By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico
One recent police pursuit ended in the death of a 25-year-old Portales man. Another pursuit ended in the shooting of a Clovis man who led Texas police on an hour-long chase through Curry County.
Police officials say the decision to pursue suspects is largely based on public safety.
Curry County Undersheriff Wesley Waller said he has been involved in 60 to 70 pursuits in his law enforcement career – mostly during patrols of Interstate 40 in his state police days.
“Safety is paramount, and at the beginning of a pursuit there is specific criteria that has to be quickly taken into consideration,” Waller said.
Each case is unique, with considerations made for weather, speed, traffic and road conditions, he said.
Operating under the New Mexico Safe Pursuit Act of 2004, agencies follow the state policy with little variance from department to department.
Agency officials said the policy gives sound guidance on pursuits and also lends consistency when pursuits cross jurisdictions.
Under state law, an officer is authorized to pursue if it’s determined a suspect “poses a clear and immediate threat of death or serious injury to others or who the officer has probable cause to believe poses a clear and immediate threat to the safety of others that is ongoing and that existed prior to the high speed pursuit.”
Phil Davis, co-legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said he feels pursuits are dangerous but sometimes necessary.
“If it’s followed, the safe pursuit act is consistent with good pursuit practices,” he said. “The question is whether they (all follow it),” Davis said, explaining each pursuit must be evaluated for adherence to the law.
Portales police Capt. Lonnie Berry said a pursuit is authorized only when a clear, pre-existing risk exists.
“If we don’t chase someone and they’re driving in a dangerous manner, then we feel we’re responsible,” Berry said.
Such was the case Oct. 19 when a Portales police officer began following a suspect after he observed him driving in a manner he believed consistent with an intoxicated driver. Miguel Gutierrez Ornelas tried to evade police and was killed when he lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a tree.
Other times Berry said it’s prudent to let a suspect go.
“When you’re chasing someone through the middle of town even in the best of circumstances, (even) being right, you cannot do that for the sake of the public,” Berry said. “(You have to) just let them run and hope that they’ll slow down.”
In those cases, an officer attempts to get the vehicle description and license plate number and broadcasts it to other officers. Berry said there is a good chance another officer can make contact with the suspect after they have slowed down or stopped.
In the Curry County pursuit in early November, JaWayne Helfferich, 39, was shot multiple times after he drove toward a state trooper, according to police. The suspect survived.
Officials said supervisors have the ultimate power to end the pursuit if it reaches a dangerous point or violates statute.
Having a supervisor involved lends critical detachment to the situation, Waller said.
Clovis police are involved in pursuits a couple of times a month and most end peacefully, according to Clovis police Capt. Patrick Whitney.
“(The) typical (conclusion) is an arrest of the driver,” though wrecks happen, Whitney said. “I’ve had them jump out of the car while it’s still moving.”
More often than not, Whitney said, the drivers are intoxicated.
When the pursuit ends, more work begins for officers, who have to document the pursuit and evaluate it with superiors.
“You try to second guess it,” Berry said. “We always want to see, did we follow the policy? We keep preaching that policy to the guys.”
State law mandates officer training and continual review of pursuit law.
If it’s determined the officer followed policy, responsibility lies on the suspect, a condition upheld in a 2007 Supreme Court decision, Whitney said.
“All they have to do is just pull over and stop,” Whitney said of suspects. “The Supreme Court made it very clear, that person is responsible. For an officer to be held responsible, they would have to do something that will just shock the conscience, do something that’s just totally out line.”