Staff and wire reports

Some police agencies across the nation have adopted policies against dangerous high-speed chases involving suspects who are not wanted for violent crimes.

The funeral was held Monday for an Oklahoma City police officer who died in one such chase last week.

Sgt. Jonathan Dragus died Thursday after his patrol car struck a tree during a pursuit of a suspect on a stolen motorcycle in northwest Oklahoma City. Dragus, 32, apparently lost control of his vehicle when a pickup entered an intersection in front of the officer.

Dragus' death is one of three major accidents in Oklahoma over the last week that resulted from a police chase.

On Sunday, three people were injured, two of them seriously, when a car being chased by an Oklahoma City police officer crashed into another vehicle at an intersection.

Early Monday morning, a man drowned after his vehicle crashed into the Oklahoma River just south of downtown Oklahoma City while being pursued by Moore police.

Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel has a unique perspective on police pursuits. Whetsel's wife and 2-year-old daughter were killed in 1980 when an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper in pursuit of a speeding motorcyclist crashed into the family's car.

"Obviously, having gone through that tragedy, I've looked at police pursuits from every aspect," said Whetsel, who conducts training on police chases. "The first thing to remember is that the bad guy is the one that causes whatever happens.

"In this case, officer Dragus was doing his job ... and he lost his life because the bad guy wouldn't obey the law. Pursuing criminals is going to have horrific risks ... but it's one of those risks that law enforcement is sworn to take in order to protect our citizens."

Whetsel said risks can be reduced by regularly training officers about pursuits and by having supervisors monitor and, if necessary, terminate pursuits.

Like other agencies, the Enid Police Department and the Garfield County Sheriff's Department have pursuit policies in which the discretion of the pursuing officer or deputy is shared with a supervisor.

"Safety is the factor," said Undersheriff Jerry Niles of pursuits. "We decide on a case-by-case basis on how to handle it."

EPD Capt. Nathan Morris said officers must weigh factors such as traffic, weather conditions, time of day and overall public safety when deciding whether to pursue or continue a pursuit.

"You take a lot of factors into consideration," Morris said, "and officers must make that judgment call at the time of the pursuit."

At both agencies, the decision to pursue a suspect lies with the officer and the supervisor on duty. Either can call off a pursuit if they feel it endangers the public or the deputy or officer.

Niles said when a pursuit begins, the supervisor is notified and then begins monitoring the pursuit while checking factors such as road surfaces and conditions. If they feel it is unsafe, the pursuit is called off.

Authorities may not be as prone to reach high speeds pursuing a suspect who rolled through a stop sign or failed to signal, he said. The suspected crime weighs upon the decision to pursue.

"The offense plays an important part in the decision," Niles said.

Oklahoma City police Capt. Jeffrey Becker said every police pursuit results in an investigation to determine whether proper policies and procedures were followed.

The decision to pursue is based on an officer's discretion and involves consideration of the time of day, weather conditions and the severity of the offense. He said supervisors also have the authority to end a pursuit at any time.

"The police department is always open to evaluating best practices in law enforcement techniques," Becker said. "Our current policy is one that's been carefully evaluated."

Nationwide, about 40 percent of all police chases end in crashes, according to Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. He has studied high-risk pursuit driving for about 20 years.

Alpert said many police departments across the nation are moving toward policies where police only pursue suspects if they are known to have committed a violent felony.

"Innocent people were getting killed and injured. The question is, for what?" Alpert said. "If these were all rapists and murderers being pursued, it might be understandable. But the empirical reality is that most of these people who are fleeing are just making stupid decisions."

On Monday, the Phoenix Police Department began training its officers for a planned move to a violent-felony-only pursuit policy, said spokesman Sgt. Andy Hill.

"There is a serious liability concern to engage in any active pursuit which would endanger the lives of citizens, officers or suspects," Hill said. "The need to catch that type of person is far outweighed by the need to protect the community."

But Whetsel said he believes that policy is too rigid because officers rarely know at the beginning of a pursuit if the suspect is a violent felon.

"You obviously can't give a free ride to every stolen vehicle," Whetsel said. "If you do, you run a big risk of not being able to enforce the law."

Staff writer Cass Rains contributed to this Associated Press story.

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