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Dangerous pursuit: Austin police foot chases can lead to injuries, shootings


On April 5, 2012, when an Austin police officer stopped 35-year-old Ahmede Bradley for having music blaring from his car, Bradley bolted and ran. So junior officer Eric Copeland did what police officers often do: he took off after him, on foot, through an East Austin neighborhood.

When Copeland caught up to Bradley, the chase turned into a fight. Copeland said Bradley tried to choke him with his police radio cord as he also reached for the officer’s gun. Their scuffle came to an abrupt end when Copeland fired three rounds into Bradley’s chest.

Today, Bradley’s mother, Angela Orr, wonders if her son’s life could have been saved by a more patient police response.

“He had the license plate number, and he knew the car,” Orr said of the officer. “They could have just issued an arrest warrant and gotten him later when the officer had backup. There should have never have been a foot pursuit, period.”

Just over a year later, another Austin police foot chase ended in fatal gunfire. Two months ago, Detective Charles Kleinert, a 20-year veteran, pursued Larry Eugene Jackson in Central Austin after investigators said Jackson came to a bank, possibly to pass a forged check. Kleinert told investigators that when he caught up to Jackson, his gun accidentally discharged when the two struggled, hitting Jackson in the back of the neck and killing him. The case remains under investigation.

The deaths raise questions about a common, but little-researched and sometimes dangerous police tactic: Nearly twice a day on average, Austin police officers engage in a foot chase — pursuits that might last only a few moments or for several adrenaline-filled minutes through rocky terrain, thick brush or over fences and other obstacles in heavily populated areas.

Among the city’s more than two dozen police shootings since 2008, about 30 percent, including the deaths of Bradley and Jackson, involved a foot pursuit before an officer’s gunfire, an analysis by the American-Statesman and KVUE News found.

Like carrying a gun or speeding to crime scenes in cars, running after suspects poses an inherent risk, although it is often expected by the public for law enforcement. “There are several times when you have to run, and that is what you get paid for. We are well-paid, and that is just one of many duties that we have,” said Ken Casaday, spokesman for the Austin Police Association.

Yet foot pursuits routinely take a toll on police officers and citizens. In the past three years, more than 150 Austin officers have been hurt while running after a fleeing suspect.

But chases are far more dangerous to suspects, the analysis found. Of more than 2,000 foot pursuits in the past three years, about 1 in 5 suspects apprehended received injuries that ranged from minor to severe.

While the chases, including several that ended with a police shooting, often involved suspects who had just carried out a violent crime or who were armed, officers also ran after suspects who posed no apparent immediate danger and who ran from police after committing relatively minor crimes.

Officers get wide latitude in deciding to give chase, and none has been disciplined in recent years for violating the department’s foot pursuit policy. Like most such policies around the nation, the 5-year-old policy doesn’t prescribe the types of crimes that merit a chase by drawing a distinction between misdemeanors or felonies or between violent or nonviolent offenses, for instance. Yet, unlike some police policies around the nation, it also permits officers to engage in a solo chase, without backup.

“Criminals aren’t dumb,” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said. “They know what they can get away with. If we as a department decide we aren’t going to engage in foot pursuits no matter what, that is an invitation to chaos.”

Yet critics have begun to increasingly suggest the department should do more to tighten its policy, particularly in the aftermath of Jackson’s death, to reduce the number of dangerous and deadly pursuits.

“The risk of these chases is that people are actually getting killed,” said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project and frequent police critic. “I think the only time you should really be in a situation of chasing somebody is when that person is clearly posing a danger to other people. We have to get away from the immediacy of this — the adrenaline runs.”

A natural response

Despite the frequency and dangers of police foot chases, little is known nationally about how often they happen and the number of resulting injuries or deaths. Far more attention has been placed on vehicle pursuits because of their presumed greater threat to uninvolved motorists.

Geoff Alpert, a professor in the University of South Carolina criminology and criminal justice department, said that 30 years ago “it was chase until the wheels fall out.” But because of injuries to officers, suspects and bystanders, most departments now restrict vehicle pursuits to only violent crimes.

“It’s a balancing issue,” he said. “Do you really want to put the public at risk to catch a speeder versus catching a rapist or robber or murderer? They are the threats to our well-being and need to be apprehended, and we have to be willing to take some chances.”

Robert Kaminski, an associate criminal justice professor also at the University of South Carolina, has been among the few scholars to study foot pursuits. He said police often are just responding to an innate impulse.

“I think it is a natural tendency, when somebody bolts, to try to grab them,” he said. “They think they are running for some reason. It must be drugs or guns, or they were up to no good.”

Dave Smith, a former Arizona Department of Public Safety lieutenant and now a consultant, said foot pursuits can become dangerous because they immediately escalate the interaction between suspects and officers.

He and other experts said foot pursuits result in a heightened physical response from exertion, combined with a psychological response from being pursued or chasing. Smith said officers often must contend with a curiosity — “what has he really done?” — and what he described as sometimes an emotional need to chase.

Suspects, meanwhile, almost always make an impulsive decision to run and rarely consider the possible outcomes, he said.

“They don’t want to get caught, and they panic,” Smith said.

Greater attention to foot pursuits by law enforcement helped prompt the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2003 to adopt a model policy on foot pursuits, and Austin’s current policy strongly reflects the organization’s recommendations. Yet two years ago, when Kaminski surveyed police departments in major cities nationally, he found only 12 percent had one. “I’m amazed,” he said.

Some departments that do have such policies, including Austin and more recently Dallas, adopted them after foot chases that ended with high-profile shootings.

Austin’s policy came after the June 2007 death of Kevin Alexander Brown, who was killed by Sgt. Michael Olsen in East Austin. Olsen said he fired after Brown reached toward his waist as if drawing a weapon; investigators later recovered a gun at the scene.

But Acevedo fired Olsen for using poor judgment and tactics. Acevedo said at the time that Olsen, who was investigating a report that Brown, 25, had a gun at a nightclub, didn’t wait for backup before approaching Brown. Acevedo also questioned whether Brown posed an immediate threat.

Police in Dallas adopted a new foot pursuit policy last year after an officer chased and killed a possible kidnapping suspect with a lengthy criminal history that included drug-dealing and evading arrest. The officer later told investigators that he was exhausted and ended up alone with the suspect after hopping a series of fences, according to The Dallas Morning News. During a struggle, the officer said he shot the man after the suspect reached into a pocket for what the officer mistakenly thought was a weapon.

'It is a good policy'

Because so few pursuit policies exist — San Francisco, Indianapolis and Detroit don’t even track the number of occurrences — comparing Austin’s policy to other cities’ is difficult.

Dallas police direct officers to discontinue a foot pursuit if they are acting alone or would be chasing two or more suspects simultaneously or if they lose their weapons. Detroit and a few other departments also prohibit a single officer from chasing a suspect.

Acevedo said he wouldn’t support that restriction, however, because Austin officers almost always work solo, and so the number of instances in which officers could chase a suspect would dwindle dramatically and crime would spike.

Rather, according to the Austin pursuit policy, officers should consider whether a suspect is known and can be arrested later; ask themselves “what would be gained from pursuing the suspect”; and measure the risk to themselves, fellow officers, suspects and bystanders. They are also urged to consider whether a suspect is armed and the availability of backup.

The city’s foot pursuit policy also differs from its vehicle chase rules. Car chases receive rigorous scrutiny from an officer’s supervisors, including a review of written reports and audio and video of the incident.

By comparison, Acevedo said after foot chases supervisors are only called to the scene to observe what happened. But he added that, because most pursuits ultimately end in force against suspects, they also get documented and reviewed as a use-of-force encounter.

Still, Acevedo said it “is a good policy, and it is a policy we are proud of, and it is a policy that we will continue to ensure that there is adherence to.”

Experts say one reason departments should adopt foot pursuit policies is to reduce the number of officer and suspect injuries incurred during pursuits.

According to Austin police records, officers engaged in 2,121 foot chases from Aug. 1, 2010, through July 31, 2013 — an average of about 700 a year. Of those, 440, or 21 percent, involved an injury to a suspect, ranging from a complaint of minor pain to a serious injury that required hospital treatment.

Kaminski wrote in the January 2013 issue of “The Police Chief” magazine that, based on his research of foot pursuits in the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department, one or more suspects was injured in 60 percent of foot pursuits — far more than reported in Austin — while deputies sustained injuries in about 17 percent of such pursuits.

Austin police statistics also show that 67 officers were injured in foot chases in 2011, 69 in 2012 and, so far, 23 have been hurt in 2013. Officials said they hadn’t compiled the resulting cost in workers’ compensation claims.

Officer Jared Ralston chased after a suspect last year who fled from police after a traffic stop and initially led police on a car chase. After the suspect eventually abandoned his car, Ralston caught up to him on foot, but broke his leg as he wrestled the suspect to the ground.

“I would like to think I’m a pretty tough guy, but an hour after that incident, I wasn’t very tough,” Ralston said.

The injury left him out of work for six months and with permanent scars.

Tragic escalation

A handful of pursuits have resulted in much more serious consequences.

Among Austin’s 27 police shootings in the five-year period, eight started with a foot chase, according to the American-Statesman and KVUE News analysis.

Several involved suspects who police said had just carried out violent crimes. One such incident was the November 2008 shooting of Adan Mondragon, 23, by officer Will Ray. According to police, Mondragon was among several men involved in a robbery and assault inside a home on Blessing Avenue near Interstate 35 and U.S. 183. The suspects fired their guns as they fled and eventually led police on a foot chase. Mondragon, wearing a bulletproof vest, shot an AK-47 at Ray, who fired back and killed Mondragon. Acevedo praised Ray for acting heroically.

Yet other shootings happened after incidents that started with less serious crimes and quickly escalated.

In December 2010, Austin police officer Frank Wilson fatally shot Maurice Pierce after an encounter that began when Wilson stopped Pierce for running a stop sign. When Pierce ran, Wilson gave chase. During a subsequent struggle, Pierce slashed Wilson’s neck with a knife he grabbed from Wilson’s belt, and Wilson fired.

Pierce had been a suspect in Austin’s notorious yogurt murder shop murders in 1991, but the charges had long since been dropped against him.

Critics say such escalation illustrates why foot pursuits for minor crimes are risky. In the 2012 shooting of Bradley, Copeland initially detained Bradley on Manor Road for playing his car music too loudly.

During the stop, Copeland smelled what he believed to be marijuana, saw a “white substance” on Bradley’s face and asked him to step out of the car to search the vehicle for possible drugs, according to police. Bradley fled near Overbrook Drive in his car.

The situation escalated further when Copeland caught up to Bradley, who had begun running, as he tried to jump a fence. The two struggled before Bradley broke free and fled, police said. During a second struggle that followed, police said Copeland tried to use his Taser stun gun but it failed. After the shooting, officers performed CPR, but Bradley died at the scene.

Last month, a Travis County grand jury declined to indict Copeland on any charge.

Orr, Bradley’s mother, said she thinks her son ran simply because he was scared. “He made the comment to me, ‘Mom, we are afraid of the police,’” she said.

Orr said she thinks that if Copeland had halted the chase and pursued her son another day with several backup officers, the traffic stop likely would have resulted in a different outcome. “If he would have done that, I know Ahmede would be alive today,” she said.



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