There is an old saying in Law Enforcement, you might out run a patrol car but no matter how fast you are driving…you can’t out run a Police Radio. In this day and age you can add; motorists with cell phones, satellite tracking and building surveillance cameras to this list. Motor Vehicle Pursuits are probably one of the most dangerous aspects of a Patrol Officer’s job and has the potential to pose a very serious risk to both the officer and innocent people on the road.
According to the New Jersey State Attorney General’s Police Vehicular Pursuit Policy Guidelines “ A Police Officer has the authority, at all times to attempt the stop of any person suspected of having committed any criminal offense or traffic violation. It is clear that while it is the officer who initiates the stop, it is the violator who initiates the pursuit. The officer’s decision to pursue should always be undertaken with an awareness of the degree of risk to which the law enforcement officer exposes himself and others. The officer must weigh the need for immediate apprehension against the risk created by the pursuit.” New Jersey has one of the most restrictive Police Pursuit Policy in the nation. There is good reason for that. Simply put…Public Safety. The safety of other motorists and pedestrians who unknowingly find themselves in the path of a criminal who has made the decision to operate his vehicle in a “heedless, willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others” to avoid capture by Law Enforcement Officers. This situation presents an unpredictable potentially deadly catastrophe just waiting to happen.
There are many factors that an officer must consider in a split second before becoming engaged in a motor vehicle pursuit. First, is the officer authorized to conduct the pursuit? A police officer may only pursue if he/she reasonably believes the violator has committed certain criminal acts listed in the Attorney General Guidelines for which vehicular pursuits are authorized. An officer may also pursue if he reasonably believes that the violator is operating his vehicle in such a manner that it poses an immediate threat to the safety of another person.
The officer must consider the likelihood of a successful apprehension. Such as; the degree of risk created by the pursuit, traffic volume, population density, pedestrian traffic, weather and road conditions. The officer has to know and understand his own limits such as driving skills and the mechanical condition of his patrol vehicle. Once engaged in a pursuit, the police supervisor or the pursuing officer can terminate the pursuit at any time if he feels the chase is getting too dangerous.
Being charged with Eluding a Law Enforcement Officer in the State of New Jersey is an Indictable Crime. Depending on the risk that is incurred will dictate if the offender is charged with a Third or Second Degree Crime. There is a presumption of incarceration on all Second Degree Crimes and the offender will be charged with the higher offense if the actions of the offender infers the risk of death or injury to any person during the course of the pursuit. In short, if the offender is convicted of a Second Degree Eluding, in all likelihood a significant jail sentence will attach.
Over the past 12 months, Sparta Police Officers have become engaged in a half dozen high speed pursuits. Two of them had the potential to become extremely dangerous endeavors. The officers engaged in these particular chases were veterans in the department. Their individual training and experience was key in determing when to engage in these pursuits and when to “terminate” it. Their ability to make correct, decisive, split second decisions resulted in the capture of the offenders and no injuries to innocent motorists or officers.
August 5, 2011, Cpl. William Moyle is on routine patrol after just reporting for duty on the night shift. He has been briefed on the recent string of Burglaries of high end homes across Northern New Jersey that have been committed by members of the Bergen County based, “James Bond Gang.” The corporal carries with him an intelligence packet that contains; identifying information on the gang. A short time later in front of the Mohawk Avenue School, he stops a 2003 Chevrolet Trail Blazer for a minor motor vehicle infraction. As the corporal stands at the driver’s side window of the chevy, he realizes he has stopped members of the “James Bond Gang.” The vehicle then speeds away. The operator of the Trail Blazer has initiated the pursuit, the corporal then makes the descion to engage in the pursuit. A descion he will quickly change.
The pursued vehicle races the wrong way down a one way street, onto Woodport Road through a red light north onto Main Street. The corporal estimates the speed of the fleeing vehicle at 90 mph. The corporal notifies headquarters and terminates the pursuit. Traffic is moderate and conditions are favorable but the 20-year-veteran knows that the risk to other motorists is not something he is willing to gamble with. He shuts off his emergency lights and siren but he continues north. Other departments north of Sparta have been notified.
As the vehicle speeds down Main Street, its image is captured on several building surveillance cameras. The operator of the fleeing vehicle 28-year-old Aasim Boone loses control of the vehicle as he rounds a turn. The Trail Blazer strikes a curb and flips onto its side. $20,000.00 worth of stolen jewelry is thrown from vehicle and litters the surrounding area. Proceeds of two residential Burglaries just committed before the corporal had stopped them. Four men are arrested at the scene by Cpl. Moyle and several other officers. They have bumps and bruises but nothing serious enough to keep them from being lodged in the Sussex County Jail for; Burglary and Second Degree Eluding.
July 3, 2012, 33-year-old Daniel M. Cirigiano of Egg Harbor has made a lot of bad decisions in his life. Today however, he will make several critical errors that will most likely land him in State Prison for the foreseeable future. Late in the evening of July 2nd Cirigiano walks out of a local residential treatment facility where he was seeking help with a substance abuse problem. That was his first bad descion. He walks through the night where he eventually ends up in the Township of Newton.
Cirigiano is hungry, tired and hot. He wants to go home. However, home is two-hours away. He has little money and he is growing anxious. He approaches a convenience store to get something to drink. A 2011 Buick Regal is parked with engine running. Cirigiano enters the unlocked vehicle and backs it out of the parking space. He then begins what he hopes will be a trip back to Egg Harbor. Second bad decision.
The owner calls police immediately, and Newton Police quickly get the information out about the stolen vehicle to all local departments. Sparta Sergeant Neil Spidaletto is the Day Shift Commander. Most of his squad is tied up on other service calls. He hears the Newton Police’s broadcast. Even though the sergeant has no idea who the person is that is driving the stolen car, he has a pretty good idea of where he is going?
The sergeant positions himself on the south bound shoulder of Rte. 15 and begins to monitor the traffic. Several minutes later the suspect vehicle drives by the sergeant’s location. Sgt. Spidaletto pulls in behind the Buick and confirms the license plate. He activates his emergency lights and siren and signals the operator to pull to the right and stop. At first the operator appears to comply. He pulls to the shoulder and slowly decreases his speed until he is almost stopped. The sergeant prepares to conduct a “High Risk” stop. Back-up officers are on the way and it appears this situation will be over in a few short minutes.
Cirigiano then makes his fourth and worst descion. He quickly accelerates; swings back into the travel portion of the highway and initiate a police pursuit. The sergeant quickly decides to engage in the pursuit. Traffic is light, the weather is clear, there appears to be a high probability for apprehension. The sergeant is pursuing south on Rte. 15. The speeds are high but the pursuit is manageable and the sergeant is in control. The chase enters into Jefferson Township. Cirigiano increases his speed as they approach the Pathmark Shopping Plaza. The sergeant watches as the Buick starts passing slower traffic on the right and increase his speed to what the sergeant estimated at approximately 130 mph. The sergeant knows that the upcoming shopping plaza is a stretch of the highway with several traffic signals and many slow moving vehicles. The risk to innocent motorists is not worth it and he quickly shuts down his lights and siren and advises headquarters that he is terminating the pursuit.
The sergeant quickly loses sight of the Buick but all departments south have been advised. The Newton Police a short time later advise all involved agencies that the stolen Buick is equipped with “OnStar Stolen Vehicle Slowdown.” This feature which General Motors began equipping some new vehicles began in 2010. The feature allows OnStar to remotely slow down stolen vehicles. It helps reduce the risk of property damage, serious injuries or fatalities due to high speed motor vehicle pursuits. In this case, that is exactly what happened. OnStar activated the “slow down” and the vehicle came to a stop after striking a curb in front of a car dealership several miles away from the Sparta Patrols. With the vehicle disabled, Cirigiano flees on foot. He was arrested 20 minutes later after officers from several Sussex and Morris County jurisdictions after he was found hiding in the bed of a pick-up truck. He was later lodged in the Sussex County Jail on Vehicle Theft and Second degree Eluding Charges out of both counties.
It is a very uneasy feeling when those red flashing lights appear in your rear view mirror. When you see them, pull to the right and stop. Maybe it’s a big deal, maybe not. One thing is for certain, if you love the thrill of the chase, you are going to hate the long period of time for self reflection under the care of the New Jersey Department of Corrections. Remember, in the State of New Jersey, driving is a privilege not a right.