"All units, Ridgeland PD in pursuit. Gray Crown Victoria on lower (Spillway) Road, request assistance," a voice said over the police scanner from Reservoir Control tower.
"They're going about, looks like 90-plus (miles per hour) right now," said another voice over the radio.
"It's a gray Grand Marquis, gray Grand Marquis."
Ridgeland police sped after suspects down Spillway Road, from Ridgeland to Flowood, on the morning of Feb. 5.
The cool, late-morning reservoir air rushed over their cruisers as Reservoir Patrol, Rankin County Sheriff's deputies and Flowood police responded to the news that the high-speed chase was quickly headed to their jurisdictions.
The chase continued down Spillway Road, with Rankin County officers joining the pursuit. Within minutes, the Grand Marquis turned onto Highway 25 in Flowood, and passed Pinelake Church, Good Shepherd and St. Paul's Catholic churches, headed southwest at close to 100 mph through two school zones, with police and sheriff's cruisers close behind.
"Going to kill somebody, might want to back off of him," a voice said over the police scanner.
"Do not get in the way of this suspect," another voice said.
Less than three seconds later, the words became prophetic.
"10-50, Grants Ferry at 25," an officer's voice said, signifying that the Grand Marquis had crashed into another car.
Milinda Clark was driving her beige, '90s-model Nissan Altima on Grants Ferry Road, returning to Pinelake Church where she attended the early service, to pick up her two children from Sunday School.
Clark saw a green light that signaled it was safe to cross the southbound lanes of Highway 25 at the busy Grants Ferry intersection and merge onto the northbound side of the highway.
The gray Grand Marquis that led police on a high-speed chase for a little more than seven miles, from Kroger in Ridgeland to the intersection of Highway 25 and Grants Ferry, did not let Clark get through the light.
The front bumper of the Grand Marquis met the driver's side door of Clark's Altima at nearly 100 miles per hour. The social worker and 38-year-old mother of two died at the hospital later that day.
The Felony Conundrum
Jennifer Ford and Robert Williams, the suspects in the Grand Marquis that killed Milinda Clark that Sunday morning, had attempted to steal two grocery carts full of beer, meat and other food, worth $566.36, from the Kroger on Old Canton Road in Ridgeland, according to the Ridgeland Police investigative report.
Williams never made it out of the store with his cart before an employee stopped him. A store manager detained Ford just outside the front door of the store, but let her go when he saw Ridgeland police arrive. Both suspects left the carts of food and went to their car.
Sgt. Chad was the first on the scene. At that time, according to the Ridgeland Police Department, the commanding officer thought he witnessed Williams try to hit an officer with the vehicle.
The commanding officer then gave police clearance to pursue the fleeing suspects. At the time of print, police have not confirmed the identity of the commanding officer who approved the pursuit, due to the ongoing investigation in the Ridgeland Police Department.
So why did Ridgeland police deem it necessary to chase two shoplifting suspects, neither of whom got away with any stolen goods, at speeds up to 100 miles per hour?
The Mississippi Department of Standards and Training offers three suggested policies for pursuit in the state.
Each law enforcement agency must adopt a policy based on what they determine best fits their jurisdiction; however, laws do not require individual policies to adhere to one of the three suggested policies (see below.)
The Ridgeland department has a restrictive policy on pursuits, meaning that its officers are only allowed to chase in cases of a violent felony, a felony by someone who is unidentified and is in a vehicle that does not have identifying plates, or a criminal who demonstrates a serious and immediate threat to the public.
The department reported that the suspects' Grand Marquis did not have a license plate. Attempting to shoplift $566.36 worth of groceries is a felony (the minimum amount to constitute a felony is $500), but the officers could not know the value of the goods Williams and Ford attempted to shoplift until after the pursuit began.
Presumably, then, it was the commanding officer's belief that Williams was trying to hit an officer with his car, along with the absence of a license plate on the Grand Marquis and lack of identification on the suspects, that warranted the high-speed chase under Ridgeland's policy.
Ridgeland Police Chief Jimmy Houston said that when a car does not have plates, it hinders the law enforcement officers from being able to track the car later, making a pursuit necessary.
"The Supreme Court has said that there are times when a pursuit would actually be justifiable, and that is during a time when there has been a violent felony committed, when there is no opportunity for you to know who that person is. And you may pursue, if you weigh those issues," Houston told the Jackson Free Press.
In Mississippi, fleeing from the police "in such a manner as to indicate a reckless or willful disregard for the safety of persons or property" is a felony.
Houston said that some courts have said that fleeing from police is a violent act itself. So even if Williams had not, or did not, attempt to hit an officer with his car, Houston believes a chase may still have been warranted under Ridgeland's policy.
The family of Milinda Clark wants to be sure the actions of Williams and Ford that morning did, in fact, warrant the pursuit that ended in Milinda's death.
Attorney Ashley Ogden, who represents Clark's children and her estate, sent a notice-of-claim letter Feb. 29 to the Ridgeland city clerk and the mayor requesting that the city investigate the actions of the Ridgeland police officers involved in the pursuit.
Clark's family has declined comment due to the pending lawsuit.
Under the Mississippi Torts Claims Act, which lays out how citizens can sue cities, the city has 90 days to investigate the claims made in the letter.
After 90 days, the city must either inform Ogden that the Ridgeland police did something wrong and offer to settle for the wrongdoing, or say that Ridgeland Police broke no laws or policies.
In that case, the children and the estate must sue the city of Ridgeland if they wish to collect damages.
The Thrill of the Chase
Candy Priano, her husband, Mark, and her daughter, Kristie, were on their way to Kristie's high school basketball game in Chico, Calif., in Candy's minivan in January 2002. About the same time, another teenage girl decided to take her mom's car for a joyride without permission.
The joyrider's mother called the police and asked them to be on the lookout for her daughter, whom she believed would be at a friend's house, and asked police to bring her home.
When police spotted the joyrider and turned on their blue lights, the young woman didn't stop. She led police on a high-speed chase through a residential neighborhood, where the Prianos were headed to Kristie's basketball game.
The chase soon ended, and the joyriding teenager returned home to her parents later that day, but without the car, which she had buried in the side of the Prianos' minivan. The collision left Kristie Priano, a 15-year-old avid community volunteer, dead.
Candy Priano could not accept that her daughter had been killed because police were chasing a teenager whose only crime was taking her mother's car for a joyride. Priano knew someone was responsible for Kristie's death, and the police were the only adults involved.
"So many of these chases are unnecessary," Priano said. "They're unnecessary because there are other ways to catch these drivers who do flee from the police, and there are drivers, in some cases, who are not posing an immediate threat to public safety. ... Are (the suspects) going to pull over appropriately? Chances are they aren't. We can't trust these people to do the right thing, so we have to put our trust in the police to do the right thing and to say, 'How else can I catch these drivers, rather than chasing them?'"
In Priano's case, there was a question of whether the teen had even committed a crime before the police got involved. Sure, the car was not in the teen's name, and she had taken it without permission, but how many courts will charge a teenager with a crime for taking her mother's car for a ride to a friend's house?
Had the police not gotten involved, the young woman likely would have returned home later that day, possibly to a scolding by her parents. And Kristie Priano would still be alive.
Candy Priano wanted to know why police would pursue a fleeing teenager through a residential neighborhood for taking her mother's car. At least one expert says it may be about the thrill of the chase.
Robert Homant, who has taught criminal justice at the University of Detroit Mercy since 1978 and previously served as a prison psychologist for eight years, has published studies on his research of police pursuits. His work shows that the thrill of the chase often affects officers' decisions and puts them in situations where they can endanger innocent bystanders.
"There is a tendency for personality factors such as sensation seeking to affect the quickness, let us say, with which an officer pursued, broke off pursuit (or) followed policy," Homant said.
Some people enjoy adrenaline rushes, while other don't, Homant said. Those who do are more likely to interpret possible pursuit situations as ones that warrant a chase.
"It's not as if you're going against policy, so much as you're interpreting the situation differently," Homant said.
"I've had officers admit to me that it was hard to break off chases that they knew they should break off. After they broke them off, they said, 'Well, yeah I did the right thing by not pursuing further, but at the time, it was difficult to do that.' And they described it as not wanting to be beaten by the person that was eluding (them)."
Determining whether sensation seeking was a factor in an individual pursuit situation is almost impossible, Homant said. Officers, though, should be trained to be aware of the adrenaline rush and how they are likely to react to it.
The key is to train officers in pursuit policy, and train them often. "It needs to be clear what the policy is," Homant said. "When you do (review policies often), most police officers are fairly good about simply following policy. They're happy to break off pursuits, if that's what the policy is," Homant said.
So was it an errant policy or an adrenaline rush clouding an officer's interpretation of a good policy that led to Kristie Priano's death? Wanting an answer to that question and hoping to keep other parents from ever having to ask it was why Candy Priano, along with family members of other police-pursuit victims, started Voices Insisting on PursuitSAFETY, a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing laws, policies and practices of police pursuits.
Since 2007, Voices has talked to numerous state legislatures, police departments and victims to educate them on just how dangerous police chases can be. The group wants more restrictive policies and laws enacted involving police pursuits and tougher penalties for officers who violate the policies. They have had little success in convincing lawmakers.
Finding the statistics to show the danger proved more difficult than Priano had initially expected. "There is no mandatory reporting (of pursuit-related deaths)," Voices co-founder Jon Farris said. "Some agencies report, some don't, but you see it every day."
To counter the problem, Voices has a new top priority—to create the first nationwide database of deaths caused by police pursuits and call responses. Priano has tracked the deaths using Google on a daily basis since 2004, and Farris joined her in 2007.
Since last year, their data (which could be incomplete) show that an average of seven people die as a result of police chases and call responses in America every week— a death every day. At least one-third of those deaths are innocent bystanders.
"We'll continue to just input that (data) until we have a full 12 months, and then until we have a couple of calendar years," Farris said. "The biggest challenge is we don't have resources. We're a nonprofit. The monies that we have are solely donations, and the vast majority of the donations we get are from families who have been affected."
Voices for PursuitSAFETY organizers argue that even one death outweighs the positives of chasing suspects and criminals. Priano said they have received positive responses from law enforcement and even have three officers, including police chiefs Richard Schardan of Maryville, Ill., and Timothy Dolan of Minneapolis, Minn., on their advisory board. They hope to see law enforcement search for new ways to track down suspects, ways that do not involve high-speed chases and endangering the lives of innocent civilians.
The organization rewards officers who find other ways to catch suspects with their yearly Safer Way Award. "The best way to catch is good detective work. (It's) how many officers catch most of these suspects," Priano said.
Homant said that new technologies, especially in well-funded agencies, have helped make many pursuits unnecessary since his first research in the late 1980s. High-resolution cameras can capture license-plate numbers and help identify suspects, and easy-to-access information about suspects' criminal histories helps officers catch suspects without vehicular pursuits. Tools like stop sticks—strips of spikes that puncture tires—can stop fleeing vehicles without a pursuit.
"Those people who believe pursuits are important have alternative ways of catching people or alternative ways of stopping eluding cars other than just pursuing them and chasing them down," Homant said.
Access to those alternatives have lessened the need for chases since Homant began his research more than 20 years ago, but for the families of the dozens of innocent victims who are killed every year in America, chases are still too common.
Leaving Scars and Injuries
Jon Farris co-founded Voices after his son, Paul, died as he and his girlfriend were about to exit a taxi in a residential neighborhood in Somerville, Mass., a densely populated Boston suburb.
The 4.2-square-mile town has a population of 75,754, or 18,147 residents per square mile. (By comparison, Ridgeland has a population density of 1,352 residents per square mile.) Most residential roads in Somerville are lined with parked cars. Because of this, Somerville Police have a strict policy against pursuing fleeing suspects.
But during the early morning of May 28, 2007, a state trooper saw an SUV make an illegal turn at a stop sign, and the officer turned on his blue lights. Javier Morales, with his pregnant girlfriend in the passenger seat of the SUV, didn't stop for the officer and began speeding through Somerville's crowded streets. The state trooper was not bound by Somerville Police's policy and pursued Morales down residential roads.
Paul Farris, his girlfriend, Kate Hoyt, and the taxi driver, Walid Chahine, were sitting in one of the many cars parked on the side of the road in one of Somerville's neighborhoods. As Farris exited the taxi, Morales lost control of the SUV and smashed the front end into the side of the cab. Farris died that morning. Chahine died later due to injuries suffered in the accident. Hoyt spent the next few weeks in intensive care, the next few months in the hospital, and will spend the rest of her life with scars and injuries that will never heal.
With no uniform policy or regulations and a lack of radio communications between police agencies, the Somerville Police Department's policy, which officers put into place to protect citizens, was ineffective in preventing Farris' death. When one agency makes a policy, it only affects that agency.
Chief Houston said that his department will assist in pursuits that enter their jurisdiction by setting up road blocks and laying stop sticks, also known as spike strips. They will not, however, join in the chase unless the department determines it is allowed under Ridgeland's policy, he said. That decision, though, must be made quickly by the commanding officer on duty without the benefit of hindsight (such as knowledge of whether the cart contained enough groceries to render it a felony).
The inconsistency in policy and lack of communication is where many pursuit problems arise. Though a highway patrol officer should know the area in which he or she works, police are too often unaware of local law enforcement policies. And because, in many cases, different agencies do not have access to each other's radio wavelength, patrolmen are unable to immediately communicate with other agencies.
Individual agencies' policies are rendered ineffective when contradicting policies exist in overlapping jurisdictions, such as a sheriff's department with a different police than the local police department. Law enforcement officers are only subject to the rules and policies of their agency, and when those policies differ from neighboring or overlapping agencies, the results can be disastrous.
The problem of unshared wavelengths is one reason the state is implementing the Mississippi Wireless Integrated Network. Under the direction of Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, the group is implementing a statewide radio wavelength that will allow officers from different agencies to communicate with one another from their patrol vehicles at the touch of a button. Several cities and regions across the state are already using the radios, including most of the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River regions, as well as the Ridgeland Police Department.
"Everybody in our area should be able to talk on the same police channel," Houston said. "We talk to Madison (Police Department). We talk to Madison (Sheriff's Office). We can talk to Holmes Community College. We can talk to Reservoir Patrol. But we cannot talk to Rankin (Sheriff's Office). We can't talk to Flowood (Police Department). We can't talk to Brandon (Police Department). And that is an issue," Houston said. (They can also talk to Jackson.)
Houston said access to the MSWIN system should be available statewide by the beginning of 2013. Buying the radios to get on the system isn't cheap, but Houston said grants are available from the state to assist counties that wish to get on the system. The Jackson Police Department has installed the system.
With such a system in place, it will be easier for officers crossing jurisdictional borders to communicate and adjust their plans accordingly, but when pursuits have started, officers are still only accountable to their agency's policy.
Even with heightened communicative abilities, the inconsistencies in pursuit policy can still cause confusion, because a chase that is warranted in one jurisdiction may not be what is best for the people in a community that the chase enters. When that is the case, the chase often ends in tragedy in that community, as it did in the chase that killed Milinda Clark.
A Toothless Statewide Policy?
Robin McCoy, Dana Lee and their friend, Steven Bledsoe, died as the result of a Florence police pursuit in February 2001. The girls were riding in a Lexus with their friend, Corey Tate, who had stolen the car from Herrin-Gear Lexus in Jackson.
After officers spotted Tate speeding, they followed him to the parking lot of an Amoco gas station on Highway 49. Tate gave one of the officers his driver's license and the vehicle's identification number.
Tate's driver's license was suspended, and the officer intended to arrest him for the charge. When he asked Tate to step out of the vehicle, Tate locked the doors and sped away.
The officers involved knew the make, model, description and identification number of the stolen vehicle. They had Tate's driver's license. They knew Tate had three passengers in the car with him. Yet they pursued Tate in a high-speed chase that resulted in the deaths of all three passengers. Tate survived.
Robin McCoy's parents, Linda and Larry McCoy, sued the state of Mississippi, the cities of Florence and Richland, the Rankin County Sheriff's Department and Tate for their involvement in the chase. They did not win any of their lawsuits, but their fight in the courtroom, as well as their visits and presentations to several state legislatures across the nation, got the attention of then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.
Musgrove appointed Linda McCoy as the only civilian on a commission with police and sheriff's officers assigned with the task of suggesting a state law pertaining to police pursuits. "What they found was that in every jurisdiction, you basically had a different police-pursuit policy," Larry McCoy said. "And there was no standardized method of training."
Chief Houston, who testified before the Legislature on behalf of the commission's bill, said the commission did what the state agencies needed at the time.
"It brought about a knowledge of the fact that there actually needs to be something governing pursuits in the state of Mississippi," Houston said. "The (policies) that we brought were Mississippi-specific."
In 2004, then-Gov. Haley Barbour signed the commission-recommended bill into law. "We were blessed to be at the ceremony—and the commission did make the recommendation," Linda McCoy said.
"However, they didn't put any teeth in the law. There was no punishment for a department that did not put those policies in place."
Houston said a uniform punishment was not needed. When the state Legislature enacts a law, 99 percent of agencies in the state will adhere to it, he said.
The commission did manage to make the punishment for those who flee the police more severe. Before the law the commission recommended passed, fleeing from police was a misdemeanor in Mississippi. Part of the new law elevated flight with a willful or reckless disregard for safety to a felony offense.
"Police officers are putting all of the burden on the person who is fleeing, and he does deserve a great bit of the burden, but the commission also said the police officers would get police pursuit training," Linda McCoy said.
"They didn't say what kind of training. They didn't make any uniform laws."
"They have no standards that any police officer or police department has to meet. It is up to the discretion of all of the police officers' captains, or whatever, to train their police officers (in) what to do during a police chase."
The law also failed to set a uniform regulation for when and why officers can pursue suspects. Individual agencies must adopt a policy on pursuits, but they are free to write whatever policy they choose.
Similar laws are common among states with large rural areas. Densely populated urban areas often adopt stricter pursuit policies than rural areas, making it hard to get legislators and agencies to agree on a statewide policy, Homant said.
A 1997 National Institute of Justice showed a direct connection between policy and the number of pursuits. In the study, police in the Miami-Dade, Fla., metro area, where a more restrictive policy had been implemented, showed a decrease from 279 pursuits the year before the policy chance to just 51 the year after. In Omaha, Neb., where a police implemented a more permissive policy, pursuits jumped from 17 the year before the change to 122 the year after.
Houston said that he trains his officers once a year on pursuit policy and practice. Policy needs to be reviewed as often as monthly, Homant said, to assure officers' adrenaline in the heat of the moment does not cloud their interpretation of what they have learned. The more often the policy reminders, the less likely officers are to break policy to pursue a suspect.
While the Mississippi law did not lay out punishment for agencies or officers who fail to follow their implemented policies, Houston said other laws provide deterrents to breaking the policies. The Tort Claims Act provides citizens the ability to challenge the legality of officers' actions during a chase and the ability to sue the city or department if they disagree about the presence of wrongdoing.
"Attorneys love to see (policy violations), because that shows that department went outside the law to make a pursuit," Houston said.
Of course, those lawsuits often come after a pursuit results in injury or a death.
A Costly Problem—and Solution
Milinda Clark's family is in process of using the Tort Claims Act to find out whether the Ridgeland Police Department followed their policy in chasing Ford and Williams. By the end of May, they will find out if the city of Ridgeland believes officers followed the policy. If the Ridgeland Police Department believes the officers followed the policy, the city will likely have a lawsuit on their hands, because once the city finds no wrongdoing, a lawsuit is the Clark family's only possible further course of action.
The Clark family could receive damages, but what pursuit victims' families would prefer is to have their loved ones alive and well. They would rather there be an answer before the problems arise. Not damages after the fact.
The MSWIN statewide communications system should help prevent deaths by providing instant, easy-to-use communication between agencies.
Elsewhere in the country, law enforcement agencies are implementing technology that could help prevent the chases altogether. Like police helicopters, which aid many large cities in pursuits, the available technology is not cheap, however.
In Los Angeles, police introduced the StarChase Pursuit Management System in 2006. Once on the front of police cruisers, the system can fire a GPS tracking devise, guided by a laser aiming mechanism, onto fleeing vehicles when police have a suspect in range. The GPS unit gives police the ability to track the suspects without having to keep them in site at the risk of endangering civilians.
While the system is a great tool, most cities cannot afford it. On the StarChase website, each tracking devise costs $249.99, the chargers cost $29.95 and individual tracking projectiles are $525. The website does not list the cost of the GPS launcher, which has to be installed on patrol cars by a StarChase employee, but according to an article on the website, the entire system costs about $4,500 per car.
"It's not (inexpensive), but it's worth every dime that you pay for it," Houston said. "We're ready for it. If there were ways to (get it), I would have that technology in our patrol cars.
"I wish we never had to pursue a car. I hate it, but I don't know of any technology today that we could use that in some instances would stop a pursuit."
In Houston's 10 years as police chief of Ridgeland, he said the department has had about 30 pursuits, and Clark's death was the only resulting fatality of an innocent bystander.
A National Institute of Justice survey of 555 residents of Aiken County, S.C., and Omaha, Neb., showed that the majority of the public agree with the police's right to pursue. The more serious the offense, the more people agreed that a pursuit is warranted, while a higher risk to the public decreased the number who agreed to pursuits.
"The only way to keep it from happening is to ban pursuits, and I don't think that our public expects us to that. I think that is the only sure-fire way that you could prevent all deaths in a pursuit," Houston said in the interview.
Sometimes, officers have to make decisions in gray areas, based on the available data, to pursue or not. And sometimes it doesn't end well, he said.
Homant believes police can reduce pursuits dramatically without an outright ban by using all the existing technologies. The sense of urgency among many communities to prevent chases has declined over the past 20 years, mainly due to technologies reducing pursuit deaths.
That, coupled with many people's tendency to view new police technologies as "Big Brotherish," Homant said, has slowed the move toward eliminating police chases.
While people aren't arguing for a suspect's right to flee the police, the idea of police being able to stop or track anyone's car at anytime isn't a concept that people can agree with either.
The predicament lies with police chases killing innocent civilians on one hand, and a police force with more control over all vehicles on the other.
"If there was a high-speed pursuit death in your local headlines once a week, then you might say, 'Yeah, we need to do something about this. We can't just let the crooks go. Good guys shouldn't mind being stopped. Let's get this technology to all our departments,'" Homant said.
For now, it's a question of how important it is to prevent pursuit-related deaths and injuries, how much technology are people willing to allow law enforcement to have, how much are they willing to pay for it, and how willing officers are to use technology and alternative methods, instead of engaging in high-speed chases.
"With everyone, law enforcement included, people resist change," Candy Priano said. "One of things we hear often from law enforcement is: 'We have to chase. We can't just let them go.' I look at it as pursuit is not their only tool. Many officers initiate other resources and methods to apprehend these suspects."
3 Model Pursuit Policies
(Provided by Mississippi Standards and Training)
Prohibitive - Vehicular police chases are not allowed under any circumstances
Restrictive - Police chases are allowed under certain circumstances, as determined by the individual law enforcement agency and described in the agency's policy
Discretionary - Chases are allowed under any circumstance when deemed necessary by the officers involved and the commanding officer on duty
Two shoplifters allegedly stole the following from Kroger before officers chased them at more than 90 mph, resulting in the death of an innocent bystander.
8 bags of shrimp $143.92
7 packages of beef $101.15
3 boxes of fish nuggets $44.97
4 boxes of snow crab legs $127.96
4 pork loins $53.63
2-24-pack Bud Light $42.98
1 6-pack Heineken $8.39
1 box Ritz crackers $3.19
1 box Wheat Thins $3.19
2 Gain laundry detergent (price not provided)
When Police Officers Say They Would Engage in Pursuits (Level of Risk*)
|Violent Felony: No Death||87%||87%|
|Violent Felony: With Death||96%||95%|
- Risk was defined by level of traffic congestion, weather conditions, type of road (e.g., whether surface street, highway, or interstate), and area of pursuit (e.g., whether urban, rural, or commercial). In filling out the questionnaire, respondents themselves determined whether they felt their risk was high or low.
Source: survey by national institute of justice
Deaths Caused by Police Pursuits and Responses
(on average, as recorded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on a volunteer basis)
7 people per week
4 fleeing suspects per week
2 innocent bystanders per week (1/3 of all pursuit deaths are innocent bystanders)
1 police officer every six weeks