Deadly chase was judgment call
This weekend's high-speed chase of a man who was driving the wrong way on U.S. 41 raised an old question law enforcement agencies everywhere have had to answer: When should officers chase a fleeing suspect and when should they stand down? Sunday's chase ended tragically. Hernando County Sheriff's Office Deputy John Mecklenburg died when he lost control of his patrol car and crashed. Another deputy crashed in a separate car but had minor injuries. Hernando County's pursuit policy, like many others throughout the Tampa Bay area, is weighted toward restricting pursuits to people suspected of serious crimes. In Hernando's case, the policy says pursuits should be aimed at "violent felony offenders only." Michael James Anthony, the person being chased, has a criminal history but was being chased because he was speeding the wrong way on U.S. 41, the sheriff's office said.Sheriff's spokeswoman Wendy McGinnis said the investigation is ongoing and a report should be issued this week. She said, though, that early indications are the agency did everything right. The agency's pursuit policy says deputies can give chase, with the approval of a supervisor, "under exigent circumstances" such as "imminent danger to others." "Deputies will exercise good judgment," the policy states, "carefully weighing the necessity of pursuit and apprehension against the inherent risks involved." That is not an easy call. Last year, more law enforcement officers died in vehicle accidents, including during chases, than by gunshot, according to Police Driving International, an organization whose mission is "to make police officers and citizens safer through an active driver training program." Police pursuit experts say most agencies have policies similar to Hernando's, chasing only people suspected of serious crimes, but with exceptions. The decision to chase, they say, ultimately is a judgment call. Deputies say several cars drove off the road trying to avoid Anthony and that a deputy forced Anthony's car to a stop by performing a "precision immobilization technique," hitting the car at an angle so it stops without causing significant damage. Deputies moved in to arrest Anthony, but he took off again, heading south on U.S. 41. At U.S. 41 and Ayers Road, Sgt. Brandon Ross lost control of his car, hitting a pickup and a power pole. Ross was treated at a hospital and released Sunday, the sheriff's office said. The chase continued into Pasco County. Just south of U.S. 41 at Painter Place, Mecklenburg lost control of his car, veering onto the shoulder and hitting a tree. His car caught fire, and it was extinguished by other officers chasing Anthony. Anthony, 35, eventually was found, arrested and charged with felony murder and fleeing to elude. He is in a Pinellas County jail with no bail set. Driving the wrong way on a one-way street isn't a reason to give chase, but what happened next seems to be, said Jon Shane, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The initial reports about the chase seem to "justify continued pursuit, especially after a deputy was injured," Shane said. "The person they are pursuing is the one who dictates the pursuit." John Phillips has a different take. On Dec. 13, 2001, his 20-year-old sister, Sarah, was killed during a pursuit by Orange County deputies. His family started the website PursuitWatch in March 2003 to get law enforcement to chase only people thought to have committed a violent crime. "Any other offense is not worth the risk to the innocent public and law enforcement," Phillips said. "While someone driving the wrong way is certainly dangerous, we do not need to compound the bad decisions of others with our own. I can't think of a more common situation for law enforcement where the chance of a negative outcome is so possible." There will be a funeral Mass for Mecklenburg at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church, 5030 Mariner Blvd., Spring Hill. There will be no visitation or viewing. Interment will be at Florida Hills Memorial Park, 14354 Spring Hill Drive, Spring Hill. Memorial donations can be made to the John Mecklenburg Fund through Florida Traditions Bank, 4301 Barclay Ave., Spring Hill FL 34609.
Reporter Tony Holt and researcher Lowell Jaudon contributed to this story.