CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — As some police departments across the country are changing policies and practices to limit officers from engaging in potentially dangerous vehicle pursuits, the Chesterfield County Police Department has seen a dramatic increase in its number of annual chases.
It's a trend about which department leaders said they were "unapologetic."
So far in 2023, several innocent lives have been lost as a result of police pursuit crashes in different jurisdictions across Central Virginia.
In August, Henrico Police chased after a juvenile carjacking suspect in a vehicle he had allegedly stolen while brandishing a gun.
Police said the fleeing suspect crashed into 17-year-old Geormond Morton, who was riding his bike home from work, killing him.
"If I could do anything to bring him back, I would," Morton's sister told CBS 6 at the time.
In July, Prince George County Police chased after a suspect who fled from a traffic stop after being pulled over for reckless speeding.
The suspect crashed into Andre Bassette, Jr. at high speed in Hopewell, killing him, police said.
“My son didn’t even have a chance. Why was the police chasing this man like this?” Bassette's mother told CBS 6. "I just don't understand."
And in March, Chesterfield Police chased a suspect alleged to be in a stolen vehicle with guns inside of it.
That suspect crashed into a car in Petersburg, killing passenger Denasia Gray.
"And it leads to something so tragic, so unnecessary, that could have simply been avoided," Gray's sister told CBS 6.
Given the possible dangerous outcomes of police pursuits, officers are left grappling with tough decisions on when and when not to give chase.
"A pursuit is comparatively more dangerous than a police shootout. That is, people are more likely to get hurt in a pursuit than they are with a police officer and a bad guy shooting at each other," Dr. Will Pelfrey, a policing researcher and professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, said. "So, it's all about balancing this risk versus reward equation. Is the pursuit more dangerous to the public, to the officer, to the suspect, than letting them go and finding them at a later date?"
Data CBS 6 collected from Central Virginia law enforcement agencies through public records requests showed the number of annual pursuits has either decreased or remained relatively steady for most departments over the past five years.
From 2018 - 2022:
- Henrico Police saw a 0% change in its number of pursuits
- Richmond Police saw a 9% decrease in its number of pursuits
- The Hanover Sheriff's Office saw an increase from seven pursuits to nine pursuits
But in Chesterfield, police chases were up by 197% since 2018.
CBS 6 reporter Tyler Layne sat down with Chesterfield Deputy Police Chief Brad Badgerow to discuss.
"Why is Chesterfield the outlier here?" Layne asked.
"That's a good question. Without knowing the ins and outs of how our neighboring and partnering agencies are choosing to perform or not perform traffic enforcement, I can't give you the answer why," Badgerow said. "I will tell you that we are unapologetic in how we pursue criminals, how we pursue safety on our streets."
In 2022, Chesterfield officers engaged in 191 chases.
Badgerow said roughly two-thirds of them, which would be about 125 chases, began as traffic violations including speeding, improper registration, erratic driving, or no tags.
Chesterfield Police Department policy states vehicle pursuits should be initiated "only when the danger to the public created by the pursuit is less than the danger to the public should the suspect remain at large."
"When an overwhelming majority [of pursuits], are due to traffic infractions, which are not serious or violent crimes, are officers acting within policy?" Layne asked.
"I would say our officers are very aware of our policy," Badgerow responded. "I can't give you how many times something started in a certain way, but then turned into something else."
"Do you see that often? That it does start as a traffic stop and then turns into something very serious?" Layne asked.
"So, it depends what your definition of 'often' is, and I'm not trying to wordsmith it, necessarily, but I mean, it happens a good bit," Badgerow said.
He gave examples of drivers who ended up having guns or drugs in the car following a traffic stop.
Badgerow added that when officers choose to disengage a pursuit, it typically involves a suspect whose initial offense was a traffic violation.
Data showed Chesterfield officers disengaged in 56 pursuits in 2022.
Another explanation behind the increase in pursuits, Badgerow said, was an increase in stolen vehicles.
Of the fraction of 2022 pursuits that were initiated for criminal violations, which accounted for roughly one-third of the overall 191 pursuits, 51% were for stolen vehicles.
Badgerow said he believed victims of property crime support the department's commitment to catching fleeing thieves.
"If Joe Smith, Chesterfield County resident, had his car stolen, and we see it on the road, would they want us to try to get that car back? Would they want us to chase that car to get that car back? I think they would," Badgerow said.
However, Pelfrey, who advises police departments on pursuit policy, said chases should only be reserved for the most severe offenses which would exclude traffic infractions and property crimes.
Other than violent crimes and when the suspect poses an imminent threat to the public, he said pursuits are not worth the risk.
"Police have lots of technology at their disposal, license plate readers at every toll booth, cameras at every intersection, every red light," he said. "They can find vehicles if they need to. Even if they can't, the risk of losing a suspect to a traffic accident, the risk of losing a civilian or an officer is not worth a stolen vehicle."
Last year, 52 Chesterfield pursuits ended with a crash. There were 22 injuries, and one death.
Badgerow noted that those statistics reflected "the same general percentage of crashes and the same general percentage of injuries" compared to the prior year.
When Denasia Gray was killed this year by a fleeing suspect who police said ran a red light in Petersburg, the crash happened nearly an hour after officers initially tried to pull him over.
They chased him into two different jurisdictions before the pursuit ended in a fatal wreck.
His initial offense was allegedly driving a stolen vehicle with guns believed to be inside of it, police said at the time.
"Why was it so imperative to risk multiple [lives] and cause my sister to lose her life because y'all wanted to make an arrest for a stolen truck and some guns? It just doesn't make sense to me," Deeana Gray told CBS 6.
Badgerow said, "You could make an argument that if you have a death as a result of a pursuit that you should never pursue again."
However, Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz noted in his 2022 annual pursuit review that he was not recommending any "substantive policy changes."
Katz did note that the department "identified a strategic operational shift" that would allow officers to arrest suspects in stolen cars while curtailing the need for a vehicle pursuit.
Katz did not reveal details of the change, citing the information as operational and classified.
In September 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice released a study that recommended law enforcement agencies nationwide adopt restrictive policies that only allow pursuits for violent crimes or when the suspect presents an imminent threat.
To achieve that goal, the study suggested agencies "go beyond general concepts" and articulate "specific situations that justify the risks of a vehicle pursuit."
Researchers also recommended that police departments clearly define what constitutes a violent crime and imminent threat.
An executive researcher on the study summarized the recommendations with, "You can get a suspect another day, but you can’t get a life back."
Chesterfield Police's policy largely gives discretion to officers on evaluating whether to pursue and lists general circumstances for them to consider such as type of offense, road and weather conditions, speed, presence of minors and the officer's experience.
"I understand that there are some departments, and I don't know all the ins and outs of it, that have made very clear designations that they are a 'no pursuit' policy, basically. We're not that. We won't be," Badgerow said.
Badgerow pointed to the successful outcomes of the department's pursuits, 60% of which he said are happening near the Richmond City border.
"If that bad element is coming in from Richmond for whatever reason, or we see a greater percentage of folks in that general area who are committing crimes and choosing to flee from the police, we are going to be unapologetic in the fact that we are going to go after them," Badgerow said.
Last year, he said 65% of pursuits led to an immediate arrest and 149 charges.
Charges against fleeing drivers included abduction, arson, burglary, hit-and-run, robbery, and shootings.
Additionally, 19 guns were seized following pursuits.
"Do you feel like the way Chesterfield approaches pursuits is successful and keeping the public safe?" Layne asked.
"Yes, I do," Badgerow answered. "There's no doubt in my mind that our approach to traffic safety, to crime prevention and enforcement, which includes pursuits some of the time, is making our community safer."
But not everyone agrees.
"I expect Chesterfield County will need to consider shifting their policies to be more closely aligned with best practices with the accredited agencies in the region and in the nation. And if they don't, they're putting the public at risk," Pelfrey said.
How we collected this information
CBS 6 submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Chesterfield Police in March 2023 for the 2022 annual pursuit review.
A FOIA officer said a preliminary review of the report in July by Chief Katz resulted in revisions, and a finalized report was unavailable.
In September, CBS 6 submitted another request for the 2021 and 2020 pursuit reviews.
In September, a FOIA officer provided the 2020, 2021, and 2022 reports.
The 2022 finalized report provided to CBS 6 was reformatted compared to the two previous reports and lacked information previously available on the 2020 and 2021 reports.
The department provided additional 2022 information and data to CBS 6 upon request.
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