles being pursued.
The data does not reflect the human impact of police chases, and they come at a time of both increasing scrutiny of pursuits and growing danger on the roadways.
The available federal data also does not include police pursuits that ended in nonfatal crashes, or where people involved later died from related injuries.
Death and injury
Sometimes the crashes result in death or injury to law enforcement officers. More often, the victims are people whose only connection to the chase was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The morning of Nov. 2, Adam M. VanCise, 35, of Palmyra, Wayne County, led Chemung County deputies and New York State Police officers on an hour-long chase. It began on foot in Horseheads, Chemung County, and ended in the crash on Route 352 in Corning.
Deputies said they had been seeking VanCise since he eluded them after allegedly taking items from the Walmart in Horseheads. According to reports, deputies say they picked up the trail after seeing VanCise steal a car from a woman in a nearby parking lot, then drive off.
Deputies are automatically authorized to pursue suspects if they feel the chase is necessary and if cause can be established, Chemung County Undersheriff William Schrom told the Elmira Star-Gazette at the time.
According to police reports, officers fell back when VanCise began driving west in the eastbound lanes of County Route 352, around Goff Road, “at a high rate of speed,” after an eight-mile pursuit.
Deputies then came upon the scene — VanCise’s vehicle struck another head-on. He died at the scene.
Occupants of the other vehicle, Dianne B. Box and Maureen A. LoPresto, both of Corning, were injured. They have filed separate notices of claim, signaling a possible lawsuit and claiming they sustained “permanent effects and permanent disfigurement” from a “recklessly” and “negligently” conducted police pursuit, stargazette.com reported.
Pursuit under scrutiny
Those who watch the numbers have been urging law enforcement agencies for years to re-evaluate their policies on pursuits. As far back as 1990, a National Institute of Justice report suggested known offenders who flee police be apprehended off the highways — in their homes or places they frequent.
The institute functions as the research arm of the federal Department of Justice, and is tasked with providing research to inform state and local law enforcement policy.
“Whether or not to engage in a high-speed chase then becomes a question of weighing the danger to the public of the chase itself against the danger to the public of the offender remaining at large,” the report stated. “For anyone other than a violent felon, the balance weighs against the high-speed chase.”
Some urban police departments, including Milwaukee and Orlando, allow vehicle chases only for known or suspected violent felons, according to a 2015 investigation by USA Today. Yet many other departments leave the judgment up to their officers.
Officials with the Rochester Police Department say that removing that decision from officers involved in the pursuit has played a critical role in reducing crashes. Supervisors must be notified immediately when a pursuit begins, and they will constantly monitor the course of the pursuit to evaluate whether it should be terminated.
“The officer involved in a pursuit is already multi-tasking,” said Deputy Chief Scott Peters. “He’s activating his lights, talking on the radio, observing what’s happening. He may not be looking at the big picture. Having a boss responsible for making the decision about whether to pursue gives us a degree of separation.”
The RPD policy on pursuits is 18 pages long, describing in detail the pursuit tactics that can be employed and the criteria under which pursuits are allowed. The factors considered include the seriousness of the incident, road conditions, speed, and knowledge of the offender’s identity.
Peters says that cameras, GPS locators, and other technology often helps them to identify the driver and allow them to make an arrest at a later time.
“The hardest thing for a police officer to do is turn those flashing lights off,” Peters said. “That’s our job, they pay us to go catch criminals.”
But there is also a recognition that these pursuits put people’s lives at risk, especially when they take place in dense urban areas.
“Going down a city street at 70 mph is always a dangerous and potentially deadly situation” Peters said.
The USA Today investigation also found police chases consistently led to about one death a day nationwide between 1990 and 2013. And last year, the newspaper found black people are killed in police chases at a rate nearly three times higher than any other demographic.
Both those reports and the data on New York state fatalities draw on the same source, a database maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which tracks hundreds of data points for every fatal vehicle crash in the nation each year. Police pursuit is one of those.
The data, though, has holes and oversights. USA Today found hundreds of cases in at least three states in which police reports indicate a high-speed chase took place but the incident does not appear in the database.
Moreover, a police pursuit ending in a nonfatal crash in New York would not appear in the database. No agency tracks those figures.
So it is possible some deaths in New York were not listed, and virtually certain police pursuits occurred in which people were injured but not immediately killed.
Such incidents are not uncommon in the Rochester area. A police pursuit that started Wednesday morning in Greece ended after the suspect allegedly struck a police car on North Clinton Avenue in Rochester.
Two men were injured in a one-car crash in Irondequoit in January. That vehicle, which had been stolen, was being pursued by State Police after it nearly crashed head-on into a Rochester Police Department patrol car on Avenue A in the city.
And last September, a Greece police officer was struck by a suspect’s vehicle fleeing the scene of an incident on Vintage Lane.
No law enforcement department in New York or the nation forbids pursuit in any situation. More common are “restrictive” policies like in Dallas, Orlando and Los Angeles, discouraging pursuit for minor infractions or training of officers to de-escalate after a certain time or distance.
Even when officers follow department policies designed to de-escalate a pursuit, crashes can occur.
Chase started as alleged shoplifting
That was the case in the fatal crash on I-490 last summer. The pursuit began after an alleged shoplifting incident at a CVS store in Farmington, Ontario County.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero told the Democrat and Chronicle that the driver of the suspect vehicle sped up, reaching a “point where the deputy — following departmental protocols — backed off on the chase and the vehicle left his sight.”
Police say they believe the westbound Volkswagen Jetta hit a median and veered into a grassy ditch near I-490’s Exit 25, where it overturned and came to rest. The driver, Noah Marinelli, 33, of Canandaigua, died at the scene, and the passenger, Danielle Golding, 31, of Utica, died a week later.
In January 2013, a fatal crash occurred in Rochester after police discontinued a pursuit of shoplifting suspects on Dewey Avenue. Judging the snowy and icy roads to be too dangerous, the police officer stopped the pursuit, radioed the car’s license plate, and turned around. The suspects’ car continued to flee at high speed for almost a mile before losing control and striking an oncoming vehicle. The fleeing driver, Yevette Ebanks, 35, was killed and a teen passenger in her car was critically injured. The crash also claimed the life of 2½-year-old David Figueroa, a passenger in the car that Ebanks struck.
According to FBI figures, motor vehicle crashes are the major cause of line-of-duty death for law enforcement officers, eclipsing violent death in the mid-2000s. They accounted for nearly 60 percent of deaths to police in 2015, the last year for which figures were available.
In 2015, the FBI’s annual Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted report found 45 were killed accidentally nationwide, compared with 41 during law enforcement activities like making arrests or executing high-risk entries.
The accidental death category includes crashes of all types, both during high-speed chases and ordinary road patrol. Twenty-nine of those deaths came in automobile accidents, and another four in motorcycle crashes.
Since 2006, 392 of the 577 deaths to law enforcement officers — 68 percent — came through auto and other accidents.
One of those was New York State Trooper Craig J. Todeschini, who was killed April 23, 2006, during a pursuit of a motorcycle on Route 91 in Pompey Hill, Onondaga County, that exceeded 100 mph. After about two miles, his Chevy Tahoe patrol vehicle left the roadway and struck a tree, according to state police.
The driver of the motorcycle, James Carncross, was convicted in 2006 of aggravated criminally negligent homicide and reckless driving. He was paroled in 2016.
In response, New York passed the Trooper Craig Todeschini Bill, which created the crime of fleeing from a police officer in a motor vehicle.
Highways in general are getting more dangerous. Earlier this month, the National Safety Council, a nonprofit whose mission is to eliminate preventable deaths in homes, communities and on the roads, estimated motor vehicle deaths in 2016 rose 6 percent over the previous year. The total topped 40,000 for the first time since 2007, and was up 14 percent since 2014.
“Pursuits are not fun. They put everybody in danger, including the officer,” Brockport Chief Daniel Varrenti told the Democrat and Chronicle last year. “When we can avoid them we will.”
Between 1995 and 2015, there were 100 deaths tied to high-speed police chases statewide. Between two and nine people died each year, with a median of five deaths annually.
Those 100 chase-related deaths occurred in 38 of New York’s 62 counties. Two-thirds of the total took place outside New York City and Long Island.
One-fifth of those killed were pedestrians or other drivers. Two law enforcement officers were killed, and the remaining 78 were people in vehicles being chased.
Read more at http://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/2017/03/03/police-chase-deaths/98402556/