POLL: Should police chase people for nonviolent crimes?
WHY THEY CHASE
Chattanooga Police Department: Only for violent felonies (murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, armed robbery, rape, aggravated kidnapping, child sexual assaults, aggravated arson)
East Ridge Police Department: For violent felonies. Nonviolent felonies, misdemeanor and traffic law violators can be pursued if their actions “clearly pose a threat to the community.”
Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office: For forcible felonies, any felony with supervisor permission, and for seven other listed offenses including DUI and aggressive driving.
Red Bank Police Department, Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, Collegedale Police Department and Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office: For anything, unless the risk to the safety of the community, officer or suspect outweighs the need for immediate apprehension.
Sources: Vehicle pursuit policies of named departments
On April 17, 2016, Larry Forester decided to flee from police.
He'd done it before and gotten away, more than once. He didn't want to go back to jail.
So this time, when the deputy's blue lights flashed in his rearview mirror, Forester hit the gas. He sped up to 110 mph on Dayton Pike in Sale Creek, just after 10:30 p.m., driving on a revoked license. Deputies suspected he was intoxicated, too.
They pursued Forester and his passenger for five miles, until Forester sped through an intersection and smashed into a guardrail. The deputies approached the wreck slowly, yelling for the men to come out with their hands up.
The passenger obeyed. But Forester couldn't. He wasn't wearing a seat belt and had been thrown into the truck's windshield. He was bleeding from massive face and head trauma.
By the time EMS arrived, the 27-year-old father of two was dead.
"I'm sure he didn't expect things to end the way they did," said Justina Massengale, the mother of his children. "I'm sure in his mind he thought he could get away, just like every other time he'd gotten away."
Forester is one of six people who died in crashes during police pursuits in the Chattanooga region between 2014 and 2016. All were suspects except 66-year-old Don Moon, an innocent bystander who died when a fleeing suspect crashed into his car in Tullahoma, Tenn., in July 2016.
Overall, injuries and deaths during police chases are uncommon, according to a Times Free Press analysis of 220 chases in the region, but such incidents highlight the tension between making a necessary arrest and the danger of a high-speed chase.
When to chase — and why — is a long-standing debate that is left up to individual law enforcement agencies to decide. Different agencies take different stands: some chase for misdemeanors, some only for felonies, some only for violent felonies.
At one point in 2003, Chattanooga police briefly decided not to chase anyone at all, for anything, citing public safety concerns. A new police chief changed that policy when he took office in 2004; three months later, two men died in a chase.
The day Forester died, Massengale drove out to the scene of the crash. She remembers handing her 1-year-old daughter to a friend before a deputy pulled her aside and quietly told her that Forester didn't survive.
She still hasn't told her 7-year-old son his dad died during a police pursuit. She doesn't want him to fear police, or to resent them. She'll tell him one day. Just not yet.
"I don't have hard feelings for the police," she said. "They have a job to do and a community to protect. But what if he had hit another car instead of a guardrail?"
Of 220 vehicle pursuits in the Chattanooga region in 2015 and 2016, about 16 percent ended with injuries, according to records obtained by the Times Free Press.
Suspects were injured in 24 chases, officers in six chases and passengers or bystanders in four chases. In three pursuits, the suspects died in crashes. In another instance, a suspect was shot and killed by officers at the end of the chase.
The 220 chases that the Times Free Press reviewed were conducted by the Chattanooga Police Department, Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, Red Bank police, Collegedale police, East Ridge police, the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office and the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office.
Fifty of the 220 pursuits ended with the suspects crashing, records show. In 48 chases, officers called off the pursuit and pulled back. In 47 cases, the suspects fled on foot. In 39 cases, the suspects stopped the vehicle and surrendered.
And while 59 percent of vehicle pursuits ended with an arrest, suspects were able to escape 38 percent of the time, according to records.
Many of those escapes happened when police called off the pursuits due to safety concerns.
"We have to think about what is best, and whether the offense is worth the risk to the public," said Eric Tucker, assistant chief in the Chattanooga Police Department. "If you start pursuing, and if it reaches high speeds, is it worth it to put the public in danger?"
The average top speed of the 220 pursuits was 82 mph, while the fastest pursuit hit 142 mph before the suspect fled on foot and escaped in Catoosa County.
Pursuits can be called off if a suspect drives into a crowded area, if road conditions are bad, if the officer loses sight of the vehicle, and for myriad other reasons.
Each agency sets its own policies, and they vary based on the jurisdiction's geography and population, said Vince Dauro, a regional program manager at the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies, which sets voluntary professional standards.
The commission doesn't mandate whether agencies should pursue suspects, but does require that each accredited agency keep a clear written policy that details when and why officers are allowed to pursue and when pursuits must be called off, he said.
"A state trooper, they're generally out on the interstates, where pursuing at 90 mph may not be as dangerous as in a 25 mph school zone," he said. "It varies so much that the agency has to look at their jurisdiction and their ability to pursue."
In Chattanooga, police pursue only if they believe the suspect has committed or is committing a violent felony, Tucker said. But that's not the case across the region. The most common offenses that prompted police pursuits in the region were minor traffic violations such as running a stop sign, failing to wear a seat belt or driving with a broken taillight.
Such traffic violations prompted 25 chases during 2015 and 2016, records show. Speeding was the next most common crime, prompting 24 chases, followed by stolen vehicles, which led to 19 chases.
At least four of the six people killed during pursuits in 2014, 2015 and 2016 were pursued for misdemeanors, records show. Hamilton County sheriff's deputies pursued Forester for three suspected misdemeanors: driving on a revoked license, driving under the influence and failing to have working tag lights.
Nearly a year after Forester's death, Massengale still is adjusting to life without him.
The 27-year-old was a dedicated father, she said, caring and involved in his kids' lives. He was passionate about riding dirt bikes and motorcycles, and taught his toddler son to ride, running beside the dirt bike to guide the youngster and catch him if he fell.
Forester also struggled with drug addiction, alcohol and abuse, Massengale said.
"He'd try to stay clean, but there was always that weakness there," she said. "He fought with knowing the right thing and with what would make him feel better."
Forester had a long criminal history in Hamilton County that including charges for evading arrest, drug use, driving under the influence and assault. A month before he died, he was arrested for reckless driving, improper passing and evading arrest.
Massengale would like to talk with the deputies who chased Forester, she said. But at the same time, she wonders what there is to say, really.
Forester had marijuana, alcohol and various prescription drugs in his system when he died, according to his autopsy.
Since his death, life has improved in some ways, Massengale said, without the alcohol and abuse.
"But it's hard to think our kids will never see their dad again," she said. "It hurts me that he's not here to see their improvement and growth. And the other day, our son asked me, 'What if something happens to you?' It's something a lot of kids don't have to see."