Kent Police vehicle pursuits jumped 37 percent in 2018 with 119 chases compared to 87 the previous year – a hike that’s a result of more crime and an aggressive policy to catch suspects.
“Our mission is, ‘to aggressively fight crime while serving with compassion,’” Police Chief Rafael Padilla said in an email. “This means we take our responsibility to protect our community and stop crime seriously, in essence we take a more assertive stance. We are working very hard to address our property crime issue, particularly vehicle theft and commercial burglaries, and when we find these suspects in vehicles they attempt to flee from us in their vehicles more often than not.”
With vehicle thefts up in 2018, so were pursuits.
“I think it’s a direct correlation to the number of vehicle thefts and other related crimes we are seeing in the area,” Padilla said.
An increase of 32 more vehicle pursuits from the previous year also could be a sign of suspects who simply don’t want to give up.
“In my 27 years in law enforcement, I have never seen a time when criminals have been more willing to attempt to evade apprehension by driving to get away than I see today,” Padilla said. “But our officers are doing all they can to safely apprehend these criminals and keep our community safe.”
Unlike other police agencies in the area, including Seattle and Bellevue, that operate under no pursuit policies for lesser crimes, Kent Police leave it up to the officer to decide when to chase.
The Bellevue Police Department, which had only four vehicle pursuits in 2018 and two in 2017, bans officers in the city of nearly 144,000 from pursuits for traffic violations, misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and property crimes.
“For many years, the Bellevue Police Department has had a policy in place that limits the circumstances in which an officer may pursue a fleeing vehicle,” said Bellevue Assistant Chief Patrick Arpin in an email. “This policy is designed to maximize the safety of our officers and the public.”
Seattle Police also have a policy against pursuing drivers for traffic violations, civil infractions, misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors.
Padilla said that a “no pursuit” policy means that officers who encounter suspects of crimes like vehicle theft, burglaries, DUI, reckless driving, illegal street racing, etc., are prohibited from pursuing those suspects in a vehicle.
“The other school of thought is still restrictive in how and when officers will be allowed to pursue criminals in vehicles, but stops short of implementing a bright line ban,” Padilla said. “We fall into the second school of thought, and we believe our community members demand that we take reasonable action to enforce the law and apprehend criminals.”
A total of 57 pursuits (48 percent) last year in Kent were for a traffic infraction or traffic misdemeanor (reckless driving, negligent driving), according to the End of Year Pursuit Analysis report Padilla presented to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on April 9. Another 13 pursuits were for suspicious circumstances and eight for other misdemeanors.
“Sixty-six percent of pursuits were for relatively minor offenses,” according to the report.
Out of the 119 pursuits, 68 percent were very short pursuits that the officer or sergeant in charge terminated the chase because they realized the driver is not going to stop and officers were weighing the risk to community versus the need to apprehend, Padilla said. Officers often stop pursuits if there is a lot of nearby traffic.
Twenty-five collisions (21 percent of the total) occurred in 2018 as a result of Kent Police pursuits, according to the report. Nine of the collisions were the reason the pursuit ended.
“We had two pursuits in which a total of three officers were injured as a result of a collision,” according to the report. “One of those pursuits ended tragically with a Kent Police officer getting killed while setting spikes while another officer suffered serious injuries in the same incident. Third parties were injured on two occasions. Suspects were injured on four occasions.”
Officer Diego Moreno, 35, died in July 2018 after responding to reports of gunfire outside a West Meeker Street restaurant. Moreno was struck and killed near Kent Des Moines Road and Reith Road by a fellow officer driving a police SUV after Moreno attempted to stop a fleeing vehicle by putting down spike strips.
Police arrested Emiliano Garcia, 16, of Kent, a day after the pursuit, and he has been charged with second-degree murder for the death of Moreno. Garcia drove the vehicle that fled from police and flipped a short distance down the road after hitting the spike strips. A trial date has yet to be set. Garcia remains in custody at the King County Juvenile Detention Center in Seattle.
“We are doing a pretty good job,” Padilla said to the council committee about the number of injuries. “You never want to see anybody get hurt, but that is relatively low for the number of pursuits.”
Kent Police recently switched to a Stop Stick rather than spike strips to stop fleeing vehicles in an effort to provide a safer and more efficient deployment, according to the End of Year Pursuit Analysis. A Stop Stick is easier to toss across a road than spike strips.
Although not part of the 2018 stats, in February of this year Christina Ammann, 32, was killed fleeing police when she crashed into another vehicle along South 212th Street.
Officers responded to a 911 call about a woman using a stolen identification card and attempting to cash a fraudulent check at the Safeway store, 210 Washington Ave. S., according to police. She fled in a vehicle and police pursued. Ammann drove around a spike strip placed by police and crossed into oncoming traffic, where she collided with another vehicle, injuring that driver.
The pursuits with injuries or deaths have led to higher costs for the city’s insurance policies as well as lawsuits against Kent.
City worker compensation insurance rates were hiked 17 percent this year and the deductible raised by $100,000 after large claims because of the on-duty death of Moreno and an injury to another officer during the same July incident, according to city Human Resources staff.
The city paid $1.1 million to the state Department of Labor & Industries to fund Moreno’s pension, which goes to his widow. The city pays the claim (from its worker comp fund) and Safety National then provides reimbursement (of the amount more than the $500,000 deductible), once the claim is closed. St. Louis-based Safety National provides the city’s excess worker comp insurance.
Safety National will pursue recovery costs in the case against Garcia, said Chris Hills, city Human Resources risk manager.
The city had to hire an outside law firm to handle a recent suit against Kent involving a pursuit.
A King County Superior Court jury found in February 2018 that Kent Police were not negligent during a 2015 chase when a fleeing vehicle later crashed into another car and seriously injured the driver.
Samir Gardi filed a complaint for damages against the city of Kent in March 2016 after he suffered serious injuries in a 10 a.m. Jan. 6, 2015, car crash in the 9000 block of Canyon Drive. A car driven westbound by Ashley Wanaka – as she fled police – crashed into Gardi as she crossed into oncoming traffic. Gardi claimed police were negligent to pursue Wanaka and should have stopped the chase or not even started it.
“Kent officers followed police policy and the law when they responded to the acts of a dangerous criminal,” Kent City Attorney Pat Fitzpatrick said after the verdict. “They did their job to protect the public. The jury agreed, and did so quickly, rendering its verdict in less than 20 minutes. It is unfortunate that Mr. Gardi was injured, but the criminal, Ms. Wanaka, bears 100 percent responsibility for his injuries.”
Padilla painted a similar picture to Fitzpatrick for the reason for the high number of pursuits in Kent.
“We should not lose sight of the fact that none of these pursuits ever occur if not for the criminal actions of a very few dangerous criminals who make a conscious decision to disobey the law,” Padilla said. “All too often the blame for bad outcomes of police pursuits is placed on law enforcement as though the criminals had a right to resist arrest by placing the public in danger.”
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs doesn’t track statistics regarding pursuits, said Executive Director Steve Strachan in an email. But Strachan referred to a national report released in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Justice about vehicle pursuits.
The report showed an average of 25 pursuits per year by police departments serving a population of 100,000 to 249,000. Kent, with a population of nearly 129,000, has averaged 43 pursuits per year over the last 10 years.
In comparison to nearby cities, Federal Way Police had 28 vehicle pursuits in 2018 and 37 in 2017, according to public disclosure requests. Renton Police had nine pursuits in 2018 and 10 in 2017. Federal Way has a population of about 97,000 and Renton 101,000.
Padilla said King County also has a very high number of prolific criminal offenders who are out on the streets actively committing crimes who should be in jail or prison.
“These offenders by definition do not obey the law and drive to avoid being caught,” he said. “Sadly, when we do catch these criminals (we arrest them all the time) there is very little consequence to their crimes in terms of prison sentencing because of outdated and ineffective sentencing laws.
“The community might be shocked to know that we have a state law that effectively makes the sentence for stealing five cars the same as stealing 50 cars because once an offender reaches a maximum number of points, they reach the maximum sentence allowed. The car thieves call it ‘free crime’ because they know they don’t have to pay for these prolific offenses.”
Padilla said those suspects are the primary reason for the jump in pursuits in Kent in 2018 compared to 2017.
Most chases in Kent are short. The average distance of pursuits last year was 2.07 miles. The longest pursuit was 25 miles and the second longest 12 miles. All other pursuits were less than 10 miles with most shorter than 1.5 miles.
Padilla said officers participate every other year in a 10-hour block to learn about when and how to chase suspects. Officers will participate in pursuit driving training in August at Pacific Raceways, a course taught by master instructors.
“The hours we put into honing both the practical aspects of pursuit driving and officer’s judgment and decisions making process, is generally much more comprehensive than most departments across the country,” Padilla said. “This allows officers to weigh the need to apprehend the offender against the risk to the general public in a very informed way at their level.
“In essence, we empower our officers to do their job the right way.”
••Kent Police pursuits 2018••
Traffic infraction: 37
Traffic misdemeanor: 20
Stolen vehicle: 16
Felony persons: 14
Suspicious circumstance: 13
Felony property: 12
Other misdemeanor: 7
Officer discontinued: 57
Supervisor ended: 24
PIT maneuver: 9
Suspect gave up: 8
Source: Kent Police
••Pursuit numbers by agency in 2018••
Federal Way: 28
Source: Police agencies