Hot pursuits rare in city

Twice this week criminals being chased by Ashland police escaped justice. But Deputy Police Chief Rich Walsh said public safety outweighs catching the bad guys in most cases.

Although APD had two opportunities to engage in high-speed chases this week &

one for a stolen car and another for a reckless driver on Lithia Way &

both were called off because of a policy that restricts high speed chases.

"We have to determine what we are chasing the vehicle for," Walsh said. "Is it worth risking the safety of the rest of citizenry?"

In one instance, a man stole a car from a house on Mountain Avenue on Monday morning. An Ashland police officer, responding to the crime, saw the grey Acura on Interstate 5, driving north. He switched on his lights and sirens and attempted to pull the stolen car over. The driver &

a white man wearing a white baseball cap &

had other plans. He sped up, took exit 19, blew through the stop sign on Valley View Road and got back on the highway. The officer followed him, but once speeds exceeded 80 mph, a supervisor called off the pursuit.

A second high speed chase opportunity occurred on Tuesday, just after midnight, when an officer saw a "BMW-like sedan" driving 50 mph on Lithia Way. The officer tailed the car down First Street onto B Street, through the parking lots of Umpqua Bank and then the Historic Ashland Armory, over to Oak Street, to Water Street and back to East Main Street. But when the driver made it to Siskiyou Boulevard, and began to travel at a "very high rate of speed," the pursuit was again called off.

"It's very odd to have two in one week," Walsh said. "We get about four or five to a half dozen pursuits a year. Most get terminated."

He said officers, and their supervisors, have to determine if the reason they are chasing a suspected criminal is worth putting people's safety at risk. In both instances this week, a supervisor called off the pursuits.

"If we're not chasing someone for a violent crime, we are going to terminate pursuit," he said. "When you have vehicles traveling at a high rates of speed there are huge risks. We don't want to see an innocent person injured or killed because of situation that can go bad."

John Phillips, president of Pursuit Watch, a national group that advocates for legislation and police policies that foster safer police chases, said this is the kind of policy all police departments should adopt. He said out of the 35,000 police pursuits that occur annually, about 40 percent end in car crashes and 20 percent result in injuries. More than 100 innocent people die every year, he said, because of police pursuits.

"A police officer's job is not to arrest people," Phillips said. "It's to protect the public. We feel they would be protecting us best if they only pursued when it's absolutely necessary."

Pursuit Watch, like APD, believes police should engage in high-speed chases only when a violent crime has been committed.

Walsh said this can be frustrating for officers, who "see as part of their duty to arrest people for committing crimes."

The APD's policy states that, "The Ashland Police Department will conduct emergency responses and police pursuits with the utmost regard for the principles of safety and the welfare of innocent persons. The decision to initiate a pursuit must be based on the pursuing officer's conclusion that the immediate danger to the public created by the pursuit is less than the immediate or potential danger to the public should the suspect remain at large."

Walsh said the policy is "probably one of more restrictive policies on pursuit compared to other agencies."

But for him, that's not a bad thing.

"I'm not a real fan of pursuits," he said. "Bad things can happen."

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