We need smarter ways to pur­sue sus­pects

The Delhi News-Record - - OPINION - KELLY EGAN kegan@post­media.com

On the af­ter­noon of Sept. 15, the OPP cap­tured a sus­pected killer — the sub­ject of a two-province man­hunt — by us­ing a spiked belt to dis­able his ve­hi­cle in Ren­frew County.

Once crip­pled, the SUV plowed through a flower bush and came to rest against a stone fence.

The driver was not only a sus­pect in his wife’s slay­ing but also linked to the dis­ap­pear­ance of a man in a car heist, and had with him a six-year-old sub­ject of an Am­ber Alert. Des­per­a­tion, surely, was in the air.

After a short chase and a strike from a stun gun, the man was cap­tured and the boy was in safe-keep­ing. This is how it’s sup­posed to end. How hor­ri­bly dif­fer­ent things turned out in Arn­prior on Sept. 25, when an OPP pur­suit ended with an al­legedly stolen truck ram­ming into a car car­ry­ing a grand­mother go­ing to pick up her grand­son at day­care.

Many is the mourner for Sheila Welsh, 65, by all ac­counts a ter­rific per­son who died in a reck­less crash that never should have hap­pened.

An investigation by On­tario’s Special In­ves­ti­ga­tions Unit will even­tu­ally fill in the pic­ture, but some ob­vi­ous ques­tions have emerged.

The truck was al­legedly stolen in Eganville. Was it nec­es­sary to con­duct a high-speed chase 60 or 70 kilo­me­tres later as the ve­hi­cle raced into Arn­prior’s com­mer­cial strip?

Four hun­dred ve­hi­cles are stolen ev­ery day in Canada: it’s not a life-or­death emer­gency. What dan­ger is posed to the mo­tor­ing pub­lic by a car thief not be­ing pur­sued by po­lice?

And if the OPP had any inkling the sus­pect was Zachary Wit­tke, 20 — who seems to have a chased-by-cop dan­ger wish — then even tougher ques­tions will need to be an­swered.

Stop­ping a flee­ing mur­der sus­pect who may want to harm a lit­tle boy de­mands riskier tac­tic than stop­ping a troubled young man who has al­legedly stolen yet an­other ve­hi­cle and has a his­tory of ir­ra­tional plans.

No one knows the haz­ards of po­lice chases bet­ter than the po­lice them­selves, which is why the prac­tice is closely gov­erned by pro­vin­cial reg­u­la­tion and in­ter­nal poli­cies.

A chase is to be ini­ti­ated only if a se­ri­ous crim­i­nal of­fence is al­leged to have oc­curred, if the chase does not pose an un­rea­son­able risk to the pub­lic and if a su­per­vi­sor, away from the heat of the mo­ment, ap­proves. Fur­ther­more, the con­di­tions of the pur­suit have to be con­tin­u­ally re­assessed as ve­hi­cles move from iso­lated to pop­u­lated ar­eas, or into vul­ner­a­ble spots like school zones.

Chas­ing a bad guy in a po­lice cruiser might be the most dan­ger­ous thing an of­fi­cer does with­out a gun. The of­fi­cer and the per­pe­tra­tor are putting at risk their lives, not to men­tion those of by­standers, by rac­ing on roads de­signed for lower speed.

An Amer­i­can ad­vo­cacy group, Pur­suit SAFETY, aims to re­duce the threat to civil­ians and po­lice of­fi­cers from dan­ger­ous chases. It es­ti­mates about 350 peo­ple are killed an­nu­ally in po­lice pur­suits across the U.S. and more than one-third are in­no­cent by­standers. It also cites statis­tics from an in­ter­na­tional po­lice data­base that found 91 per cent of chases are for non-vi­o­lent crimes.

It may be time to end tra­di­tional po­lice chases, pe­riod, given ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy. Surely, po­lice can find you, given the foot­print we leave elec­tron­i­cally and the preva­lence of on-street or com­mer­cial sur­veil­lance cam­eras.

The OPP are ex­per­i­ment­ing with a GPS dart that uses satel­lite track­ing. If a ve­hi­cle at­tempts to flee from po­lice, the laser-guided dart can be fired and at­tached to the ve­hi­cle and al­low it to be tracked any­where.

Cit­ing the SIU investigation, the OPP has de­clined to say whether it tried to use a spike belt, what it knew about the driver, how long it chased the truck, and whether the chase was ever called off as the ve­hi­cles ap­proached Arn­prior.

There had to be a bet­ter way. We owe it to the Welsh fam­ily to find out.

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