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Police leaders say policies strict on car chases

January 19, 1997

By MARLO BARNHART

Staff Writer

To chase or not to chase, that is the question.

A number of recent high-speed chases in the Tri-State area has heightened public awareness of the impact these incidents can have.

Nationally, interest and concern is also high, as evidenced by a documentary called "Hot Pursuits'' which aired Wednesday night on the Arts and Entertainment channel.

In Washington County, the heads of the three police agencies all watched the show, hoping to see how other law enforcement groups handle these dangerous situations.

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"I was struck by the fact that in the situations shown, the officers were all governed by a written policy on chases,'' said Sheriff Charles Mades.

While discretion is a factor, Mades said his agency's written policy on chases is quite strict.

"We normally have a primary chase car which is a marked car with lights and sirens,'' Mades said. A second car may be marked or unmarked.

After that, those are the only vehicles to be involved under normal circumstances, he said.

"We submitted our written policy on chases to the county attorney, the Attorney General's office and to our insurance carrier and they support us,'' Mades said.

Hagerstown Police Chief Dale Jones felt a special affinity for one of the sequences on the hour-long show - a Denver, Colo., chase of a bank robber, greatly enhanced by the surveillance provided from the air by a local television helicopter.

"At the time that happened, I was working with the police department in nearby Arvada, Colo.,'' Jones said. "I knew some of those officers.''

In this instance, the robber was first tracked at high speeds by cruisers but then they broke it off on land for safety sake, leaving the pursuit up to a television news helicopter.

The land chase began again after the suspect drove straight into two officers who were trying to put a barricade. One officer was killed outright.

The robber then stopped a motorist and forced him to drive while the robber hid on the floor. When discovered, the robber rose with his gun aimed at a police officer.

He was then shot to death in a hail of bullets.

Jones said a written policy is essential.

"It's hard to make a policy when the adrenaline is pumping,'' Jones said. So that policy must in force before it's needed.

Hagerstown City Police officers recently finished an updated pursuit training course. In fact, all police are trained and retrained in chase tactics.

Lt. R.B. Tanner, commander of the Hagerstown barracks of Maryland State Police, said he enjoyed the show but pointed out a number of fallacies.

"I had 14 years in MSP aviation so I was interested in the helicopter pursuits,'' Tanner said, noting that they were ideal by cutting down on ground pursuits.

It's not cheap to fly, Tanner said, estimating that it costs about $900 an hour to keep an MSP Dauphin helicopter in the air.

"I believe Baltimore City has a `no pursuit' policy,'' Tanner said. "The word spreads like wildfire and before long, the only people stopping for police are the good citizens for minor traffic offenses.''

Tanner said his agency's policy has a lot of discretion. And he added that MSP headquarters is looking into a device that can be thrown onto the road ahead of a speeding vehicle, spiking all of its tires.

Citizens sometimes suffer property damage, injuries or worse during police chases.

Locally, troopers have been injured in chases, cruisers have been damaged and law-abiding citizens have been caught up in these hot pursuits.

After an hour of illustrating the problems, pro and con, the television documentary came up with no pat answer.

Mades, Tanner and Jones came to that same conclusion.

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