Police Chief Charles R. Wall has banned all police pursuits in the city except for cases involving violent felons armed with guns.
The order, effective immediately, could eliminate nearly all police chases using motor vehicles, officers said Thursday. Police officers can no longer pursue drunken drivers, car thieves, burglars or other non-violent criminals who flee, according to the new order.
The June 2 memo from Wall was distributed to officers Wednesday night and Thursday morning. Some officers still had not seen the memo as of late Thursday. A copy was given to The Virginian-Pilot.
No other Hampton Roads jurisdiction has such a strict pursuit policy. The new order will affect other jurisdictions that chase fleeing motorists into Virginia Beach. Wall said those officers will be allowed to continue a hot pursuit in Virginia Beach, but they would not get help from his department’s officers unless the pursuit was justified under the new criteria.
The order is an interim step. Department officials are rewriting the pursuit policy, and the city’s officers will be given a chance to comment on a draft of the proposed orders. But Wall said he expects the final orders to be similar to the interim policy.
The new order is a sharp departure from the former policy, which allowed officers discretion as to when to begin a pursuit. The Police Department has in recent years allowed officers more latitude to aggressively halt fleeing motorists. Officers have been trained to use tire-deflating spikes and to box in fleeing vehicles with rolling roadblocks.
Also, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision made it very difficult for citizens to sue police in federal court for damages or injuries resulting from pursuits.
Wall said it was the safety of the community, and not the Supreme Court decision, that guided him.
“I am very concerned, as you should be, about the dangers inherent in police pursuits of vehicles,” Wall said in the memo. “The conflict between our efforts to protect the lives of citizens . . . and engaging in high-speed pursuits through city streets should be obvious.”
The new order will allow a pursuit only when an officer believes a car’s occupant or occupants have used a gun or a bomb to commit, or to try to commit, a violent felony.
“All other pursuits are prohibited,” the memo said.
Wall said Thursday the decision to curtail pursuits wasn’t taken lightly. He and others studied the pursuit policies of jurisdictions in at least seven states. They also consulted with national experts on police pursuits.
The chief said, after the review, he and his staff determined a more restrictive policy will be safer for the public and the police officers.
The new rules come against a backdrop of several controversial police pursuits in Virginia Beach, including some that have killed innocent people.
On Jan. 21, 1995, a drunken driver eluded police for 15 miles before the van he was driving slammed into a sports car in Norfolk and killed two people. Although state police had taken over the pursuit, the chase started in Virginia Beach. That chase would not be allowed now.
On March 25, 1997, Bruce V. Quagliato led police on a low-speed pursuit that ended when his car and at least two police cars collided on Independence Boulevard. He died after several police officers shot him, thinking he was armed. He wasn’t.
Twice in 1997, motorcyclists being chased for traffic or equipment infractions died after crashing at high speeds. Neither pursuit would be allowed now.
On Feb. 6, police said a 14-year-old girl was driving a stolen car when she sped from a police officer on Shore Drive. She and a companion survived a crash that killed an innocent motorist, 56-year-old Michael Boynton, a retired Navy SEAL and war hero. That pursuit would not be allowed today.
On March 14, five teen-agers in a stolen car crashed after trying to elude police. The car’s driver and one passenger, both 14, died. That pursuit would not be allowed today.
“We considered (these crashes) and we considered the danger to our officers,” Wall said. “We have looked at this for quite a while.”
Mary Boynton, wife of the man killed by the 14-year-old car thief, said Thursday she never blamed the police because they were doing their job. She said she instead blames the teen-agers who stole a car and killed her husband.
The new policy drew mixed reactions.
“I think it is great. It is something they should’ve done a long time ago,” said attorney Jim McKenry, who represents Quagliato’s family. Quagliato was shot to death at the end of a police pursuit when he refused to comply with officers’ orders. Under a strict interpretation of the new policy, a similar pursuit would not be initiated now.
His client “would still be alive and well,” McKenry said. Quagliato’s family is suing the city for $5 million.
But Mike Goodove, president of Southside MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he is concerned about any policy that could hamper police from aggressive DUI enforcement. Under this policy, police can’t chase a drunken driver who flees.
“The Virginia Beach Police Department should first of all be applauded for its efforts to combat impaired driving,” he said. “We would certainly interpret impaired driving as a violent offense because of the potential injuries and death the drunk driver would cause. Because an impaired driver poses a serious threat to others on the roadway, the proposed policy change to ban pursuits, with respect to drunk driving, gives us some concern.
“We are confident that the Virginia Beach police department will allow its officers to remove impaired drivers from the roadway while protecting the safety of those on the road,” Goodove said.
Lillian DeVenny, state president of Virginians Opposing Drunk Driving, said she can see both sides of the issue. An advocate for stringent police enforcement of DUI, she also knows a family whose son was killed in a police pursuit.
“In a way, (the new policy) angers me, but I have had ambivalent feelings on that matter for quite some time,” she said. “I feel the police officers have been doing their jobs as best as they can, but when I look at the other side of the coin, and see the victims of pursuits, I have second thoughts.”
The city’s new policy represents exactly the kinds of police guidelines that Wyoming-based STOPP, or Solutions to Tragedies of Police Pursuit, lobbies for. That group studies police pursuits and ways to reduce them.
“That is wonderful,” said STOPP’s Jeff Maceiko of the Virginia Beach policy. “We don’t want them to ban all pursuits, per se, but we do want to ban all except for the pursuits of violent felons. This exactly what we want.”
Several police officers contacted Thursday said the new policy will limit their effectiveness, and it may cause more motorists to run because they know the police won’t chase. They said drunken drivers, unlicensed drivers and other criminals would probably take the chance to escape. Many officers said only law-abiding drivers would stop for them now.
Wall said he doesn’t think that will happen.
“Every place we have looked that has similar policies, we found that simply has not been the case,” Wall said. “They reported that was not the result.”
Before Thursday, the decision to chase a suspect was left to the individual officer. The officer would have to consider, among other things, the risks involved, the severity of the offense, and the possibility of catching the motorist at a later time. Now, most of that discretion is eliminated.
“While none of us likes the thought of letting someone go who has committed a violation and compounded that by fleeing when we signal them to stop,” the memo said, “the overriding factor guiding all of our actions must be our concern for the safety of the officers involved and the citizens of the community, as well as the violators themselves.”
One of the city’s police-union representatives, Officer Bobby Mathieson, said his organization doesn’t yet have an opinion on the new policy.
“We welcome the public input on this,” he said. “The public should be a big part of this, to see if they support (the new rules), or if they don’t.”
Although the Supreme Court has granted police departments more protection, Virginia Beach is one of many agencies across the country adopting more restrictive pursuit policies.
Authorities in Florida said Hampton Roads fugitive Carl Douglas Consolvo outran a police officer because the Miami Shores Police Department doesn’t allow pursuits. Federal authorities said Consolvo then continued his crime spree, which included a wave of bank robberies and the shooting of a Utah police officer.
But even though police may sometimes fail to catch criminals, no-pursuit policies could save more than 100 innocent lives a year, advocates said.
In 1996, the latest year for which complete national statistics are available, 377 deaths resulted from police pursuits. Of those deaths, 111 were innocent third parties. The remaining 266 were in the fleeing cars.
Some states have tried to quell the number of police pursuits. Some of those efforts have targeted the motorists, and some have curbed the police.
Oregon lawmakers, for example, made it a felony instead of a misdemeanor to run from police. Other state lawmakers, like those in Delaware, are trying to craft statewide pursuit policies that all municipalities must follow.