Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay stressed restraint to fellow officers in an internal memo distributed Wednesday that outlined a bureau review of firearms policies related to moving vehicles.
Releasing the email, dated Oct. 31, was prompted by a crash Sunday night in Bloomfield that left five people injured, including a 12-year-old girl. The attempted traffic stop-turned-police pursuit sped through East Liberty, Shadyside and Bloomfield before the driver crashed head-on into another car near Baum Boulevard and Broughton Street, according to the criminal complaint.
Police charged 22-year-old Donovan Robinson with 56 crimes in connection with the chase and crash.
McLay said Wednesday upper command staff have been considering revisions to several high-liability policies, including the use of deadly force, pursuit and others for months, but this latest incident put the need into acute perspective.
“This was not our finest moment,” McLay said. “So we are going to be looking very hard at the policy, the accountability system and the training to make sure that officers properly balance the need for the apprehension with the threat to the public.”
Pursuit driving is inherently dangerous, McLay said.
“We’ve had a number of pursuits in my tenure here where I felt that the driving behavior of the officers as they’re attempting to make the apprehension, in the final analysis, was more dangerous to the public than the violations we were trying to interdict,” he said.
According to an analysis by the Citizen Police Review Board, the number of police chases in Pittsburgh has increased in recent years, from 121 in 2011 to 205 in 2013. Executive Director Beth Pittinger credited 89 percent of police vehicle pursuits nationwide to minor traffic violations.
“The death toll from police pursuits across the country … outweighs the benefit of stopping someone for a minor traffic violation,” she said. “It’s not worth it for us to do those things. It’s about safety and keeping civilians and police officers safe.”
The new policy makes clear that officers are not to pursue unless the actor is engaged in a violent felony and never for a traffic violation. The only exception is a situation in which a vehicle “is being intentionally operated as a weapon and an officer or a third party, is faced with immediate death or serious bodily injury and the officer has done everything reasonable necessary to avoid the use of deadly force," according to police General Order 12.7.
The driver must manifest intent to kill, McLay said.
Officers in pursuit of a vehicle are required to call a pursuit out “over the air” and defer to their supervisor’s judgment. Any supervisor in any zone could have called them off, McLay said.
Pittinger said Tuesday the policy change is long overdue to prevent police from behaving recklessly.
“They have to identify where they are, the speed, the weather conditions, pedestrian traffic and those kinds of things,” she said. “You can’t have cowboys out there.”
East End resident Chris Fritz, husband of 90.5 WESA reporter Liz Reid, witnessed the police pursuit while he was stopped in the westbound lane at a red light on Penn Avenue near Trader Joe’s.
Fritz said the car being pursued drove past at a high speed into oncoming traffic in the eastbound lane. According to Fritz, three or four police cruisers followed heading westbound in the eastbound lane. Moments later, he said two police SUVs drove past on the sidewalk on the north side of Penn Avenue.
McLay declined to comment on the particulars of the incident citing an ongoing internal review, but said he’s seen the tapes of the chase.
“The officers make those decisions in a split-second, and the rest of us will take sometimes years to dissect and decide if they were right or wrong,” he said. “It’s tragic to think of the millions of (use-of-force) decisions … that officers make every day and realize the tiny, tiny, tiny proportions of those that we don’t get right.”
McLay said he’s mindful of how moments that place officers in physical jeopardy like those on Sunday can lead to legal trouble later on, he said.
“We hold ourselves accountable when we don’t have our best day," he said, "but we also positively reinforce when officers get it right, because they get it right way more than they get it wrong.”
90.5 WESA reporters Deanna Garcia and Liz Reid contributed to this report.