We need smarter ways to pursue suspects
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.