Few things are easier to examine with the benefit of hindsight than a police chase, where potentially dangerous decisions must be made in the blink of an eye by responding officers. Aborting the chase could save lives or put more people at risk, as could a move to stop a car right there and then. It's why law enforcement agencies of all sizes and jurisdictions maintain guidelines for pursuing suspects—and why a deadly PIT maneuver that capped off a chase in Arkansas earlier this month is now drawing attention.
KFSM News reports that the pursuit began on Friday, April 10 when a U.S. Forest Service officer saw a Ram 1500 pickup driven by a 34-year-old local man named Justin Battenfield run a red light in Fort Smith and refused to stop. Units from the Arkansas State Police took over the chase after 17 minutes, following Battenfield down a five-lane major route called Zero Street when troopers observed him weaving into oncoming traffic at high speed. That's when the order to stop the truck by any means was handed down.
"Fourteen, get up there and get him stopped, because he's driving on the wrong—on the other side of the road and we need to get him stopped," an ASP supervisor can be heard saying on dashcam video released by authorities. "I don't care if he's brake-checking you. Get this car stopped as soon as there's an opening on the highway."
The supervisor doesn't even finish speaking before Trooper Michael Shawn Ellis in a Dodge Charger Pursuit runs up along the right side of the Ram and PITs him at a GPS-recorded 109 mph. Warning: The following video shows a fatal crash. Viewer discretion is advised.
The impact, captured on Ellis' dashcam as well as that of another trooper following close behind, is devastating. The Ram flips on its side almost immediately and gets stuck perpendicular in front of the Charger, its undercarriage now being pushed by the cruiser as the two veer off the road. It starts to roll violently as it digs into the soft dirt of a roadside ditch—then the mechanical maelstrom hits a culvert while still traveling above 60 mph, crushing the truck's cabin and launching the Charger a good 20 feet into the air.
"Ok he's got him stopped and... go ahead and start EMS," the follow-up trooper radios in at the end. Battenfield died in the crash. Trooper Ellis was hospitalized with "non-life-threatening" injuries.
The deadly end to this chase—the trooper could have easily been killed as well had the rollover gone just a bit differently—raised questions about whether authorities acted appropriately. Back on April 10, Arkansas State Police immediately announced a joint probe into the crash by its Highway Patrol and Criminal Investigation divisions. That investigation is still ongoing; however, the department issued a statement to KFSM News this week generally defending the use of the PIT (pursuit intervention technique) maneuver, where an officer purposefully spins out a fleeing suspect by ramming one of the car's rear fenders.
"PIT has been used by the Arkansas State Police for no less than the past 18-20 years and continues to be used by state troopers, particularly if innocent lives are being threatened, as was the case involving the Fort Smith incident," spokesman Bill Sadler said.
Arkansas State Police doesn't publicize its pursuit guidelines, but WVTM News reports that the decision to call off a chase can be made "by the primary unit or ordered by a supervisor at any time during the pursuit." Sadler's statement indicates Battenfield's dangerous driving convinced troopers that letting him go would've put more lives in jeopardy—though whether or not he would've continued to drive at 110 mph on the wrong side of the road without police chasing him is a legitimate question with no easy answer. There's been no announcement regarding the reason he fled in the first place.
There are other tools at the disposal of officers in pursuit situations, like spike strips, though history shows those don't always bring about a clean end either. Regardless, we're not here to call anyone out absent the full story—consider this a visceral example of how dangerous a police pursuit can be.
Got a tip? Send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org