Wednesday, May 6, 2009

To chase or not to chase...

...that is the question buzzing around Kenosha since a drunken driver decided not to stop for a deputy sheriff and plowed into an innocent man's car on Kenosha's north side.

That innocent family man -- Anibal Tellez -- was just on his way home from work. He lost his life. His family lost a husband and father.

The buzz, of course, is predictable. Some folks are questioning why the deputy had to chase the drunk in the first place. Others say they understand why and feel sorry for the Tellez family. Reaction is emotional and predictable -- it happens like this anywhere in the country.

Having been a police officer and having been in a few chases, let me set the record straight on a few things.

First, if you think cops "get off" on the thrill of a chase, think again.

When we put on the lights and siren and the motorist speeds up instead of pulling over, we don't know why. Is it a frightened kid? An illegal immigrant without a driver's license? A dangerous felon who abducted someone? A drunk and dangerous driver? All of the above?

Truth is, we usually don't know. Also true is that if you've never been behind the wheel of a squad car during a chase, you can't possibly understand the dynamics. If you think it's fun, you're sick.

Every car you see coming up to a stop sign on a side road causes another lump in your throat? Will that car stop? Slow down for that stop sign! Stop! Please stop! Stay stopped! Don't pull out!

Those are some of the things that run through your mind in a chase. The greatest fear is that some innocent person will get in the way and become a victim.

Why not radio ahead? Cops do -- but seldom will there be other squad cars in position to be effective?

Stop strips? Didn't have those in my day -- but they still take time to put down, time that often doesn't exist.

During a chase an officer has to balance many competing exigencies -- protecting his or her safety, accurate radio transmissions on the progress of the chase (in Iowa I once got into a chase on roads without names -- imagine that feeling of helplessness), calculating what to do defensively if some motorist or pedestrian pulls out in front of your squad car and so forth.

Fun? No way. And the sad reality is that no matter what the officer does, the officer will be damned if he or she does and damned if he or she doesn't chase. And regardless of the outcome, there will be Monday morning quarterbacking by well intentioned people with no clue of what it's really like.

I've been there and done that and, no, I didn't always chase.

I once stopped a guy because his license was revoked. When I got up to his car and asked to see his driver's license, I noticed that he reeked of alcohol. "Fuck you, pig. I don't have to show you my goddamn fucking driver's license." He drove off -- fortunately not at a high rate of speed.

Do I chase him? If I did, he might speed up and the risk of carnage increases exponentially. Backup? The nearest officer was 13 miles away -- in the wrong direction.

Do I not chase him? If he gets into a crash and there's a victim injured or killed, that decision will be microscopically reviewed.

In this case, I opted to follow from a distance. Fortunately he made it home safe, slept it off and had a surprise visit at lunch from myself and two state troopers. Less than 24 hours after the incident he was sentenced to 90 days in jail with the admonition, "Next time an officer asks to see your license, you stay there and show it."

The ultimate insult here may well come in the courtroom where many of our judges soft pedal their sentences for knowingly fleeing an officer. Unlike the Iowa judge they, for the most part, fail to send the right message and actually enable more chases in the process. The news media rarely reports on these irresponsible sentences and the judges who handed them out are never held accountable.

I will not trivialize the death of Anibal Tellez by saying something trite like "it's unfortunate." Of course it is. All that and a lot worse.

Don't forget that the person responsible for this death is the drunken moron that wouldn't stop -- not the deputy.

And if you want to play Monday morning quarterback, well, if you haven't been in the officer's shoes, you probably won't know what you're talking about.

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