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Siren's Call

High-speed police chases are back in the spotlight. Weighing the life-and-death decisions of pursuing the bad guys.

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TRAVELING FROM Harrisburg, Penn., to Miami for a church convention in mid-March, pastor Charles E. Commodore pulled off Interstate 95 to see an old friend. He particularly enjoyed passing through history-rich Richmond — marveling at the city's historic architecture, the beautiful colonial houses, the cobblestone streets. “It's like a storybook fascination,” he says. He wove his way through Church Hill, pulling up in front of the sanctuary where his friend worked.

He wasn't in. Working at the funeral home, a church member said.

“Tell him I'll see him in Florida. Tell him I was looking for him,” Commodore relented, before climbing back into his car and heading south.

Six days later, he got the news. “I couldn't get out of my bed,” Commodore recalls. The man he'd known for 40 years, whom he preached with regularly for 17 years, vacationed with a year ago on a Mexican cruise, had been killed in a freak car accident. Apostle Anthony L. Taylor was driving to the church around 9 p.m. on March 24, delivering fruit for the church members heading to Miami with him the next morning. Darryl Harris, high on marijuana, had been speeding away from Henrico police through Church Hill when he ran a stop sign and slammed into Taylor's Ford Ranger, flipping the truck and partially ejecting the pastor. Pinned under the truck, Taylor, wearing a brown suit with brown suspenders and a yellow tie, was killed instantly, his torn body sitting at an intersection a few blocks from the United House of Prayer for All People on Chimborazo Boulevard, where he'd been pastor for 18 years.

A few days later Commodore again found himself in Richmond, sleeping in the church's school above the sanctuary. The national church's leadership had asked him to pack up his family in Harrisburg and move to Richmond to take Taylor's place. Commodore was conflicted. He loved Taylor, but didn't want to leave his home or his own congregation up north where he'd been pastor for 17 years. At dawn one morning he crept down to the sanctuary, in his pajamas, to speak with Taylor. His son was still asleep upstairs, and he was alone with his old friend.

“Taylor, I don't think I can do this,” he recalls saying, standing over the casket, tears streaming down his face. “I got my own kids, Taylor, I can't come. I'm not you. You were a better man. … They'll see I don't have your patience.”


 

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At the Richmond Dragway in Sandston, Henrico police officers undergo driver training every two to three years. They practice navigating high- and low-speed serpentines, turning at high speeds and handling a car that's skidding out of control.

THE MAN ACCUSED of killing Taylor stands trial July 14 on charges of second-degree murder, aggravated involuntary manslaughter, eluding police, hit and run and driving under the influence. The police chase that claimed Taylor's life started after Harris, 26, attempted to elude a DUI checkpoint set up by Henrico police just across the city line. Details regarding the incident have yet to be released publicly, and Richmond Circuit Judge Margaret Spencer has ruled that Harris' lawyer, Michael Morchower, cannot introduce evidence concerning Henrico's pursuit and checkpoint policies, dismissing the policies as irrelevant to the case.

But it hasn't stopped the political fallout. In the wake of Taylor's death, police pursuits once again are in the public spotlight. It happens every so often: A high-speed pursuit claims the life of an innocent bystander while police pursue a motorist for a traffic infraction or some minor offense. Is it worth it? Does it make sense to risk the lives of innocent people to chase, at speeds exceeding 80 mph, a suspect who smoked a joint and panicked when he saw flashing blue lights?

Between 35 and 40 percent of police pursuits end in accidents, killing 360 people a year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to a recent study by USA Today, a third of those killed in police pursuits are motorists or bystanders who weren't involved in the chase. Police pursuits and car accidents account for more officer deaths, nearly 37 percent, than any other police activity: Of the 2,623 officers killed in the line of duty from 1987 to 2006, 998 were killed in automobile, motorcycle and aircraft accidents, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

While many police departments have tightened pursuit policies in the last few years, a majority of the policies remain loosely structured, allowing officers to pursue suspects for just about any offense, including misdemeanors and minor traffic infractions. Some departments have restricted pursuits to suspects wanted for violent offenses and major felonies, including homicide and sexual assault. But in a review of 73 police department pursuit policies across the country, the International Association of Chiefs of Police found in a 2008 study that 52 percent allowed police pursuits for any offense.

“Most of the research that has been done suggests that more restrictive policies are better,” says Allison Chappell, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University. Without restrictive, detailed pursuit policies, a simple traffic stop that goes awry, for example, can escalate quickly, often unnecessarily creating life-threatening pursuits for offenses that seem hardly worth the risk. “You have irrationality and emotions running high, and you intensify that in the process of a hot, high-speed pursuit,” says Dawn Rothe, a professor of criminology at the Norfolk university. “If you back off, you decrease those levels of adrenaline.”

That's what happened when Harris sped off to elude the checkpoint, as he tells it. Apprehended after crashing into Apostle Taylor's truck, Harris told police that he panicked. He'd just “got done smoking a blunt,” he told police, according to court documents, and fled in part because he had a pistol under the seat.

“You've got to chase bad guys, but you've got to do it reasonably,” says Doug Cooley, director of the Southwest Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy, and a longtime police driving instructor. “You've got to weigh the need and seriousness of why you are chasing somebody against the dangers that you are facing.”

 

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Henrico police Sgts. Parke Slater and Kenny Cordle, left, talk with officers about to undergo skid-car training. They'll navigate a coned-off course in a car with hydraulics that lift the car's chassis so that the tires barely touch the asphalt, making it unstable.

Most police departments spend considerable time training officers to do just that. In both Henrico and Chesterfield counties, driving instructors who teach officers the finer art of police pursuits say it's a matter of attitude, weighing the seriousness of the crime committed, driving conditions and a variety of potential safety hazards.

In Chesterfield police recruits must undergo 80 hours of driver training, with the first six days in the classroom going over procedure, handling techniques, pursuit policies and decision making, with two days devoted to pursuit driving on a road course behind the county government complex off Route 10, dubbed Safety Town. There's also additional driver training for officers once they've graduated, every two years.

In Chesterfield patrol officers are charged with deciding whether to pursue a suspect, but Lt. Brian C. Smith, an assistant director of the Chesterfield County Police Department's training academy, says they're well equipped for the responsibility. “We're focusing on safety and vehicle control,” he says. “We run it like a basic training course here. We stress safety from the word go.”

In Henrico police recruits undergo 64 hours of driving instruction over seven days, including pursuit training, and receive additional training every two to three years.

To engage in a high-speed pursuit in Henrico, officers have the discretion to initiate a chase, but a supervisor must then decide whether it can continue. Both Chesterfield and Henrico closely monitor the pursuit while it's in progress.

Aside from pursuits, to break the speed limit, to run with lights and siren, to go Code 3 while responding to any call in Henrico first requires a supervisor's blessing, says Sgt. Kenny Cordle, who runs the department's emergency vehicle training program and is a patrol supervisor in the county's East End. “Unless I feel there is true life endangerment,” he says, “you're not going to go Code 3.”

Before the county's population exploded in the 1980s and 1990s, it wasn't uncommon for police to regularly engage in long, drawn-out pursuits. The times were different. At 2 a.m. police cruisers often were the only vehicles on the roads. Police would send everyone to chase down a suspect in those days, sometimes a dozen or more cars at a time, creating a caterpillar of blue lights through the streets.

Nowadays, Cordle and Henrico's patrol supervisors rarely allow more than two cars to engage in a pursuit at any given time. It's simply too dangerous.

Despite the training, however, pursuits can quickly escalate and get out of control, says Sgt. Parke Slater, a Henrico patrol supervisor. “Emotions are high, adrenaline is running. It's a difficult thing to manage,” he says, explaining that the decision to engage in a pursuit often is made in a split second. Weighing all the variables — the severity of the crime committed, road conditions and traffic, Slater says — can make it “extremely difficult for even a veteran officer to remain objective.”

Still, police are reluctant to give up the pursuit. Tying officers' hands and installing a limited, or no-pursuit policy, as a few departments have done, would send the wrong message to criminal offenders, some say.

“I've heard the same stuff over and over, forever,” Cooley says. He adds that the public often doesn't hear about the successful pursuits, and that suspending a pursuit also has consequences, referring to a case in Florida years ago when police decided to cut off a chase and the suspect wound up running a stoplight and killing another motorist. “They may have terminated, and the bad guy keeps going,” he says. “Know the facts before you start blaming the police.”
 

 

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Jessica Sears lost her husband, Colonial Heights police Lt. James H. “Jamie” Spears, four years ago after a Chesterfield police officer, driving in excess of 100 mph in a pursuit, struck his vehicle. She says “pursuits are a necessary evil of police work.”

FOUR YEARS AFTER her husband was killed by a Chesterfield police officer engaged in a high-speed pursuit, Jessica Sears struggles to piece her life back together. Her husband, Colonial Heights Police Department Lt. James H. “Jamie” Sears, was heading home after working out at the gym when he got caught in a high-speed pursuit on U.S. Route 1. After swerving to avoid another car at an intersection, the Chesterfield officer slammed into Sears' car, killing him. Police clocked speeds of 110 mph during the chase.
Jessica Sears and two of her children were en route to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for vacation when she got the call at 3:40 a.m. that her husband had been in an accident. A close friend and fellow night shift supervisor, Lt. William Anspach, wouldn't give up details to her over the phone. “You got to come home,” Sears recalls Anspach telling her. “You got to come home.”

Her sister began driving her back to Richmond in the middle of the night and agreed to meet Anspach somewhere in between. “I just physically felt ill. We both began driving to meet on I-95. I saw him pull in, in his unmarked unit,” Sears recalls. “[Anspach] took me by the shoulder and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Jamie is dead.'”

The three children each reacted differently to their father's death. Noah, now 12, finds comfort in doing things that remind him of his dad, playing basketball and hanging out with dad's old friends, but he doesn't share much emotionally. “He takes a lot of information in,” Sears says, without “giving a lot of information out.” Her oldest, Luke, 17, is blunt like his father, and has no time for people who don't do what they say they'll do. Unlike his brother and sister, Luke, who's considering becoming a police officer one day, seems to find comfort in talking about his dad, asking questions about what happened, dealing with it head-on.

Claire, 16, handles it differently. “She's just locked it away. She doesn't initiate conversations about him,” says Sears, who sometimes worries about her daughter's emotional reluctance, but says that “she's very, very well adjusted.”

For four months after their dad died, the children slept with their mom in their father's bed. Slowly but surely, they began to get on with their lives. Sears purchased a bike and finds comfort taking long rides, often in Petersburg National Battlefield Park. “That's my happy place,” she says of the bike rides, adding that she typically logs about 70 miles a week.

After the accident, Sears filed a complaint against the county, charging that the officer was at fault and “partook in gross negligence” when he ran two stoplights at high speeds and ultimately caused the crash, says Gregory Hooe, a lawyer with Richmond law firm Marks and Harrison, who represented the Sears family. The county claimed sovereign immunity, which in Virginia exempts emergency vehicle operators from criminal prosecution when performing public duties. The courts have generally ruled in favor of police departments in such cases, but Chesterfield County settled with the Sears family in the gross negligence suit for $2.35 million.

Shortly thereafter, Chesterfield police invited Sears to speak to police recruits on the potential dangers of pursuits, and she regularly gives presentations to police academies in Virginia and across the country.

Because her husband “was one of them,” her presentation is particularly powerful, Sears says. She shows pictures of Jamie when he was younger, playing with his kids, on their wedding day, at the beach, in the office in full uniform. Then the screen flashes pictures of the funeral. Her husband had been promoted to lieutenant a year earlier, Sears says, and had always looked forward to wearing his lieutenant's dress uniform, the dark coat and dress shirt. “The first time he got to wear his nice new dress blouse was in a casket,” she says.

After all she's been through, Sears says she understands the need for police pursuits and feels strongly that officers must have the ability to make the call. Her husband, Sears says, wouldn't have wanted his death to result in policies banning pursuits. “There's no easy answer to it,” she says. “Pursuits need to happen.”


 

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The accident that killed Apostle Anthony Taylor in Church Hill could have been avoided, says Richmond Delegate Delores McQuinn, who contends that high-speed pursuits shouldn't be allowed in dense neighborhoods such as this one.

THE RECENT DEBATE over pursuits that emanated from Taylor's death, however, isn't subsiding. Richmond Delegate Delores McQuinn, who lives in Church Hill and knew Taylor well, has led a political charge to institute a statewide pursuit policy and see to it that pursuits in places such as Richmond, with densely populated neighborhoods, don't continue unabated.

Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones also called for reviewing pursuit policies in the region after Taylor's death, particularly when they cross jurisdictional boundaries. When Henrico police pursued Harris into the city, Richmond police weren't notified, which struck a nerve with City Hall. Jones has cited the lack of communication between police departments as point of contention, and since Taylor's death Richmond police have been reluctant to assist Chesterfield and Henrico police when pursuits approach the city's borders. Recently, police sources say, Richmond has denied participating in at least two pursuits initiated by county police — something that rarely happened in the past — resulting in suspension of the pursuits.

After calling for a regional review of pursuit policies in March, Mayor Jones backed off in mid-May, holding a news conference at City Hall and concluding that the region should formalize a longstanding regional pursuit policy. At the conference, both Jones and Richmond's police chief, Bryan Norwood, declined to discuss the city's pursuit policies any further, citing the need to keep such “tactical” information close to the vest.

In Henrico, sources say the pursuit that led to Taylor's death hasn't led to any policy changes, and that the officers in charge followed existing guidelines. One of the officers involved in the pursuit told Style Weekly that radioing the city after they crossed the border would have made little difference. The accident occurred about 20 seconds after the pursuit entered into the city, the officer says.

“While there may not have been any policy changes,” Sgt. Slater says of the accident that killed Taylor, “we are in a constant state of review.”

 Concluding that everyone followed the rules, however, may simply mean the rules need to be change, McQuinn says.

“We can't continue with these police pursuits in these densely populated areas,” McQuinn says. “Because of [Harris] being pursued for a traffic violation, there was a major loss. How many more innocent people have to die?”

Taylor's death has led to a push to study pursuit policies, and institute possible statewide standards, by the Virginia State Crime Commission, which met in mid-June. At the meeting, a roomful of police chiefs from around the state generally agreed that more resources are needed for driver training, but there's reluctance to accept a statewide policy establishing strict ground rules for when and when not to pursue a suspect. One jurisdiction can differ dramatically from the next, and what's good for one county may not be good for the city. McQuinn agrees that it's a tough call, but says the important thing is to get everyone at the table and the discussion going.

“What is feasible for Richmond, what's in the best interest for Richmond, might not be feasible for Charles City,” she says, adding that Taylor's death has brought the issue to the forefront. “I think this one really brought it to the point that we know to do nothing is irresponsible.”


OVER AT THE United House of Prayer on Chimborazo Boulevard, the church that Taylor led for nearly two decades grapples with the loss of its pastor. Commodore says the congregation is still grieving. “They are not over him, point blank,” the pastor says. “Just beneath the surface, there is a well of pain.”

The small church, which has about 200 members, was built in Taylor's likeness. Unmarried and single, Taylor devoted seemingly all of his energy and time to the church — perhaps to the point of spoiling. Members talk of the time he gave the shoes off his feet to a homeless man, how he'd give money, food, whatever he could to people off the street who entered the church. At times it has frustrated Commodore, who's had to explain to those who expect the same from him that he's no Taylor. He scolded a man recently who came into his office, demanding that Commodore give him money, food, anything before he left. “He was a man off the street and he said, ‘Give me some help!'” the pastor recalls. Commodore lost it. He asked the man why he expected something for nothing. Why wasn't he in church, joining Apostle Taylor and his mission? “I said you should have joined him,” Commodore says. “You let an angel get by you.”

Commodore grew up with Taylor in Charlotte, N.C., and recalls that Taylor was preaching when he was young, delivering the word of God, to the point that the other kids would tease and taunt. He was at the church at all hours, and because he had no family of his own essentially adopted the congregation as his children. During his funeral, church members sat in the section reserved for his family. “He was a single man. They were his life,” Commodore says, chuckling at how Taylor was constantly fending off female advances. “He was dogged about, ‘Who you going to marry?' It was relentless pursuit.”

Commodore isn't sure how long he'll remain as pastor in Richmond. His wife is still in Pennsylvania, and his only his son, Domineak, has so far made the move with him. (Ironically, Commodore says his son is applying to become a police officer in Henrico County.)

As for Taylor's death, Commodore says faith has led him to believe God called the minister to rest. Whether a more restrictive pursuit policy could have saved Taylor is irrelevant. “God looked to him and said it's enough,” he says. “You don't have to go another day.”

Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, Style misspelled the name of the late Colonial Heights police Lt. James H. “Jamie” Sears, who was killed in a high-speed pursuit in 2006. We regret the error.

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