Police chase: is it safe? who decides?

OKEECHOBEE — To pursue; or, not to pursue? That is the question.
And the answer to that question varies with each law enforcement agency.

Case in point: On Jan. 4 Sergeant P.C. Eddings, from the Okeechobee City Police Department (OCPD) stopped a vehicle being driven by a man who was a suspect in a misdemeanor retail theft case at Walmart. The sergeant stopped the vehicle on S.W. 17th Street, in front of Domino’s Pizza. As Sgt. Eddings was walking up to the vehicle the driver, later identified as Edward Allan Lamarr Pickett, put the car in gear and sped off.

Edward Pickett

By the time the veteran police officer got back to his patrol vehicle, Pickett was turning south onto S.W. Third Avenue. The sergeant then gave chase, all be it a very brief chase.

The pursuit ended some 11 blocks later when Pickett allegedly ran a stop sign and crashed into a Chevrolet pickup truck at the intersection of S.W. Third Avenue and S.W. 28th Street.

It should also be pointed out that when Pickett approached the stop sign at S.W. 28th Street, there was another vehicle already stopped at the control device. Instead of stopping, Pickett reportedly swerved around that stopped vehicle, entered the intersection and struck the truck.

Should Sgt. Eddings have pursued the suspect over a possible misdemeanor charge of retail theft?

OCPD Chief Bob Peterson said yes.

“He (Sgt. Eddings) did not violate any department procedure,” said the chief.

“We don’t distinguish between misdemeanors and felonies.”

Chief Peterson and OCPD Major Donald Hagan both agreed that when Sgt. Eddings saw Pickett, 33, run a stop sign at S.W. Third Avenue and S.W. 21st Street, the sergeant felt it was time to break off the pursuit through the residential neighborhood. At that point, explained Maj. Hagan, the sergeant knew Pickett wasn’t going to stop and the safest thing to do was to break off the chase.

Officers or their supervisors can break off the chase at any point and will do so, said the chief.

“Sgt. Eddings was considering calling it (the pursuit) off but, before he could, it was over,” explained Chief Peterson. “The pursuit was over so quickly, that it was over before the officer could make a decision.”

After checking on the man and two small children in the pickup, Sgt. Eddings arrested Pickett.

Pickett, U.S. 441 N., Okeechobee, is charged with one felony count of fleeing and eluding a law enforcement officer and one misdemeanor count of no valid driver’s license.

Department of Corrections (DOC) records show Pickett has served three stints in prison. His latest came in 2008 when he was convicted in Glades County on felony charges of burglary and grand theft. He was released from prison in November of 2009.

Interestingly, he was sentenced to prison in 2004 after being found guilty in Okeechobee County of high speed fleeing and eluding a law enforcement officer. He was released in 2005 after serving nine months.

So, what is the city’s policy on pursuits?

“The decision to initiate pursuit must be based on the pursuing officer’s conclusion that the immediate danger to the officer and the public created by the pursuit is less than the immediate or potential danger to the public should the suspect remain at large,” states the OCPD policy.

That policy goes on to point out: “Any law enforcement officer in an authorized emergency vehicle may initiate a vehicular pursuit when the suspect exhibits the intention to avoid apprehension by refusing to stop when properly directed to do so. Pursuit may also be justified if the officer reasonably believes that the suspect, if allowed to flee, would present a danger to human life or cause serious injury.”

While making the decision to pursue, the policy says the officer shall take into consideration: road, weather and environmental conditions; population density and vehicular and pedestrian traffic; the relative performance capabilities of the pursuit vehicle and the vehicle being pursued; the seriousness of the offense; and, the presence of other persons in the police vehicle.

As mentioned above, the pursuit policy of the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) differs from that of the police department.

The OCSO policy states: “Deputies shall only initiate a vehicle pursuit to apprehend a fleeing forcible felony offender when the subject poses an immediate and significant threat that endangers human life and immediate apprehension is necessary to protect the public against this threat.”

Some examples of offenses that justify pursuit, according to the OCSO policy, are: carjacking, burglary, aggravated assault, aggravated stalking, aircraft piracy, sexual battery, robbery, kidnapping, murder, attempted murder, arson and any violent crime to a person.

That policy goes on to require deputies to contact their on-duty supervisor upon initiating a pursuit to get the OK to continue. If that supervisor cannot be contacted or does not immediately give the OK, the pursuit must be stopped.

Also, the forcible felony “… or immediate, specific and continuing threat to the public’s safety used to justify a pursuit must be articulated by the facts or circumstances that are known or reasonably believed prior to the initiation of the pursuit.”

The OCSO policy goes on to note that continuation of the pursuit will be continually evaluated and can be stopped at any point by the appropriate supervisor.

“An order by the on-duty supervisor to terminate the pursuit will be followed immediately and without question,” dictates the policy.

So, there you have it: Two agencies and two different policies.

As for who is responsible for what happened, Chief Peterson said the accident was caused by Pickett and that the “… city is not responsible.” He went on to point out the victims in this accident will have to pursue Pickett in civil court.

The accident is under investigation by OCSO Deputy Joseph Hall.

According to OCSO public information officer Michele Bell, at this point it does not appear as if Deputy Hall is going to file any additional charges against Pickett.

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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