Big picture of police pursuit deaths

High-speed police chases cost the life of one bystander, on average, each year in Pennsylvania, according to statistics compiled by the state police Bureau of Research and Development.

Even more bystanders are injured in crashes that are linked to police chases.

In 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 14 people died during the 1,522 police pursuits reported in Pennsylvania, according to the bureau’s annual pursuit report.

One person who died was not involved in the chase while the other 13 who died were violators, the report shows.

More than 12 percent of the chases, or 187 of them, resulted in injuries. Of the 219 people injured, 35 were bystanders, 39 were police officers and 145 were violators, according to the report.

“Few areas of police work raise as much public scrutiny as police pursuits. The basic dilemma associated with high-speed police pursuits of fleeing individuals is deciding whether the benefits of potential apprehension outweigh the risks to police officers, the public, and the violator(s),” the report concludes.

The report lists the most common reasons for police chases as traffic violations, 53 percent, followed by felony offenses, 15 percent, and drunken drivers, 14 percent.

Of the 1,522 chases in 2012, 517 resulted in 693 crashes. More than one crash may occur during a single pursuit, the report notes.

Just more than two-thirds of the chases – 70 percent – resulted in the apprehension of one or more violators, according to the report.

Meanwhile, privileges for drivers of emergency vehicles, including those in pursuit of a suspect of the law, are outlined in Section 3105 of the state vehicle code.

The Sun-Gazette obtained a copy of the code after receiving numerous reader requests for the information in the wake of a fatal accident this past Sunday that involved a police chase in the city.

According to Norman Lubin, city solicitor, the state code is not able to be amended by individual municipalities.

City police Officer Jonathan Deprenda, 32, who was hired in August 2011, was the driver of the police cruiser that collided with a vehicle driven by James David Robinson, 42, who died in the crash’s fiery aftermath. The crash occurred about 6:48 p.m. Sunday on East Third Street while Deprenda was on his way to assist another officer on a high-speed pursuit of a felony suspect.

State police are investigating that crash.

The state vehicle code sets conditions for emergency vehicle drivers, who are permitted to go through a stop sign or red signal “only after slowing down” as needed for safe operation. Audio and visual signals are required.

They also may exceed the speed limits “so long as the driver does not endanger life or property,” the code states.

The code also permits those drivers to “disregard regulations governing direction of movement, overtaking vehicles or turning in specified directions.”

“This section does not relieve the driver of an emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons,” the code states.

State police Trooper Mike Knight of the Montoursville barracks said that in years past, police pursuit guidelines were like “the wild West” where anything could happen.

But seeing that unnecessary deaths were occurring, the state, insurance companies and police departments looked to give stricter guidelines for police officers involved in pursuits.

For the state police, Knight said, they must stay in constant communication with a supervisor during a pursuit. The supervisor is able to terminate a pursuit at any point.

A pursuit may be terminated for any number of reasons, including knowing the identity and residence of the individual or for the safety of all involved.

Knight said officers must take a number of things into consideration when deciding if safety is a concern with continuing pursuit. He said speed of the chase, if there are a number of uninvolved vehicles in the area and weather conditions are factored in when pursuing a vehicle.

“Basically, when the interest of public safety starts to become in jeopardy, that’s when you typically terminate pursuits,” he said.