PDT Staff Writer
When a spectacular crash, such as the one which occurred last Tuesday afternoon at Eighth Street and Campbell Avenue in Portsmouth happens in the course of a pursuit by a law enforcement agency, invariably several questions arise. One is - what is the pursuit protocol set up by that agency? Another is - what is the liability of the governing body of that agency in case of property damage, such as was caused to the Fish Bowl bar, or a fatality or severe injury that occurs as a result.
In last Tuesday’s police pursuit that ended in a multiple injury crash, Melinda Weddington, 41, of 1302 1/2 Fourth Street had reportedly been involved in a shoplifting, later charged up into a robbery, of the Family Dollar Store on 11th Street, and had already apparently struck two vehicles even before pursuit by Portsmouth police.
That chase ended when Weddington apparently plowed into an ASC bus and then into the front of the bar. Seriously injured in the accident was the bus driver, Dorothy Hammond, 70, of Lucasville, who remains in Cabell Huntington Hospital. Hammond reportedly was thrown from the inside of the bus out onto the street due to the crushing impact of the accident. Several patrons inside the Fish Bowl were simply lucky to have walked away from the accident as Weddington’s vehicle struck the cement block foundation of the bar, just missing the glass front door and wooden frame of the bar by inches.
Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Ware says the pursuit in that case was less about the theft of items from the store, and more about the reckless operation of a vehicle by Weddington following the incident at the store. Ware said the shoplifting which turned into a robbery when the woman bit a clerk’s arm, occurred at approximately 4:07 p.m.
“She hits a parked car about a minute later,” Ware said. “Then, this witness starts to follow her and calls in on her. Then, I believe at some point she backs into his (witness) car. Shortly after that is when the officers find her down in the east end. And then the actual crash occurs at 15 minutes after (4:15). It’s all within a six minute time frame.”
Ware was asked to clarify the chain of events.
“We’re being dispatched to the shoplifter, and then the second call from the clerk says, ‘she’s just bit me. She’s leaving, and she went under the (Offnere Street) underpass.’” Ware said. “Within 60 seconds of that, (another) caller calls in on (Weddington) flying through the underpass, striking a car, and then (the witness) is still on the phone trying to direct us to where she’s at. Then once we find her, she decides she’s not going to stop for us. That’s all in about a six minute interval. People need to remember, sometimes officers only have a split second to make a decision.”
Ware explained the point where shoplifting turned into robbery. Ware said when Weddington allegedly bit the clerk’s arm, it became a robbery, since that is considered violence.
“If it’s simply somebody has stolen something and we know who they are, it’s maybe not that big of an issue,” Ware said. “But flying through intersections at rush hour, wrecking cars, that ups the danger to the public.”
According to a paper titled “Evidence-Based Decisions on Police Pursuits,” by David P. Schultz, Ed Hudak and Geoffrey P. Alpert, PhD - “Perhaps the most compelling, ongoing, and logical reason for law enforcement’s continued interest in high-speed vehicle pursuits has been its concern in balancing the values of crime control and offender apprehension with ensuring the safety of all parties who potentially might be involved—police officers, suspects, victims, bystanders, and the community.” This balancing test has formed the cornerstone of pursuit policies, training, and practice for the past several decades.
Ware said there really is no blanket answer to when a pursuit is executed because of the variables involved in each incident.
“We have a policy and procedures that covers that,” Ware said. “It all depends on the severity of the crime, and a variety of conditions - weather, traffic, we still try to keep the safety of the public in mind when we do things. You just have to weigh all the circumstances and the risk, and then determine if the risks are outweighed by the need to apprehend.”
Lieutenant Karla Taulbee, Commander of the Portsmouth Post of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, said her department also has a pursuit policy.
“Basically it’s that a supervisor will be in charge of that pursuit, to oversee it,” Taulbee said. “You look at it as far as can you determine who the other driver is already? But also, what did the person do? Is it someone who poses a danger, or could they be in danger? Did they kill somebody? or something of that nature, what’s the reason that’s the determination as far as how far we go with our pursuit.”
Taulbee said road conditions and hazards, how the suspect is driving, and how much of a risk it presents, that factor into the decision by the supervisor.
Portsmouth City Solicitor Mike Jones said the point to which the level of a crime accelerates depends on the circumstances. Jones also said cities are normally not held responsible for such incidents.
“Typically the city is immune from any type of liability while they are acting within the scope of their employment,” Jones said. “If it was determined that the situation was that they were outside their employment acting recklessly, there’s a potential that the city could be held liable. It really all depends on the facts and the circumstances. Typically the answer is no, but it could vary depending on the circumstances.”
According to the “Evidence-Based…” paper, “Police pursuit records provide some frightening statistics.” First, the majority of police pursuits involve a stop for a traffic violation. Second, one person dies every day as a result of a police pursuit. On average, from 1994 through 1998, one law enforcement officer was killed every 11 weeks in a pursuit. Innocent third parties who just happened to be in the way constitute 42 percent of persons killed or injured in police pursuits.
All area law enforcement agencies questioned for this story said many precautions must be taken when considering any high speed pursuit.
Meanwhile, the driver of the ASC bus, Dorothy Hammond, 70, of Lucasville, remains in Cabell Huntington Hospital.
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 232, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.