These North Texas police departments release their chase policies. Here’s whydfwnewsa | February 7, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News
White Settlement Police Chief Christopher Cook in his office on Jan. 29, 2024. (Toluwani Osibamowo | KERA News)
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For White Settlement Police Chief Christopher Cook, the consequences of police chases gone wrong hit close to home.
Cook lost his best friend, River Oaks Police Officer Nathan Ray Laurie, in 2004. Laurie was chasing a pickup truck that had fled from a traffic stop when his vehicle was hit by another patrol car joining the chase.
Laurie’s death came early in Cook’s career — but its impact has been lasting. When he decided to make a change to White Settlement’s police chase policy, he showed his officers video of Laurie’s crash to hammer home the importance of getting it right. And years earlier, when Cook wrote his thesis at University of Texas at Arlington, he focused on police pursuits.
“I dedicated that to Nathan,” he said. “And it really opened my eyes as a young officer and eventually a sergeant over in Arlington that, yes, chases are very dangerous, and a lot of times, we have to make split second decisions.”
Those split second decisions, and the policies that govern them, have come under scrutiny in North Texas after a series of deaths in Fort Worth last summer. The Fort Worth Police Department has refused to release its chase policy, instead suing Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a bid to keep it confidential. Other area police departments are increasingly prioritizing transparency when it comes to their policies.
The Fort Worth Report and KERA spoke to six departments across Tarrant and Dallas counties about why they release their policies and what happens when a pursuit goes wrong. All department representatives emphasized the importance of balancing the benefit of catching a suspect and the very real risk of harm to residents and officers alike.
“We absolutely want to make sure that we’re engaging in vehicle chases for the right reason,” Cook said. “It comes down to public safety. And so, from that perspective, I think that’s what causes you to first look at the policy.”
Through the “Deadly Pursuits” web and radio series, KERA News and the Fort Worth Report will explore the behind-the-scenes decision making that goes into high speed police chases in North Texas and their sometimes deadly impact on officers, suspects and innocent bystanders. You can read more stories in the series here.
Putting policies in the public eye
Kennedale Police Chief Mike Holguin knows transparency gets thrown around as a buzzword in law enforcement. But when it comes to his department’s approach to police pursuits, he said, it’s key.
“There’s no secrets as to what we do,” Holguin said. “And so we want to make sure that if you want to know what we’re doing, it’s there.”
Pursuits are rare in Kennedale; the department reported zero in both 2022 and 2021. But the department releases its policy anyway, along with an annual report on pursuits as part of the Texas Law Enforcement Accreditation Program.
The Grapevine Police Department releases its pursuit policy through open records requests. The department is going through an accreditation process of its own right now, Amanda McNew, media manager for the Grapevine Police Department, said. Once that process is complete, the department anticipates posting the policy on its website as well.
“It comes down to the safety of our personnel and the public, and our policy will not endanger the lives of anyone by putting it out there,” McNew said. “So, that’s why we do so.”
Holguin understands some chiefs of police are hesitant to release pursuit policies. Fort Worth has referenced fears that releasing its own policy would give criminals an upper hand and potentially put officers in harm’s way. That’s not a concern Holguin shares.
“I think sometimes we have a tendency to overthink these situations,” he said. “It’s not been my personal experience where I’ve ever arrested someone that has actually gone to our website and looked at what we can or can’t do.”
In Cook’s experience, the general public is interested in two areas of police policy: use of force and car chases. With that interest in mind, he’s made the White Settlement Police Department’s pursuit policy available online.
“Policy only gets you so far,” he said. “You gotta evaluate your policy. You’ve got to evaluate every pursuit — and then you have to decide if there are errors, bad decision-making, bad tactics, or [if it] didn’t follow the policy.”
North Richland Hills made its pursuit policy public in 2021. In the grand scheme of things, Police Chief Mike Young felt releasing the policy was in line with the public’s expectation of transparency from its police department.
“I can tell you that was not a universal agreement in the department,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we felt like this is really what our community would expect for us to do. But the other side of it is, we made sure that we weren’t giving everything away in those policies.”
Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said Dallas’ policy has been publicly available since long before he was chief. But he understands why other departments might not want to share their policies. He said if he had to make the decision today, he might not choose to release the Dallas policy.
“I’m not quite certain why letting criminals know our tactics is beneficial,” he said.
Though he understands pursuits and pursuit policies across North Texas have recently drawn more scrutiny, police officers aren’t the only ones who should be held responsible for their actions.
“Although these policies are put in place, and they should be put in place, the primary responsibility lies with the individual that decided to try to get away,” he said.
When pursuits go wrong
Not all police pursuits end in injury or death. But those that do often face strict scrutiny from community members. Departments field questions about the circumstances that led up to the incident, and the policies that enabled the chase.
Cook described public reaction to chases as ‘outcome-based.’
“If you get the stolen car and you chase the stolen car and you catch the stolen car and no one wrecks out, the car goes back to the victim, everybody on social media will say, ‘Great job. That’s a phenomenal job by your team,’” he said.
“That same scenario — a stolen car runs a red light, crashes into an innocent motorist, serious injuries or death involved — there’s a lot of scrutiny, a lot of questions.”
Listen to an audio version of this story produced by KERA reporter Toluwani Osibamowo.
Grant Cottingham, public information officer for the Frisco Police Department, said in those instances giving residents as much information as possible is vital. Some information about active investigations may need to be held back, he said, but the last thing the department wants is to create an ‘us versus them’ mentality.
“We’re never going to get buy-in from our community if we’re not, you know, open with our information and exchanging it,” he said.
Departments that spoke with the Fort Worth Report and KERA described multiple levels of review after each pursuit, intended to determine whether everything was done according to policy. The circumstances and outcome of a pursuit is analyzed by a department’s chain of command, which then determines whether disciplinary action is warranted.
That disciplinary action can take different forms. In some cases, it’s as simple as a supervisor’s coaching or additional training. For other, more serious offenses, the discipline may rise to a multiday suspension or termination. Under Texas law, officer discipline is only made public if it rises to the level of suspension.
Fort Worth Police Sergeant Jason Spencer speaks to members of the media after a police chase in the West 7th Entertainment District.(Camilo Diaz | Fort Worth Report)
Holguin said his department goes into pursuit reviews without preconceptions about the end result. In his experience, a situation may sound like a small problem initially, and then become more serious when department officials review all of the details and circumstances that led up to it.
The Frisco Police Department has a pursuit board, similar to a force review board. The board is composed of a lieutenant, a sergeant and several driving instructors, Shawn Marthiljohni, deputy chief of police in operations, said.
“The benefit of using the board is that you have a consistency of view for all your pursuits across the agency,” he said. “And then, the driving instructor component is important because one of the things that comes out of these a lot is you identify some training needs, and having the driving instructors in there makes it pretty easy for us to incorporate those into our in-service trainings.”
Young said it’s important to look at the totality of the circumstances and determine the minimum level of discipline that will ensure an officer doesn’t make the same mistake again. Officers don’t get the luxury of long review processes when they’re out in the field, he said.
“You have a lot of stuff going on, when you’re in a pursuit,” Young said, “And those officers are literally making split second decisions that we will have to live with, for a very long time.”
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or @_wolfemily