On a Thursday night a month ago, Zachary Lumpkin was on the run from law enforcement in a 1992 Ford Ranger with a warrant out for his arrest.
Lumpkin failed to appear in court for charges of possession of stolen property, driving with a suspended license and possession of a firearm.
Whitfield County Deputy Christopher Hicks, normally assigned to the department's drug unit, was on patrol due to a recent officer shortage, according to Sheriff Scott Chitwood.
Shadow Stanley, 20, was in the passenger seat with Lumpkin as Lumpkin fled from police. During the chase, Hicks made the decision to execute a PIT maneuver, a tactic in which a pursuing officer uses his or her cruiser to push the fleeing vehicle's rear end sideways with the nose of the cruiser, sending the suspect's vehicle into a spin.
Lumpkin's Ranger slid sideways, went airborne and hit an electric pole before coming to a crashing stop on its hood. Both Lumpkin and Stanley were pronounced dead at the scene, near the intersection of Highway 41 and Little John Lane.
Lumpkin and Stanley were the fourth and fifth people in the last eight months in Whitfield County to die as a result of law enforcement using the PIT maneuver, or precision immobilization technique. Even when it's not deadly, the maneuver can maim those being chased.
In September 2019, Makayla Whitt, on the run after stealing a car, lost her arm after a PIT maneuver was executed by the Georgia State Patrol near the Catoosa and Whitfield County border.
In August, 2020, Phillip Jackson and Tiffany Bingham were pronounced dead at the scene of a crash after a PIT maneuver was executed by the Georgia State Patrol on Interstate 75 near the Gordon County rest area. The driver, Quentin Alonzo, was running from police after allegedly stealing a car. Alonzo was pronounced dead at an area hospital later that same night.
None of the fatalities were people suspected of a violent crime.
The Washington Post in August reported that at least 30 people died from the maneuver from the start of 2016 to the fall of 2020. That number does not include the five that have died in Whitfield County since.
High-speed pursuits have long been a Catch-22 in law enforcement. On the one hand, police have to avoid putting the public in danger by operating a 2-ton vehicle at high speed while pursuing an erratic driver who is also in a 2-ton vehicle. On the other hand, police don't want to send the message that perpetrators can get away if they flee.
From 1996 to 2015, an average of 355 people, or about one person per day, were killed annually in pursuit-related crashes, according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Justice report.
"For anyone other than a violent felon, the balance weighs against the high-speed chase," the National Institute of Justice has said.
The tactic can be very effective. Just this month, a state trooper used the PIT maneuver 150 miles south of Atlanta to capture 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long following a shooting spree at three metro Atlanta spas that left eight people, including six Asian women, dead.
In January 2020, former Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields announced a zero-pursuit policy after several deadly incidents, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She noted a potential rise in crime but added that suspects who are out on bond often become repeat offenders and that she couldn't justify those pursuits "when the courts aren't even going to hold them accountable."
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank that advises police leaders on policy, told the Post that his organization does not recommend using a PIT maneuver.
"You wouldn't want to endanger the officer or the person you're pursuing unless you had some reason to believe they were going to commit a violent crime," Wexler said.
The PIT maneuver is a difficult one to learn. Officers are usually trained on closed roadways at speeds between 25 and 40 mph. Slow speeds and open roadways with no bystanders are the ideal conditions when using the move. At high speeds, like the two recent instances in Whitfield County, it can become deadly.
In 2006, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police conducted a study on the maneuver in partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology. The report concluded the maneuver "is controlled and predictable" but "in certain circumstances could result in serious injury or death."
However, the study also found "that it was safe at both high and low speeds, in both wet and dry conditions," according to The Intercept.
Chitwood said there is no current plan to change the Whitfield County sheriff's department policy on using the maneuver and said Deputy Hicks acted in "accordance to our policy" during this Highway 41 incident.
"We are always concerned with the loss of life in our community regardless of the reason or cause," Chitwood said. "Law enforcement officers oftentimes have to make a split-second decision and sometimes the results are not always favorable."
Whitfield County Sheriffs Office's policy states "under reasonable and prudent circumstances, the PIT maneuver does not constitute deadly force" but is considered a use of force.
Speed, road conditions, traffic volume and the driver's reluctance to slow down or disregard for others' safety are all factors that officers are trained to consider before executing the maneuver.
On June 11, 2020, a trooper with the Georgia State Patrol called dispatch and said he was in pursuit of a stolen Ford Fusion on Interstate 75 in Whitfield County.
The trooper had tried to pull the car over because when he ran the tag, it showed the car was stolen from somewhere in Chattanooga.
According to an incident report from the GSP, the driver of the stolen car — 30-year-old Alonzo — was topping out at speeds of about 120 mph. The trooper then used a PIT maneuver.
Alonzo and the two passengers in the car — 32-year-old Jackson and 42-year-old Bingham — veered into the median, overturned and then hit a tree.
Jackson and Bingham were pronounced dead at the scene. Alonzo was airlifted to a hospital, where he later died.
Following the February pursuit, Hicks was put on temporary administrative leave but returned on Monday.
Bert Poston, the district attorney for the Conasauga Judicial Circuit, is reviewing three cases in which a PIT maneuver was used in Whitfield County. Poston told the Times Free Press that he agreed on a review process with Scotty Smith, the head of the local Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team with the Georgia State Patrol.
"(We agreed) we should treat these cases to some extent like other officer use-of-force investigations, although obviously the dynamics are different than for an officer involved [in a] shooting case," Poston said in an email. "We're still working out the protocols for how that's going to work as to my knowledge, it was never done in the past."
Poston said two of the pending reviews are Georgia State Patrol cases and the third is the recent one involving the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office. No decision has been made on any of them yet.
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.