Hot Pursuit

Craig Lassig

This past April, Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson tapped Inspector David Indrehus to head a dozen-member committee. Indrehus's mission: to undertake a point-by-point re-examination of the nine pages in the MPD's manual that govern police pursuits. On September 1 Indrehus presented Olson with a draft outlining proposed revisions.

"Primarily, we just want to make sure that we don't get involved in chases that we shouldn't," says the inspector. "We know full well that the results of these can be extremely dangerous for everyone involved. We wanted to make sure that the policy provided some safety for the officers and for the general public."

Coincidentally, the committee completed its task barely a week after two bystanders were killed by an allegedly reckless driver who was being pursued by police on I-94 near downtown. It's doubtful, however, that any new guidelines would have affected the outcome of the chase that took the lives of 45-year-old Paula Lovrien and 26-year-old Lesley Anderson. Though he declined to cite specifics of the proposed revisions, which still await Chief Olson's review, Indrehus characterizes the draft as a "fine-tuning" of the existing policy.

Thanks to a law passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 1988, every police agency in the state must have a written policy regarding police chases. Among other things, the policies must specify how many vehicles may be involved in a chase and detail the circumstances under which officers should call off a pursuit. But the law doesn't designate any agency to oversee the implementation or review of chase policies--that task falls to the individual police departments themselves.

According to the MPD's current policy, a chase should not be undertaken (or should be called off) if an officer is able to identify the suspect and feels he can be apprehended at another time; if the chase would pose "unreasonable risk to the officers and/or the public" or if weather or road conditions constitute a similar risk; if the seriousness of the offense doesn't merit continued pursuit; or if anyone requires medical assistance as the result of a pursuit already in progress.

The August 24 chase began not long after midnight just north of downtown Minneapolis. Ofcr. Chris Gaiters was on patrol when he saw a speeding minivan run a red light and force another car onto the curb to avoid an accident. Gaiters flipped on his lights and siren and took up pursuit. It didn't last long. According to the MPD's incident report, Gaiters took off after the van as it accelerated along the Broadway on-ramp to eastbound I-94. Moments later, the report says, Gaiters's quarry took the Lowry Tunnel's sharp left-hand bend at 55 to 60 mph (the posted speed limit is 35 mph), careening against the wall before emerging from the tunnel on the shoulder of the highway. The minivan struck two cars that were parked on the roadside just outside the tunnel, killing Lovrien and her friend Anderson, whom she had summoned for help after running out of gas. The driver of the minivan, 19-year-old Mantu Craven, was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .205--more than twice the legal limit. According to the incident report, Craven's younger brother, a passenger in the minivan, told police that during the chase Craven ordered him to swallow five rocks of crack cocaine they were carrying. The report also quoted the brother as telling police, "I told him to stop, but he just kept saying, 'Fuck the police.'"

Mantu Craven has been charged with two counts of third-degree murder and one count of fleeing a peace officer which resulted in injury or death. His attorney, Joe Margulies, declined to comment about the case for this story. His client's first scheduled court appearance is set for September 29. City Pages was unable to reach the families of Lovrien and Anderson, but Anderson's father Skip reportedly told the Star Tribune after the incident that he had some questions about the police pursuit.

"Preliminary indications are that the officer followed all policies and procedures," asserts Minneapolis police spokeswoman Penny Parrish, who places the blame for the tragedy squarely on Craven. "Responsibility in this case needs to be put on the person who caused this horrible tragedy," she says. "It's is very tough for the officers involved in a case like this, it's emotionally very tough, but they have to take action when they see somebody endangering other lives."

Bob Bennett, a lawyer who is representing the plaintiffs in two Minnesota cases involving bystanders injured during police pursuits, is more skeptical. "I guess I think that chasing anybody through the Lowry Hill Tunnel is too dangerous, given the fact that it doesn't have any shoulder," Bennett observes. "It's probably the most dangerous place to chase anybody in the city, as far as I can tell."  

One of Bennett's current cases involves the MPD. It stems from an August 1996 incident in which police pursued suspected car thief Darren Shannon the wrong way onto I-94, where he crashed into and killed limousine driver Brian Feist. The attorney is also suing the city of Blaine on behalf of Tim Helseth, who was rendered a quadriplegic in 1995 when a car being chased by police crashed into his pickup, also killing his passenger. That incident, Bennett notes, prompted Blaine to make its pursuit policy more restrictive.

Emboldened in part by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that appears to insulate police officers from lawsuits in pursuit cases, the city of Minneapolis is moving to dismiss the Feist case. "In the end everyone will realize that the Minneapolis police officers involved in the pursuit aren't the ones who started the dangerous pursuit," asserts Assistant City Attorney Burt Osborne. "The officers involved didn't cause the death of Mr. Feist."

But Bennett points out that the Supreme Court ruling--which found that "[a] police officer does not violate substantive due process by causing death through deliberate or reckless indifference to life in a high-speed automobile chase aimed at apprehending a suspected offender"--had nothing to do with bystanders, but with a case in which one of the suspect's passengers was killed in a pursuit. "I don't think bystander cases ought to turn on what an officer's intent was," the attorney argues. "What difference is it to Brian Feist or Tim Helseth what the officer intended to do with regard to the suspect in the chase?"

According to statistics kept by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), roughly one in every four police pursuits in the state ends in a collision. The figures also reveal that chases are most likely to be initiated for traffic violations and that they're most commonly undertaken in the bar-closing hours of midnight to 2 a.m. On average, more than 190 people per year were injured in Minnesota chases from 1989 to 1997, including suspects, their passengers, bystanders, and police officers. The study also found that while more than half of all police chases in the state end with the suspect being caught, fewer than 5 percent are called off owing to an officer's discretion.

The nine-year totals for Minneapolis: 954 pursuits, 346 of which ended in collisions, and 5 of which were called off by the officer or officers involved. For St. Paul: 830 pursuits, 283 collisions, 20 chases called off. (St. Paul's chase policy is somewhat more restrictive than Minneapolis's and states that "prior to a decision to pursue, an officer must consider if the pursuit itself would create a more hazardous condition than if no pursuit occurred."

But the BCA stats may not paint a complete picture with regard to Minneapolis. Earlier this year KSTP-TV (Channel 5) reporter Tom Hauser aired a story revealing that the MPD was vastly underreporting its numbers to the BCA. "There was a huge discrepancy," says Hauser, whose interest was sparked when he noticed that the BCA figures for Minneapolis in 1996-- the year Brian Feist was killed--listed no fatalities. Scouring police files from 1993 to 1997, Hauser compared the records to the figures the MPD had reported to the BCA. He found that while the city had reported 584 cases to the BCA during that time, its own records showed 1,260 incidents.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) passed a resolution in 1996 encouraging all law enforcement agencies to adopt written pursuit policies and pledging to work toward instituting a uniform system to better document chases on a national level. A study published last year by the National Institute of Justice found that of 436 agencies surveyed, more than 200 had modified their policies within the previous two years, and 87 percent of those made their policies more restrictive.

"A number of agencies have gone to a no-pursuit policy, a number of agencies have gone to a very restrictive policy such as only engaging in pursuit of suspected felons, and in some places only violent felons," reports IACP staffer Jack Grant. "I think with traffic conditions becoming more congested, particularly in metropolitan areas, you expose the general public, the officer, as well as the violator at risk when you enter into a pursuit. Is the risk that you're placing all of these people in lesser or greater than the need to apprehend this violator immediately?"

Grant notes that Baltimore County in Maryland has a no-pursuit policy, and the state of New Jersey limits chases to the pursuit of dangerous felons. A similar policy has been adopted in the city of Memphis, Tenn., where pursuits are permitted only when the subject of the chase is suspected of having committed a violent felony.  

Same goes for Miami. "The meat and potatoes of our policy is you won't chase unless there's probable cause to believe that the car has been involved in a violent crime against persons," says Miami police spokesman Det. Delrish Moss, who adds that officers there are prohibited from pursuing suspects for running red lights or speeding. While that has led to some problems with people who know they won't be chased, Moss maintains that the benefits outweigh the risks. "Chases are dangerous," he says. "Basically, what we try not to do is create a more dangerous situation."

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