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Editorial: BCSO fast-tracks tragedy with new pursuit policy

Police pursuits are inherently dangerous, placing innocent bystanders, officers and, yes, even the drivers and passengers of chased vehicles in danger.

It’s such a dangerous practice that police agencies throughout the country have clamped down on it, only allowing it in certain circumstances. The Albuquerque Police Department, for example, only allows it when an officer has reasonable grounds to believe the offender presents a clear and immediate serious threat to the safety of other motorists or the public prior to a pursuit, or if the offender had committed or is committing a violent felony.

But down the hall at the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Manuel Gonzales has deemed it wise to give deputies more – rather than less – latitude to engage in pursuits, arguing the public wants traffic “enforcement.”

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales

So he scrapped the policy of only allowing deputies to pursue suspects in cases involving violent felonies, such as homicide, rape and armed robbery, or when a deputy “has reasonable grounds to believe that the offenders have committed, or are attempting to commit a crime for which the necessity for immediate apprehension outweighs the level of danger created by the pursuit.”

The new policy allows deputies to pursue misdemeanor suspects if they believe the person is driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or is “flagrantly reckless” and a danger to others on the road.

The result: a more than six-fold increase in pursuits deputies engaged in last calendar year alone. The Journal’s Elise Kaplan pored over BCSO reports, crunched the numbers and found that in 2017, deputies engaged in 74 pursuits, compared to 11 in 2016. And most of the pursuits last year were for people who were speeding, driving erratically or suspected of flagrant reckless driving.

But it is the sheriff’s new policy that’s reckless, given the risks that come with police pursuits.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 7,090 people were killed in police pursuits nationwide from 1996 to 2015, nearly one person every day during that 20-year period. That includes 88 people in police vehicles, 2,365 innocent bystanders and 4,637 occupants of a chased vehicle.

In New Mexico during that 20-year period, 80 people died in police pursuits, including 37 innocent bystanders and 43 people who were in the vehicle being chased.

These are real people, and many had built their lives in our communities and had families who loved them.

People like Tito Pacheco, 39, who died soon after being struck by a suspect being pursued by Albuquerque police detectives in June 2017. Like Oscar Almeida, who died when a man fleeing a Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy barreled into his vehicle in March 2015. His wife, son and son’s girlfriend were seriously injured in the crash. Like Kimberly Aragon Nuñez, 34, and her co-worker Janice Flores, 28, who were killed when a man being pursued by APD crashed into the vehicle they were in April 6, 2010.

Police pursuits, while incredibly dangerous, are at times necessary when lives are at stake. But to allow them simply because a motorist is speeding, erratically or for other purposes that are trivial compared to the risk is foolish. Former Undersheriff Greg Rees and Sgt. Ryan Tafoya said in sworn testimony they had disagreed with the change to the pursuit policy. Rees said police chases are hard to manage and can get out of hand quickly.

And while there haven’t been any fatal crashes resulting from BCSO’s change, loved ones of Almeida, Aragon Nuñez and Flores would likely say it’s just a matter of time.

What Gonzales has sanctioned amounts to playing Russian roulette with innocent bystanders’ lives. That is unacceptable. He should revert to the department’s sensible policy before tragedy strikes.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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