SAN ANTONIO – It has been two weeks since several Bexar County Sheriff's deputies chased after a stolen Jeep for more than 20 minutes before one deputy used his vehicle to spin the fleeing stolen SUV out of control, ending the chase.
Video of the pursuit caught by Sky-12 showed what looked like a perfect example of how to end a dangerous chase but Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar didn't like the way his deputies ended it.
The incident highlights why Salazar has spent the past several months revising the agency's pursuit policy.
"I've got great deputies who just really want to get the bad guys off the street and I commend them for that," Salazar said. "While my deputies want to catch the bad guy, that's what we hire them for, that's what we pay them for, in catching the bad guy it's also not safe to put the public at risk, or the officers at risk, or even the violator at risk for certain offenses."
The tactic the deputy used to end the chase on July 10, is known as a PIT (Pursuit Intervention Technique) maneuver. In recent years several law enforcement agencies across the country have stopped using the technique and Salazar said BCSO doesn't even train deputies how to use it.
"That PIT maneuver, while in that instance ended that pursuit, you can see where that vehicle veered off out of control and ended up crossing about 2-3 lanes of oncoming traffic. You could see where that situation could have gone badly," Salazar said. "And so while I commend the efforts of the officer and their enthusiasm, it really is maybe not the best circumstances to use that PIT maneuver. So no, I'm not a fan of the PIT maneuver at all and I've actually been trained in it myself but still it's not appropriate in all circumstances."
Salazar feels the deputies put the public in harm's way that day and wants to minimize the risks when it comes to his deputies chasing after fleeing suspects.
In recent years, several BCSO pursuits have ended badly. Last year, a teen driver was killed when he ran from deputies, a passenger in pickup truck was killed when the fleeing driver crashed, patrol vehicles have been damaged and deputies injured. Salazar, who worked at SAPD when police Chief Bill McManus institute a more restrictive policy for officers a few years ago, said he has seen enough. He's now updating BCSO's pursuit policy to rein in his deputies.
"When it comes to police pursuits, the end does not always justify the means," Salazar said. "We gave direction to the officers that we don't want to be chasing strictly for a non-moving violation like a broken taillight. If someone's got a broken taillight, I don't see the justification in pursuing them for 5, 10, 15 minutes. That's a clear and present danger to the public at large, and it's something I just can't continue to justify for a broken taillight or an expired inspection sticker."
Salazar said he's putting more pressure on supervisors to closely monitor chases and end them when conditions become to risky.
"We're putting more of the responsibility on that controlling supervisor to make sure they're doing their best. Sometimes they're 20 miles away from that pursuit but they need to do their best to make sure the officer is giving them the information they need, to put them in that car, to give them a good visual mentally of what's going on in that situation," Salazar said. "In the event that a supervisor does not answer up and become a controlling supervisor, the dispatchers are being directed to terminate that pursuit no matter what the circumstances are at that point because if there's not a controlling supervisor, we can't continue that pursuit."
Salazar said deputies have other ways to catch fleeing suspects.
"There's nothing that says we can't shut down the lights and continue to trail a vehicle, or we can use our helicopter to follow them, or get into a position where we can deploy a controlled deflation device," the sheriff said.
Salazar said he came up with the revised policy with input from his command staff, deputies from all ranks, and members of the public. The updated policy is currently under review by the Bexar County District Attorney's office and is expected to be in place in the coming months.
Salazar said criminals shouldn't get the wrong idea, his deputies will still chase violent felons and fleeing criminals when it's safe to do so.
Salazar understands some deputies may not like being reined in but he feels it's necessary.
"I want to catch the bad guy, put them in jail just like every other cop in this country wants to do," Salazar said. "I just want to make sure we're not putting the public or ourselves at risk."