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The price of pursuit: FHP’s new policy blurs when it’s safe to chase

The wreckage following a crash involving a Florida Highway Patrol pursuit that ended with the deaths of four teenagers.
Courtesy: Alachua County Fire Rescue
/
WGCU
The wreckage following a crash involving a Florida Highway Patrol pursuit that ended with the deaths of four teenagers.

Four teenagers were riding the rural roads of north central Florida in a Honda CR-V when they passed a Bradford County sheriff’s deputy just after midnight. Then the vehicle was flooded from behind by flashing lights.

Two of the teens had past issues with the law and wore ankle monitors, but that wasn’t why they were being pulled over on that April night: The Honda had been reported stolen.

When the deputy attempted to pull them over, the compact SUV veered from the roadway, as if it might stop, before the driver peeled away. At least four BCSO vehicles then responded and gave chase to the teens.

At one point, the SUV swerved, then turned onto U.S. Highway 301 toward Gainesville, at more than 100 miles per hour, according to the sheriff’s report. Unable to keep up and passing into neighboring Alachua County, all but two of the pursuing deputies called off their chase and the Florida Highway Patrol took over the pursuit of the boys.

“They must have been scared,” said Willy Roberts, the father of one of the teens. “They were just kids.”

FHP Trooper Alan Palmer took over the chase and pushed the SUV with his patrol car in a bid to bring the vehicle to a stop, a tactic known as a PIT (Precision Immobilization Technique) maneuver.

Palmer described the ensuing disaster on the radio.

The Honda CR-V wrapped around a utility pole after the PIT maneuver.
Courtesy: Alachua County Fire Rescue
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WGCU
The Honda CR-V wrapped around a utility pole after the PIT maneuver.

“PIT, PIT, PIT, rollover, rollover, rollover,” said Palmer.

Deputies and paramedics arrived at the crash site in Waldo, a city about 14 miles northeast of Gainesville, to find the SUV wrapped around a concrete utility pole. Three of the teens were trapped in the car and in critical condition. The fourth was ejected from the car and laid motionless nearby.

Robert’s son, Taleak Roberts, and Philemon Moore, both 16, died at the scene. Jabril Chevers, 14, and Lawrence McClendon Jr., 17, died from their injuries three days later in the hospital.

“For the rest of my life, I will always hurt,” said Willy Roberts. “You can lose a mom or dad, but when it’s your child, that’s another type of loss.”

The following week, grief counselors were called to Newberry High School in Alachua County, where Chevers and McClendon were students.

“Thank you for keeping both of these families in your thoughts during this difficult time,” Principal James Sheppard wrote in a message to parents.

After the counselors left the school and the story fell from the headlines, the families of the deceased continue to ask whether the vehicular force used by FHP was necessary.

A PIT maneuver is typically deployed in order to push the rear end of a fleeing vehicle off course, so it loses traction and spins out, allowing the trooper to block it in and bring the vehicle to a stop. Despite the tragic outcome, FHP argues the tactic was necessary in the case of the four dead teens “to stop the threat created by the fleeing suspect.”

One deputy who lagged behind the chase later wrote in the incident report that “FHP conducted a successful PIT maneuver before my arrival on the scene.”

But according to some national law enforcement agencies and policing experts, the PIT maneuver performed that night was anything but proper.

“If you do a PIT at those kinds of speeds, that’s the use of deadly force in my book,” said Dr. Roy Taylor, a law enforcement policy expert and former police chief who has provided expert testimony in dozens of lawsuits involving allegedly negligent police chases. “It’s only going to end one way, and it’s in a horrendous crash.”

The fatal encounter came just four months after FHP made major changes to its pursuit policy that included a loosening of restrictions on PIT maneuvers and other intentional contact, as well as other tactics that have been deemed unsafe by at least 33 other states.

Those revised FHP tactics were initially called into question just weeks after the policy change when FHP Trooper Zachary Fink collided with a truck driver, Arsenio Más of Homestead, during a chase in February that killed them both.

Jabril Cheevers, 14, was the youngest of the four teen fatalities. (Courtesy: GoFundMe) The Florida deaths come amid growing controversy over police chases nationwide. A recent San Francisco Chronicle investigation found that in a six-year period ending in 2022, 3,336 people were killed nationally during police pursuits, at least 551 of them innocent parties.

Last fall, the Police Executive Research Forum and U.S. Department of Justice issued a report recommending that police agencies adopt more restrictive policies regarding chases. Instead, the FHP did just the opposite; in December, the state agencyloosened its pursuit policy to permit more chases.

One recommendation not being followed by FHP is to allow pursuits only when a violent felony has occurred or when the driver presents a danger to the public, a measure that may have prevented the deaths of the four boys on April 20.

“At the end of the day, it’s a property crime,” said Taylor. “Of course the officers will argue, ‘Well, it’s a felony.’ Yeah, it’s a felony but it’s still a property crime. Is it worth somebody’s life to chase down a car?”

FHP doubles down on chase policy  

FHP’s former policy also required troopers to get permission from a supervisor to start a chase and conduct PIT maneuvers. Now, these decisions are left to the split-second discretion of the trooper.

Existing research hasn’t determined the exact cutoff speed at which a PIT maneuver becomes too dangerous, but the national consensus estimates any speed higher than about 40 mph presents too much risk, according to a 2023 study commissioned by the DOJ and the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration.

FHP troopers know this. The state agency states twice in its current PIT maneuver policy that “members should remember that the greater the speed, the greater the likelihood of injury or death.”

The DOJ study determined high-speed chases are justified only when a suspect has committed, or is an imminent threat to commit, a violent crime. Pursuits involving only property crimes are not justified, the study stated.

The study also states officers shouldn’t hit vehicles carrying passengers. Before FHP changed its policy in December, its troopers could only attempt a PIT maneuver with “large, heavy vehicles” if the use of deadly force was authorized. It also required troopers to consider roadside obstacles, such as utility poles.

Those FHP policies have since been removed. Supporters of the change say it was necessary to apprehend dangerous felons.

Courtesy: Alachua County Fire Rescue
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WGCU
Kerner

Dave Kerner, the Executive Director of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, stood by the revisions in a written statement. “While many states shy away from holding dangerous felons accountable for their decisions, the Florida Highway Patrol seeks to use every tool and tactic available to ensure dangerous felons end up in jail and off our streets,” wrote Kerner, who was appointed to his post in Jan. 2023 by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

During a Donut Shop Podcast last September, Kerner averred that the only way to keep communities safe is to conduct PIT maneuvers whenever possible.

“If the vehicle flees, then a PIT maneuver should be executed as soon as practical thereafter,” Kerner said. “If you have a trooper behind you, it'll be about 10-15 seconds before that trooper PITs you and puts you in a ditch.”

Innocent bystanders at risk

High-speed chases involve more than the pursuing law enforcement officer and fleeing suspect – they impact the safety of others on the roadway.

The Chronicle’s investigation found that 27 percent of those killed during police pursuits were innocent bystanders. According to data from Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics, 21 percent of people injured in police pursuits from 2009 to 2013 were not involved in the pursuit.

Yeisel Más Dominguez is one of those who was left to pick up the pieces after the FHP crash in February killed her 50-year-old father, truck driver Arsenio Más. His truck collided with Trooper Fink after the latter made a U-turn in front of him to pursue a suspect. Fink, who also lost his life in the Port St. Lucie crash, was just 26-years-old.

Yeisel was nearly 360 miles away in Cuba when she learned of her father’s sudden death.

“At first I couldn’t believe it,” Yeisel said in Spanish. “I went days without being able to sleep, only thinking of my dad and the kind of death he had.”

She missed the funeral on Feb. 10, but not for lack of trying. She’s been slogging through the visa application process so she can finally say goodbye to her father, who is buried in Florida, where she hopes to soon put flowers on his grave.

He’d planned to return home to Cuba in March to visit his mother for her birthday.

“His visit was supposed to be her birthday present,” Yeisel said.

Family victims of police chases become advocates for change

Arsenio and Fink are among hundreds killed in crashes involving police chases each year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), police chases kill on average at least one person every day.

“These things are so preventable,” said Matthew Priano, co-founder of the victims’ advocacy group PursuitSAFETY, which aims to reduce the number of deaths and injuries resulting from vehicular police chases. “Most pursuits are for traffic infractions or property crimes. We’re not talking murder or kidnapping. In most cases, they can catch them in a safer way.”

Priano never envisioned himself as an educator and advocate. He and his wife Candy were thrust into the role in 2002 after their car was hit by an officer who blew through a stop sign during a chase, killing their 15-year-old daughter, Kristie.

The officer was reportedly pursuing a teen-age girl who took her mother’s car for a joyride.

Now the Prianos travel the country to press for police chase reforms, sharing their story of how negligent police pursuits can scar families forever.

“Nothing is ever the same,” Priano said. “You have a massive hole in the family, and you’re always wondering, ‘What would she be doing today?’”

He said he wants to help protect police officers as well. Last year alone, seven officers were killed while in pursuit, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C.

“We’re not anti-law enforcement — we’re against bad policy,” Priano said. “We’re against people who endanger the public and don’t follow safety procedures. We want safety for everyone.”

Willy Roberts, Taleak’s dad, said he’ll most miss fishing with his son and cracking jokes by the water. Before the tragic crash, his son was in the process of starting his own lawn care business, said Roberts. “I think about him daily,” he said. “I will always mourn the loss of my child and the other three kids.”

Jack Lemnus is a 2023 graduate of the University of Florida who recently completed an internship with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and specializes in housing, justice and environmental reporting. The Florida Trident is a local investigative news outlet focusing on government accountability and transparency across Florida and was created and first published in 2022 by the Florida Center for Government Accountability. The FLGCA is a nonprofit 501(c)3 dedicated to helping enforce open government laws. All donations made to FLCGA are tax deductible. For more information about the Florida Trident or FLCGA, please email info@flcga.org.