Published July 2nd, 2015 at 8:00 AM10 minute read
Seconds before impact, Emma Rothbrust cheered on the Grandview police officer — in hot pursuit far from his home turf — as he blew through a red light in Leawood.
“Go get him,” said Rothbrust, 16, as she and a friend waited for him to clear the intersection.
As soon as they pulled out, a second Grandview cruiser, traveling 81 mph, slammed into the passenger side of the car where Rothbrust was sitting.
The 2004 crash left Rothbrust with serious injuries and the city of Grandview on the hook for a $2.9 million settlement with Rothbrust’s family.
Leawood police had declined to join the Grandview officers in the chase, which took them through several cities and across a state line — speeding through yards, between houses and busy intersections, ending with the crash with Rothbrust.
In a rare response to the accident, Johnson County prosecutors charged both Grandview officers with misdemeanor reckless driving. The charges worried area police chiefs and prompted them to discuss safer, more consistent pursuit policies across the area.
But that discussion fell flat. And area cities missed an opportunity to fully address what may be the deadliest form of bistate border-hopping — a crazy quilt of conflicting, uncoordinated police pursuit policies in more than 60 departments across a six-county, two-state metropolitan area.
Some departments have since tightened their policies on their own.
But in the decade since, there have been at least another 706 pursuit-related crashes in the metro area, according to state data analyzed by the Hale Center for Journalism and The Kansas City Star.
Those crashes killed at least 23 people, according to an analysis of more than 100 news stories over the decade. Hundreds more were injured, including at least 11 police officers.
And those numbers significantly understate the problem, at least on the Missouri side of the six-county metro area. Missouri only tracks pursuit crashes of police vehicles and does not count deaths and injuries.
Victims include Geraldine Strader, a 79-year-old retired school librarian killed last year when her car was hit by a fleeing stolen car that had earlier been pursued by Kansas City, Kan., police. And 17-year-old Chris Cooper was mowed down on his bicycle in 2007 by a drunken driver fleeing Independence police.
“My son’s death was a homicide,” said his mother, Cheryl Cooper. “Those (Independence) officers broke seven different rules of the Independence pursuit policy.”
After an investigation of the pursuit, the Independence Police Department said officers did not violate its policy. Cooper’s lawyers disagree.
The officers involved are still on the force, although the city paid the Coopers and their lawyers $275,000 to settle a lawsuit. The fleeing drunken driver in that case is serving a 15-year sentence.
Standardizing pursuit policies would “absolutely cut down on deaths and injuries,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor and police pursuit expert at the University of South Carolina.
But it rarely happens, he says, because local police chiefs can’t agree on what those policies should be and are often under political pressure to keep their own individual policies.
Despite the difficulties, however, Kris Turnbow, former Raytown chief of police, said it’s time.
“Now is the time for us to put a regionwide policy in place,” Turnbow said. We should do it now, he said, because of recent improvements that allow area police departments to better communicate with one another.
The area needs a common policy leaning toward pursuits that are limited to serious crimes such as violent felonies, Turnbow said.
“We are going to have to back off; there are just so many cars out here anymore, and so many distractions,” he said.
Indeed, for years high-speed pursuit of suspected criminals caused more deaths than any other kind of police activity, according to a 2004 study by the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center in Seattle. Newer data show that a third of all pursuits end badly, and about a third of those killed are innocent bystanders.
The Society for Academic Emergency Medicine has described police pursuits ending in fatal accidents as “an emerging public health problem that affects suspects, police officers and innocent bystanders alike.”
Nationwide, deaths from police pursuits hovered between 300 and 400 annually from 2003 to 2013. That includes pursued drivers and passengers, officers and, in some cases, innocent bystanders.
But experts generally agree that the data, voluntarily submitted to the federal government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, woefully underestimate deaths in police pursuits.
During the decade from 2003 to 2013, nearly 4,000 people reportedly died in police pursuits across the country. That includes 127 deaths in Missouri and 47 in Kansas.
Numbers for the metro area are harder to come by because Missouri and Kansas gather different kinds of statistics.
While Missouri does not keep track of deaths and injuries, Kansas data capture deaths and injuries for all pursuit-related crashes involving police cars, fleeing vehicles and third parties.
In Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas, there were 558 pursuit-related crashes over the decade, killing 13 people and injuring more than 300.
On the Missouri side, the available data only show that 76 police vehicles were involved in pursuit-related crashes over the decade in Cass, Jackson, Clay and Platte counties. Deaths and injuries are not included.
News stories show that there were at least another 72 pursuit-related crashes on the Missouri side that did not involve damage to police vehicles.
Despite more than 700 pursuit crashes in the past decade, several area police agencies refused to release their complete policies to the Hale Center for Journalism.
Missouri Highway Patrol officials, for example, cited an exemption in the state open-records law for withholding information related to ongoing investigations.
The Kansas Highway Patrol also refused to release any portion of its pursuit policy, claiming in part that to do so would “jeopardize the security of the … agency.” Overland Park cited the same exemption for heavily redacting its policy.
But all pursuit policies should be open to the public, said Aaron Ambrose, risk manager at Midwest Public Risk, which insures area cities.
“I don’t see what you would have to hide,” Ambrose said.
That’s important because those policies describe what should trigger a pursuit in the first place.
In area crashes, pursuits began over crimes as minor as traffic violations and as serious as murder and kidnapping.
Nationally, only 8.6 percent of pursuits are triggered by violent felonies, according to one study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
And that holds true in Missouri, where data for 2013 show that only 52 of 338 highway patrol pursuits statewide were for felonies. The vast majority of Missouri Highway Patrol pursuits — about 80 percent — were for traffic infractions or other misdemeanors.
The average top speed of the state’s patrol cars in those pursuits: 97 mph.
Similar data are not collected in Kansas.
“Given the fact that many police pursuits result in injuries or property damage, the police should only pursue violent felons,” said Jonathan Farris, chairman emeritus at PursuitSafety.org, a nonprofit that advocates for safer pursuits.
Farris’s son Paul was killed in 2007 when a driver being pursued by a state trooper over a traffic infraction plowed into the Boston taxi he was riding in.
The effect of tightening pursuit policies can be seen in Kansas City, Kan., where police racked up 250 pursuit-related crashes over the last decade.
When the city revised its policy more than a year ago after a series of tragic pursuit crashes that killed innocent bystanders, the number of pursuits dropped dramatically. Under the new policy, police only pursue in cases of violent felonies.
In the three months before the change, there were 90 pursuits, but in the eight months after the new policy took effect, there were only 34, according to department statistics.
But a public opinion poll on the subject shows many citizens may disagree with restrictive policies.
A 2011 mail-in survey of St. Louis County residents found that more than a third favor pursuits over traffic violations, and half favored pursuits over property crimes. More than 60 percent favored pursuing car thieves.
Only 3.7 percent would favor a flat no-pursuit policy, said Tim Maher, who teaches criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and helped conduct the survey.
The reckless driving charges against Grandview officers in 2004 prompted area police agencies to at least discuss conflicting policies across the metro area.
“We tried to get a policy we all could live with,” said Leawood Police Chief John Meier, “but nothing ever happened.”
As a result, the area remains a confusing patchwork of at least 60 different pursuit policies that can range from three to 14 pages long. The Hale Center analyzed 31 of those policies.
While standardizing policies is challenging, working harder to do so reduces deaths and injuries, said Alpert, the pursuit expert at the University of South Carolina.
Missouri requires that all departments adopt pursuit policies that set out the allowable reasons for pursuits, which must be overseen by supervisors. Officers also are required — in the heat of a pursuit — to weigh the danger of pursuits against the possible consequences.
Kansas law sets minimum standards and allows officers to pursue any “actual or suspected violator of the law.” Pursuing officers are allowed to run red lights and speed, but they are required to “drive with due regard for the safety of all persons.”
Policies in all metro area cities require officers to weigh the risks of a pursuit.
Some area policies give patrol officers wide discretion, and others require heavy involvement by a supervisor. And when it comes to allowable reasons to begin a pursuit, area policies vary significantly.
For example, Raytown’s policy allows officers wide latitude in deciding whether to pursue, in some cases for misdemeanors.
“A no-chase-under-any-circumstances policy does not serve the public interest,” said Maj. Ted Bowman, operations bureau commander for the Raytown Police Department, “but neither does crashing into innocent citizens.”
He said Raytown officers are trusted “to make high-level decisions, even under stress, and we are unlikely to change our policy in the future.”
But the policy in Bonner Springs, which was made more restrictive last year, says officers should only pursue if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the driver or passenger was involved in a serious felony.
Bonner Springs Chief Mark Zaretski said the changes were “not made lightly” and that officers there are behind the new policy.
Independence’s 11-page policy says pursuits for traffic violations or misdemeanors “will be avoided if they pose unnecessary risk to life or property.” Gladstone’s policy bans pursuits for “traffic offenses alone.”
Grandview tightened its pursuit policy on its own after paying the Rothbrust family nearly $3 million in 2004. Now it only pursues for violent felonies and burglary, says current Chief Charles Iseman.
Even in those cases, according to Grandview’s revised policy, pursuits “will not continue into the state of Kansas under any circumstances.”
But area departments continue to disagree over standardizing their policies, although Lt. Col. Sandra Karsten of the Missouri Highway Patrol said it would be beneficial.
“Multijurisdictional pursuits are problematic in several different ways, and standardization of agency pursuit policies could assist with these concerns,” Karsten said in a recent Hale Center survey of area police agencies.
In Leawood, where the Rothbrust wreck occurred a decade ago, Chief Meier won’t consider standardization. “The communities are too different,” he said in the survey for the Hale Center. “If I want to make my policy more restrictive than another agency, I should have that right.
“I want to make the critical decisions involving my community, not someone else.”
Rothbrust declined to be interviewed. Her statements about the crash come from police reports.
Attempts to standardize policies even within Johnson County have failed, said Olathe Chief of Police Steve Menke.
“We have attempted on a couple of occasions to draft and adopt a standardized pursuit policy for just Johnson County agencies, and the 15 or more departments could not reach agreement on a number of key issues,” he said.
Standardizing policies wouldn’t be up to area police chiefs alone, said Steven Beamer, the current head of the the area’s Metropolitan Chiefs and Sheriffs Association and the police chief in North Kansas City.
“They all have different elected officials that they answer to,” Beamer said. “They all have different city, county and state attorneys.”
The Mid-America Regional Council, whose mission includes identifying and solving regional challenges, has dealt with law enforcement issues in the past, with mixed success.
MARC efforts to help establish a regional jail got no traction, for example. But its efforts to set up a regional communications system that connects 29,000 police radios metrowide — and helps make inter-jurisdictional pursuits safer — have borne fruit.
While the nonprofit association of city and county governments has never waded deeply into the touchy issue of conflicting pursuit policies here, that could change.
After hearing some of the Hale Center’s findings, MARC Executive Director David Warm said it would be “fair and appropriate to have a conversation about them.”
Legacy of pursuits
Holding officers and departments responsible when innocent bystanders are injured or killed can be challenging, said Farris, whose son was killed in the accident in Boston.
Most legislation is designed to protect officers and their departments, he said.
“The state trooper involved in my son’s case is still on the job, even though he pursued the driver into the suburb of Somerville, which has a no-chase policy in such cases,” Farris said.
In the Rothbrust case, Grandview Officer Doug Blodgett, who was driving the lead cruiser that night in 2004, was not the officer who struck Rothbrust at 119th Street and Nall Avenue.
But he was a full participant in a pursuit that reached speeds of 88 mph through heavily trafficked retail and commercial areas, across yards and between houses, according to a police report.
After Blodgett cleared the intersection, the second Grandview patrol car, driven by Brian Blessing, hit Rothbrust at 81 mph. Police measured 53 feet of skid marks before the point of impact.
Blessing’s 4,000-pound Crown Victoria shoved the 3,000-pound Honda Civic another 67 feet after the impact.
The reckless driving charges against both officers rested largely on dash cam recordings showing that the officers failed to slow down at intersections, as required by Kansas law.
Blodgett pleaded no contest to the charges and was placed on probation for six months and sentenced to 50 hours of community service. Both officers left their Grandview jobs and apologized to the families involved.
Prosecutors announced afterward that the convictions of the two Grandview officers — even on a reckless driving misdemeanor — would keep them from ever again working as police officers.
Several years later, the Jackson County sheriff’s department hired Blodgett as a deputy sheriff in Missouri, according to documents and sources.
When told that Blodgett was working as a police officer again, Jacqie Spradling, who prosecuted the case, said she was disappointed.
“My belief and the state’s belief was that a conviction for reckless driving would preclude him from ever being a law enforcement officer again,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp declined to discuss Blodgett specifically but said all employees go through a thorough background check. Blodgett was unavailable for comment.
But after the charges were filed, the Fraternal Order of Police and individual officers rushed to defend the two officers, arguing there was evidence that a woman in the fleeing car had been kidnapped and that the officers were victims of an overzealous prosecutor.
Indeed, it appears the officers may have taken the brunt of the public criticism for a pursuit gone bad. When the family sued Grandview over Rothbrust’s injuries, they not only named the officers but also sued the chief at the time and a Grandview sergeant who supervised both officers during the chase.
While individual police departments may take action against reckless officers, interviews and documents show there’s been only one case in either Kansas or Missouri in recent years in which the state disciplined a police officer because of a bad pursuit.
Aurora, Mo., Officer Brannon Hartsell’s state peace officer’s license was suspended after an August 2012 pursuit in which he used his 4,000-pound patrol car to ram the back of a dirt bike fleeing at less than 20 miles an hour. The Aurora pursuit policy prohibits ramming.
The bike and rider together weighed about 400 pounds, according to a state administrative hearing on the case. The collision caused the rider to lose control and fall off, and he was nearly run over by Hartsell’s cruiser.
Hartsell may have been negligent in the way he handled the pursuit, said his lawyer, Richard Crites, of Springfield. “But he was not reckless.”
Hartsell could not have been legally reckless, Crites said, because he was never trained in proper pursuit procedures. If he had been, Crites said, “there would have been no excuse for what occurred.”
Crites added that pursuit training should be specifically required under state law.
He said Hartsell is currently working as a guard in a county jail until his license suspension is lifted.
(Some research assistance for this article was provided by librarians at the UMKC School of Law’s Leon E. Bloch Law Library)
This investigative report by Mike McGraw and Bridgit Bowden was produced in collaboration with The Kansas City Star and KCUR. See also this story on why bystanders injured in Missouri police pursuits face uphill battles in court.