The Unwritten Policy
Their lives were just beginning—and then they were over in an instant.
Published: November 23, 2009
by Nora Profit
The Writing Loft and PursuitSAFETY Advisory Board Member
It is expectation and belief that encourage us to trust the police. We trust the promise that law enforcement personnel and their departments are set up to protect us. We rely on them to catch criminals, prevent crime, keep the peace, maintain order, serve the public, and, in general, keep the citizenry safe.
The National Police Ethics Committee states that, “The primary responsibility of the police service and of the individual officer, is the protection of the people of the United States through the upholding of their laws....” In fact, we, the general public, expect the police to perform the job for which they were hired: to be the representatives of government responsible for public safety and social order. This is what we expect. This is what we believe. This is what we trust.
Sisters Jessica and Kelli Uhl believed that too. Their parents, family members, friends, and their community believed it as well. When people understand the inherent risk of death and injury to innocent bystanders associated with vehicular first-responder calls and police chases, they quickly reconsider the validity of condoning these types of vehicular police pursuits.
Jessica, 18, and Kelli, 13, were on their way home from a family photo session. Jessica and Kelli died instantly when Illinois State Police Trooper Matt Mitchell drove 126 mph in heavy, day-after Thanksgiving traffic in response to an accident call that was already being handled by other first-responders. He lost control of his cruiser. His vehicle jumped a median on I-64 and then slammed into the car occupied by the two Collinsville, IL, sisters. Mitchell also caused injuries to Kelly Marler and his then-pregnant wife, Christine, of Fayetteville when he crashed into their car as well.
Today, two years later, Mitchell continues to receive a salary with pay increases from the Illinois State Police. He has been relieved of his duties but is still considered a state employee. According to the Belleville News-Democrat, the state of Illinois will pay Mitchell roughly $158,000 from the date of the crash to the upcoming criminal trial date—a date that continues to be pushed back and won’t take place any earlier than March 2010. Mitchell was making $64,296 on Nov. 23, 2007, when he was talking on a cell phone to his girlfriend, e-mailing with another trooper and driving 126 miles an hour.
When Kelly and Christine Marler, also injured because of Mitchell's actions, filed suit against Mitchell in St. Clair County Court, Circuit Judge Patrick Young dismissed the lawsuit. Young wrote: "(Mitchell) was driving his state-issued police vehicle in a manner unique to his employment at the time of this incident. (Mitchell) is therefore entitled to sovereign immunity and this court lacks jurisdiction over the matter."
The Marlers still have a civil cause of action pending against Mitchell. The Belleville News-Democrat reported August 14, 2009 that Thomas Q. Keefe, the lawyer for the Uhls' parents, filed a claim in the Illinois Court of Claims. Troy Walton, the attorney for the Marlers, filed a claim in the Court of Claims, as well.
Kim Schlau, Jessica and Kelli’s mother, referring to another newspaper account wrote to PursuitSAFETY, “The majority of the public are outraged not only at the trooper's conduct, but at the fact that he is continuing to draw a salary.”
Two years later, Jessica and Kelli's family waits for accountability and justice.
Stories of justice delayed and the public’s tendency to trivialize bystander deaths is common. This same story can be repeated in the deaths of sisters Christina and Jacqueline Becker of New Jersey.
“Their lives were just beginning—and then they were over in an instant,” writes Helaine S. Tabacoff in an ABC news report. “The girls were staying with their grandparents, Geraldine and Cesar Caiafa. Around 10 p.m., they went to pick up milk at the local convenience store. Jacqueline and Christina were driving a half-mile back to their grandparents' house, when another driver was traveling at least 60 miles an hour, nearly double the speed limit.”
The family was shocked to learn the man who ran the stop sign was New Jersey state trooper Robert Higbee who was chasing another driver who was speeding.
Christina and Jacqueline were the only two children of Maria Caiafa, and the youngest of four generations of women in a close-knit, big-hearted Italian family from Cape May County, N.J. Jacqueline was 17, a senior in high school, and 19-year-old Christina was a junior in college. But their lives came to a tragic end on September 27, 2006.
(Transcript of the criminal trial for Robert Higbee. The text is under the video in this news story.)
Why the Lack of Accountability?
The cause for reckless pursuits may also come from the nature of the job police have to do and the lack of accountability built into the system.
Jane Prendergast, a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer, wrote, “In Cincinnati, Ohio, on a Sunday night in 1997, Police Officer Gregory Berting heard a radio call about a speeding car being chased by police. He jumped into the pursuit, too. In contrast, at least three Northern Kentucky police departments opted not to get involved when the speeding blue Grand Am blew through their jurisdictions.”
The report continues to say, the contrast points out the differences in how police departments handle fleeing drivers. Officer Berting's involvement ended when his cruiser hit a car that was not involved in the chase, killing Michael Tenhundfeld, 18. Two passengers in Michael’s car were seriously injured. Officer Berting’s driving record in this news report states this was Officer Berting's fourth “accident” within a year's time and that he had previously violated the agency's pursuit policy.
An excerpt from an FBI Journal published in 2002: “They (police officers) make quick decisions and seldom make them under direct supervision. Yet, the officers themselves often experience long periods of boredom, peppered with moments of excitement and even sheer terror. In the lives of many officers, adrenalin becomes a drug and adversity becomes part of their daily lives. Handling feelings of separation, uselessness, and frustration becomes a ritual habit. Some officers handle the stress of the job adequately, while for others it can prove hazardous, if not debilitating.”
Why Do These Tragedies Repeat Themselves?
One would think that the tragedies mentioned above only happen after careful consideration of the circumstances for which a pursuit is undertaken—circumstances that will unquestionably ensure the public’s safety. But, that is not what the facts show. The facts show that our expectation of safety at the hands of the police has always been absolute, but they also show that we are dealing with a violation of trust, and have been for quite some time.
Here are the facts: The stories of death and injuries to unsuspecting citizens due to unrestrained vehicular first-responder calls and police chases are in the thousands each year in the United States. PursuitSAFETY asserts that vehicular police pursuits kill at least three innocent bystanders every week. The Fatality Analysis Reporting System by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gathers limited information from law enforcement, but there is no accountability even when it comes to this voluntary collection of data. Reporters continually cite the numbers from this report as if they are the actual number of deaths, but these numbers fall short—way short.
With no mandatory reporting requirements or independent oversight at the state and federal levels, deaths of innocent bystanders continue to be under-reported. Vehicular police pursuits have killed more than 4,500 innocent bystanders since 1982. 4,500? The actual number may be double or triple the reported 4,500, according to the FBI Report which states the following:
The reporting "process can be very subjective. The lack of a mandatory reporting system hampers attempts by NHTSA to track pursuit fatalities and results in the collection of as little as one-half of the actual data."
The unfortunate fact is that these figures do not translate into guilty verdicts or a reprimand at the court level, and the law enforcement system remains unrepentant and reluctant to change.
PursuitSAFETY's executive director Candy Priano contributed to this article.
Copyright 2009 by Voices Insisting on PursuitSAFETY. All rights reserved.