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Baltimore Police Department doesn't track officers' vehicle pursuits. Should it?

Cassidy Jensen and Darcy Costello, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in News & Features

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Police Department, which has seen three deaths linked to people fleeing police since 2022, says it doesn’t keep track of how often its officers pursue vehicles.

Three of the 19 fatal police pursuits or crashes statewide since October 2021 involved Baltimore Police, according to the Independent Investigations Division of the Maryland attorney general’s office, tying the agency with the Charles County Sheriff’s Office and Montgomery County Police for the highest number of such deaths. A recent spate of police pursuits that killed bystanders and passengers has prompted concern from the state attorney general.

No statewide entity tracks nonfatal pursuits, but eight Maryland law enforcement agencies of various sizes provided annual numbers of pursuits going back to 2021 in response to a Baltimore Sun request last week.

In Baltimore, however, Baltimore Police spokesperson Chakia Fennoy said in an email that the department’s data team “did not possess any data on vehicle pursuits.” Fennoy referred a question about the agency’s process for reviewing pursuits to another unit, which did not respond.

Experts say that keeping data on pursuits is important and can determine whether changes need to be made.

“You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem is,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice and criminology professor.

Baltimore Police’s vehicle pursuit policy is relatively strict. It allows officers to start pursuits only when they have probable cause to believe a suspect in a vehicle committed a violent felony and that failing to catch them poses an “immediate threat of death or bodily injury” to the officer or others.

Still, Baltimore attorney Hannah Ernstberger, who is representing three women injured when a man fleeing police downtown in 2021 hit their car, said the department’s lack of accessible data could reflect a “lackadaisical approach” to pursuits.

“The fact that they are not keeping track of what’s going on with these pursuits and their [lack of] concern for any public safety, I think that just goes to their sort of lackadaisical approach,” Ernstberger said. “I wish I could figure out a good reason for not looking into and investigating and keeping track of these types of things.”

The department’s federal consent decree does not specifically require Baltimore Police to track vehicle pursuits, said Kenneth Thompson, an attorney who leads the consent decree’s monitoring team. It does contain provisions related to officers’ use of force, including training on foot pursuits and avoiding excessive force, Thompson said in an email.

The consent decree also lists vehicle pursuits as a metric in an “early intervention system” for identifying problem officers. But the department did not respond to a question from The Sun about whether Baltimore Police have begun tracking that information for officers. The department’s contract for an early intervention system was approved last September.

Asked whether he believed Baltimore Police should track pursuits and publicize data on pursuits, Thompson said the monitoring team’s role is to provide the department with technical assistance, not to “mandate specific policies or tactics.”

The women Ernstberger represents — Carlene Jones, Talease Gaither and Sharonda Finch — suffered permanent injuries, including “severe nerve pain, soft-tissue injuries, post-concussive syndrome, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder” as a result of the crash, according to their March complaint filed in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit claims the officers violated the department’s vehicle pursuit policy in multiple ways and that, more generally, Baltimore officers are not adequately trained on the policy or appropriately supervised.

 

A Baltimore Police spokesperson declined to comment, saying the department does not comment on active or pending litigation.

Departmental policies say officers who are deciding whether to initiate or continue a pursuit should weigh the safety of the public, including “density of vehicular and pedestrian traffic,” as well as whether they have verified the suspect’s identity, other persons in the fleeing vehicle and the ability to apprehend the person at a later time. They are specifically prohibited from pursuing someone if the initial violation is a crime against property, a misdemeanor or a traffic offense without “imminent danger.”

“My broader-picture concern about it all is: Are they actually training the officers on the policy they have in place, or is it just there to say, ‘Hey, we did it?’” Ernstberger said.

According to the women’s suit, the chase began after Baltimore officers tried to stop a driver who they saw reverse in a one-way street. Officers backed off while the police helicopter, Foxtrot, followed overhead. They resumed the pursuit minutes later in downtown rush-hour traffic, before the man ran a red light and collided with the plaintiffs’ car at North Gay and Orleans streets, the complaint said.

“People who are abiding the law, going about their business, have nothing to do with it, are completely unaware that a police pursuit is even going on around them — and then in a split second, their life is completely altered,” Ernstberger said.

After each of the Baltimore pursuit or crash deaths since 2021 — Kweli Murphy Al-Mateen, 17; Linda Moss, 74; and Alfred Fincher, 54 — the attorney general’s office’s division investigated and wrote a report. The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office did not charge officers in any of those cases.

Baltimore prosecutors determined that officers were not pursuing driver Al-Mateen when he crashed and died on Oct. 8, 2022, while the attorney general’s office said it was “unclear” if the officers had begun a pursuit.

Fincher, a pedestrian, died after a driver fleeing police on Feb. 8, 2023, collided with another car and hit him on the sidewalk before crashing into a rowhouse that partially collapsed. While the attorney general’s office report said that “one could reasonably conclude” that the officer violated the department’s pursuit policy during the incident, Baltimore prosecutors determined the pursuit was lawful and ended before the crash.

In the March 25, 2023, death of Moss, a passenger in a fleeing car, the Baltimore prosecutor’s office and the division differed on whether officers violated department pursuit policy when they followed a car suspected to be involved in armed robberies.

A Baltimore Police officer was convicted of vehicular manslaughter in a fatal June 2022 collision with a 58-year-old man on a scooter. Investigators from the attorney general’s office found he was speeding through red lights on his way to another call.

Each of those incidents likely underwent an internal review examining potential policy violations, as well. Officers who initiate a pursuit must complete an incident report that lays out their probable cause for the pursuit and how safety risks were outweighed. Supervisors are tasked with determining whether the vehicle pursuit violates policy.

The supervisory review also is examined by a shift commander, according to police policy. They are expected to document any counseling, referrals for additional training or disciplinary recommendations. Any misconduct or potential criminal conduct is reported to command staff and to the department’s Public Integrity Bureau.

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©2024 The Baltimore Sun. Visit at baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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