Although the deaths last week of three innocent bystanders following a broken kidnapping arrest and subsequent car chase have finally turned the attention of other area media to problems with the Houston Police Department's loose pursuit policy, HPD is still insisting that it does nothing wrong when it comes to going after fleeing criminals on the highway.
This insistence comes even though, in the six weeks since the Press highlighted a number of tragedies that had links to Houston-area high-speed chases ("Deadly Pursuit," March 10), five people have died and five more have been injured during police pursuits. Even more disturbing, in two incidents within the last month, HPD seems to have ignored even its own loose restrictions on pursuit and then shrugged away any questions about the police actions.
The deadliest case was the most recent -- the deaths last Wednesday of Marco Segura, his wife, Gloria, and their three-year-old son, Marco Jr. In this instance, the HPD officers apparently broke the most basic rule of chase policies when they took off after a suspect in an unmarked car. Undercover police had been watching 19-year-old Johnny Arguijo, a suspect in an aggravated kidnapping case. When they closed in for the bust, Arguijo jumped into his van and fled "at an extremely high rate of speed," said a police spokesman.
The undercover stakeout team followed and was able to catch Arguijo after he ran a stop sign and crashed into a Toyota that contained the Segura family. Additional injuries occurred when the Toyota was pushed into a nearby yard by the impact and then overturned on a man and his three-year-old son.
Arguijo is likely to face charges of capital murder in the deaths of the Segura family. However, HPD Chief Sam Nuchia has stated that in his view the police involved were blameless. Still, though the accident may have occurred even if the officers hadn't pursued Arguijo, according to HPD policy, they had no business chasing him in the first place. The policy makes clear that officers in unmarked cars are allowed to follow a suspect at a safe speed, but should not "pursue." Given that they nabbed Arguijo only moments after the crash, the cops were apparently keeping pretty good tabs on the suspect's high-speed escape.
In the same contextual tap dance that has followed more than one case of deadly pursuit in recent years, an HPD spokesman said the unmarked car wasn't chasing "per se." "Basically, the unmarked vehicle was keeping the vehicle in view until a chopper arrived," says Alvin Wright of the HPD media relations office. Wright could not say whether a helicopter was called to join the chase; he could say only that "there may have been other units of ours out there."
Houston police have also asserted that there was nothing wrong with a Blues Brothers-like scene in the early-morning hours of March 28, when a parade of cop cars chased 21-year-old Jim Anders, a suspected car thief, from southeast Houston to the city's northeast corner. Witnesses say that in the hour-long chase, police were remarkably adept in their attempts to tail a heisted Chevy Suburban, going so far as to stay right with the truck as it jumped median strips and raced the wrong way through city streets. One cab driver told of being forced into a ditch by the screaming caravan, which may have included as many as 14 police vehicles. The chase might have included the day shift at some point if Anders hadn't ended it by crashing into an HPD patrol car.
After the incident, police spokesman Rick Hartley said HPD policy allows officers to drive however they want, as long as they use sound judgment. While some critics have argued that the Houston Police Department's official pursuit policy should mention in detail what constitutes chase etiquette, the policy is instead almost willfully vague, saying only that officers must drive with "due regard for the safety of others."
Referring to video footage showing a cavalcade of cop cars hot on Anders' tail, Alvin Wright says, "Apparently, what had occurred on that one was that the [officer] in charge of the pursuit called off those units shortly before what you saw. "
Even so, the chase would seem to be in violation of basic police procedure in many jurisdictions, procedure that limits pursuits to three patrol cars. Wright says that the three-car pursuit is "basically" the routine, but that at the HPD, there's no set limit of cars permitted in a chase. Wright says the department has reviewed all of its recent chases, as required by the policy, and "we feel very confident with the procedures that we have.... Basically what we've seen so far, the officers have not been in violation of the policy."
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That may be because since 1990, when former police chief Lee Brown left town, the Houston Police Department's high-speed-chase policy has devolved into one of the loosest in America. While there certainly wouldn't be so many chases if there weren't so many bad guys, HPD's policy, once considered a model of restraint, is now notorious for what one expert calls its "carte blanche" quality -- that is, for allowing officers to do what they want. The most frequent criticism has to do with the policy's lack of restrictions regarding what crimes justify pursuit.
HPD defends its actions by saying that officers catch a lot of dangerous criminals after pursuits, even if they're only for running a red light. Officers insist that if a person is not willing to pull over when ordered, he or she has something to hide.
Actually, in the other fatalities that resulted from chases in recent weeks, the people involved did have something to hide. But whether that something was worth their deaths is an open issue. The bodies in this case were those of two 15-year-olds from northeast Houston who were killed April 4 when they fled police in a stolen car and crashed into a utility pole on the Hardy Toll Road. Police say the driver, Juan Melendez, fled after being pulled over by police. Relatives of Melendez and the other killed teenager say no one would have been hurt if police hadn't decided to chase.
In this sort of case, though, HPD policy seems clear. Even though the people who died were teenagers, and even though the law they had apparently violated carries no capital penalties, since they were involved in a crime, says Police Chief Sam Nuchia, "I have no sympathy for them.