New York Times
June 6, 2013


After a Police Pursuit Ends Fatally, Doubts Arise Over the Decision to Give Chase

By J. DAVID GOODMAN

It was a situation nearly as old and familiar as the automobile: a police chase of a suspect fleeing in a vehicle.

But even though the pursuit in Upper Manhattan on Tuesday led to the arrest of a suspect, the tragic byproduct of that chase — the death of a young bystander — has raised questions over the police’s decision to chase at all.

The New York Police Department instructs its officers, when considering whether to pursue a vehicle through the city’s crowded streets, to weigh the safety risks in maintaining the pursuit versus the danger in allowing the suspect to get away.

“You’re going down the road in a 2,000-pound missile,” said Capt. Travis Yates of the Police Department in Tulsa, Okla., who has trained officers around the country in police pursuits. “So you’ve got to have a pretty serious reason to do that.”

It is a balancing test common to departments everywhere.

“There’s a lot of adrenaline involved and cops want to catch bad guys,” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina who has studied police pursuits for the Justice Department. “But at what risk? That’s a question that’s not asked often.”

The number of pursuits has declined nationwide in recent years, Mr. Alpert said, largely as a result of departments limiting the sorts of suspects they will pursue. But roughly a third of police pursuits end in a crash, usually by the fleeing vehicle, with about 20 percent resulting in injury and 1 percent in death, a figure that still amounts to at least one fatality per day, he said.

Police officials in New York defended the 8-block, 23-second chase of a sport utility vehicle fleeing after a traffic stop on 89th Street. That chase ended with the death of a 4-year-old girl as she walked with her grandmother on the sidewalk.

“I wouldn’t call it a pursuit,” Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly told reporters at Police Headquarters on Wednesday. He said the decision to follow the sport utility vehicle, driven by a 17-year-old who the police said did not have a proper license, was being looked at by the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

“From my vantage point, at this juncture, I don’t see the actions as being unreasonable,” he said. “If you let the police walk up to the car and then you take off, you assume you’re going to be pursued.”

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the police officers’ union, rejected criticism of the officers’ decision to pursue the suspect, saying the blame rested on the driver who “made a conscious decision to run from police.”

In 2010, an armed robber fleeing the police in Harlem crashed into another vehicle, sending it into a crowd of pedestrians, roughly a mile from the site of Tuesday’s crash. An 83-year-old Roman Catholic nun was killed and four others were injured.

Experts, even those who urge more restrictive criteria for chases, said pursuits of violent crime suspects were warranted. “You don’t judge a pursuit by the crash,” Mr. Alpert said.

The driver on Tuesday, Franklin Reyes, had taken his family’s Nissan Frontier without permission and was driving with only a learner’s permit when a squad car pulled him over after he made an illegal turn across lanes of traffic. As officers approached the car on foot, he sped off.

Seconds later, the police said, Mr. Reyes lost control of the vehicle while turning from Amsterdam Avenue and 97th Street, fatally striking the girl, Ariel Russo, and her grandmother, who was injured.

Investigators determined he was trying to make the left-hand turn “at 34 miles per hour, which obviously is a high rate of speed,” Mr. Kelly said on Wednesday.

Mr. Reyes was arraigned on Wednesday on a charge of second-degree manslaughter and four other counts and was ordered held without bail. During the hearing, his lawyer, Martin Schmukler, said, “He has no one to blame but himself, but needless to say, it wouldn’t have happened if the cops wouldn’t have been there.”

The chase, at 8:15 a.m. along a thoroughfare lined with schools, alarmed some who witnessed it. The S.U.V. blew through red lights, followed tightly by the police car, said Mark Lamb, 49, a technology worker who was walking his daughter to her school on 93rd Street.

“The N.Y.P.D. car was literally feet behind this S.U.V.,” he said. “The siren on that cop car, it was only the low-pitch one that was going boop-bwoop, boop-bwoop. No wailing sirens, no warning that this thing was coming.”

Sheldon Fine, 64, was coming out of Bagel Basket, near 90th Street, and getting into a taxi when he said he saw what appeared to be a “scene of a highway chase.”

“I feel that maybe there was a better way,” said Mr. Fine, a member of the local community board. “But until you’re in the shoes of the policeman who is responsible for dealing with the incident, it’s hard to tell.”

Fausto Pinto contributed reporting.