Motorcycles Treated Differently In Police Pursuit Policies

By Jeff Raasch, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Safely ending police chases with motorcycles is far more difficult than with automobiles, but pursuit policies of area law enforcement agencies treat all vehicles the same, a Gazette review found.

Police in Linn and Johnson counties have chased at least nine motorcycles since March 1. Six of those chases have ended in crashes, and two have ended in fatalities, including one Sunday evening in Marion.

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said he found no violations of policy with that chase, after talking to the deputy, reviewing written reports and watching dash camera video. Marion police continue to investigate the incident.

Written policies outline several considerations officers must make, usually instantaneously, when deciding whether to engage in any vehicle pursuit. They include the location, traffic, time of day and seriousness of the offense.

Police have fewer options to stop fleeing motorcycles – tactics involving tire deflation and deliberate vehicle contact are not allowed – and in some cases, those types of chases may be more dangerous for the suspect or the officer. Motorcycles can accelerate faster and can take some routes that passenger vehicles cannot, authorities said.

Area law enforcement officials said the potential costs, both to personal safety and the pocketbook, increase exponentially when a motorcycle driver decides to flee from police.

"There is no doubt they are dangerous situations for everyone involved," Iowa City police Sgt. Denise Brotherton said. "It's 3,000 times worse when they decide to take off."

Despite the stark differences with motorcycle chases, a review of the chase policies for police departments in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, and sheriff's offices in Linn and Johnson counties, found little or no language specific to motorcycle pursuits.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said all vehicle pursuits come down to a determination about whether a person is a danger to society. He said many times, speeding alone will not warrant a chase by his deputies, but police still have to provide a deterrent to illegal activities.

"If we just ignore someone that's driving 127 miles per hour, because it's not in the best interest to chase them, how is that serving the public?" Pulkrabek said. "They could go down and hit a bicyclist going down the road that fast."

Andrew S. Lown, 26, of Cedar Rapids, exceeded 100 mph on July 8 as he tried to elude a sheriff's deputy on Highway 100 before he crashed into a corn field, authorities said. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Since then, some have criticized the chase on social media websites and by calling the media.

Gardner said Lown had difficulty balancing his bike at a stop light before the chase began, which gave the deputy reason to believe he was impaired in some way. Lown was not wearing a helmet, but Gardner said that is not something deputies are told to consider when deciding whether to chase.

During the chase, Gardner said the deputy had difficulty reading the license plate because it was positioned vertically. Plate numbers can get authorities to the registered owner, but not necessarily the driver.

"If the registered owner is uncooperative or doesn't have the information, then the investigation dies, and that's it," Gardner said. "It's not quite as simple as people would hope."

Cedar Rapids police were involved in two motorcycle pursuits on city streets on July 5. Both ended in crashes, but no one was seriously injured. Two other motorcycle chases earlier this year ended safely.

Sgt. Cristy Hamblin said officers are trained to consider what might have happened before they encountered the vehicle. She said there are usually only a few reasons drivers won't stop for police.

"The top four reasons are drunk, drugs, suspended license, or a warrant," Hamblin said. "Once in a while, you'll get somebody who says they were just scared."

Some policies at local departments say officers should not chase based on simple misdemeanor offenses, unless there is suspicion of drunken driving or other serious circumstances. Other policies are more restrictive about chasing juveniles.

Officials are quick to point out, though, that most chases are preventable.

"The ultimate determination as to whether a pursuit is going to occur rests with the driver of the vehicle we're attempting to stop, not with us," Gardner said. "We turn on the red and blue lights, they pull over, end of story."
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