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Is the new Arizona DPS pursuit policy too risky?

Posted: 7:37 PM, Feb 26, 2018
Updated: 2018-02-27 12:11:45Z

In recent months, the Arizona Department of Public Safety has shifted their pursuit policy and now gives troopers broader discretion to engage in police pursuits.

The change in policy bucks an overwhelming national trend by law enforcement agencies that has police moving toward more tightly-restrictive pursuit policies.

While the new policy improves on some policy issues, experts said the change in policy would likely do little to reduce the number of dangerous pursuits in a state that already has the second-highest fatality rate for pursuits, according to a recent Department of Justice study.

“To be honest, in the last 20 years, this is one of the least restrictive policies I’ve seen,” said Thomas Gleason, a retired Florida police captain who advocates for safer pursuit practices.

When asked if DPS policy puts the public at more risk, he answered, “100 percent.”

After more than a decade without a change, DPS updated their pursuit policy in November 2017.

After a DPS pursuit ended in a violent head-on crash in a crowded area of Tempe in January, ABC15 asked five different experts to review DPS’s old and new policies.

The experts: Dennis Kenney, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Geoff Alpert, University of South Carolina; Gareth Jones, former police officer, and pursuit investigator; D.P. Van Blaricom, former Chief of Police and police practices expert; and Thomas Gleason, retired police captain and spokesman for PursuitSafety.org.

None of the experts believe that either of DPS’s policies was terrible or poor. Among the positive changes in the new policy, nearly all the experts pointed to better guidelines for supervisory oversight and clearer direction for communication.

Experts also said both of DPS’s policies included an important guideline that states personnel should terminate pursuits when the risks outweigh the immediate apprehension of the suspect.

However, the experts also found the shift to a broader-discretionary policy to be unusual -- or as Gareth Jones put it, “curious.”

For example, in the old DPS policy, pursuing someone into a densely-populated area for a traffic violation or non-violent felony would have required an immediate termination of the pursuit.

In the new policy, there are no hardline reasons to terminate. Instead, there’s a list of factors to consider.

DPS is not alone in allowing officers to pursue suspects without strict restrictions.

The California Highway Patrol also doesn’t have any specific restrictions for its members and allows its officers to pursue suspects if the danger to the public doesn’t outweigh the need for an arrest.

But experts said the vast majority of law enforcement agencies are changing policies that prohibit chases unless the suspect is wanted for a violent felony. Even in those cases, if the suspect’s identity is known or if there’s a helicopter overhead, departments may terminate the pursuit.

Geoff Alpert and Dennis Kenney both said they see little change in the policies that will impact how often DPS will pursue suspects. Kenney wondered if the reduced restrictions will allow DPS “a bit more defense when things go wrong.”

DPS is facing a high-profile lawsuit for another pursuit in January 2017.

In that pursuit, the DPS deputy director, Heston Silbert, began chasing a stolen vehicle in his personal truck. The pursuit ended after the suspect’s vehicle lost control and veered off a cliff.

The suspect, a troubled military veteran suffering from PTSD, died in the crash. After the incident, DPS cleared Silbert of any wrongdoing but said some policy improvements were needed.   

Officials for the Arizona Department of Public Safety declined to be interviewed about how and why the policy changes were made.

A spokesperson sent the following statement:

“The Department of Public Safety continuously evaluates policies, procedures, training, and equipment to support employees in every aspect of our mission in protecting the public and enforcing state laws. Further, the Department conducts administrative investigations after critical incidents to gather and present facts regarding policy, procedure, training, and equipment. This process can also determine if current policies need to be amended or if the new policy should be implemented. As a statewide police agency, the Department creates policies that are adaptable to policing challenges and objectives in both urban and rural environments. Pursuits are fluid and dynamic, and law enforcement response may vary depending on the specific circumstances of the incident.  Employees are guided by policy directives and ultimately consider the best interests of the citizens we serve in determining the appropriate action. Employees who make decisions or take actions contrary to directives must be able to articulate the necessity and soundness of such decision or actions.”

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at dbiscobing@abc15.com .