When Police Pursuits Turn Deadly

There were just over a hundred mourners who attended a Saturday morning funeral service for Maria Christina Valvis Rocha.

Not a huge spectacle of grieving and loss, nothing memorable, and no TV cameras were on hand to record the event for posterity.

In the vestibule of the Thornhill church afterwards, the young woman’s mother threw herself on her daughter’s casket, convulsing in sobs.

Rocha was 23 years old when she was killed just over a week ago during a police chase — the driver and only occupant of a car that slammed into a pole at the intersection of Bathurst and Centre Sts., about two kilometres from where the pursuit had begun.

She died at the scene, her body extracted from the wreckage by firefighters.

A friend explained afterwards that Rocha had been driving his Toyota Echo the night of Jan. 7, a car that wasn’t insured. The friend, who is homeless, had left his vehicle at the home of Rocha’s mother while he stayed in a shelter. In fact, Rocha allegedly called the car owner around 7 p.m. to say that she’d been stopped by police.

So there was time enough to make a phone call. But no explanation yet — perhaps there never will be — for why Rocha apparently took off, a decision that she did not live to regret.

York Regional Police Sgt. Andy Atkinson told the Star that the chase had lasted for less than a minute and the officer involved was traumatized by its outcome. “He’s very shaken up. Physically he’s fine, mentally I’m not sure.”

Because the Special Investigations Unit was summoned — as they always are when a civilian is killed or seriously injured in an episode involving police — a curtain has fallen over all details surrounding the incident.

Rocha’s family needs answers and perhaps they will get them, eventually. A few days ago, a family spokesman theorized to the Star that Rocha was likely frightened by being pulled over while driving an uninsured car; that she had mentioned to friends just recently the case of a man who’d spent the night in custody when he was arrested in similar circumstances.

There’s no knowing, of course, whether any of that went through Rocha’s mind when she was stopped — and, as yet, no explanation why that vehicle drew the officer’s attention in the first place; whether Rocha had been speeding or some other highway traffic rule transgressed.

But it’s a stupid, stupid way to die, a catastrophic misjudgment on the driver’s part.

The thing is, such tragedies happen far too often, enough so that Ontario altered provincial legislation on pursuit guidelines in the Police Services Act under the Mike Harris government.

There are three factors a police officer is compelled to consider when deciding to engage in a chase: Reason to believe a criminal offence has been or is about to take place; no alternatives to a chase are apparent; and where preventing harm to the public by apprehending the driver outweighs the risk to the public in doing so.

Officers are not allowed to shoot “for the sole purpose of attempting to stop a fleeing motor vehicle” but may do so if determining that public safety is at risk or in self-defence.

In Toronto, police are not permitted to chase even for serious infractions in the downtown area or when in the vicinity of schools and children.

Split-second assessments are made frequently, of course, which is why a supervisor is required to monitor the chase and call it off if that seems the more reasonable option. Yet that part of protocol also requires time to respond.

Police chases have been historically justified by alarmist scenarios that involve violent assailants, murderers and robbers and the like, burning rubber to shake off police because they have something serious to hide. In practice, the overwhelming majority of pursuits arise from property crimes, theft, drug possession, an inebriated motorist or young drivers thinking irrationally, ruinously.

The loss of life that ensues is significant. An American study found that innocent bystanders account for a third of those killed in high speed chases. Another U.S. analysis of statistics concluded that nearly 40 per cent of chases result in crashes. Police officers are at particularly high risk of being killed or injured during a pursuit.

This carnage makes it increasingly difficult to argue in favour of police pursuits, except in exceptional circumstances. Last week’s snowplow rampage through the streets of Toronto that led to Sgt. Ryan Russell being struck and killed would appear to be such an exception, although cops pursuing that havoc-creating stolen vehicle did not put the pedal to the metal — it was a slow-speed tail, even after the plow rammed through a road block.

Some jurisdictions — especially in the U.S., where local police departments in most states can set their own protocol — have banned police pursuits outright. Others forbid roadblocks or the “boxing’’ in of a fleeing vehicle. In Miami-Dade County, for example, highly restrictive chase regulations saw pursuits drop from 279 to 51 in one year, with a corresponding decrease in deaths and injuries.

More and more, courts are holding police departments liable when an innocent civilian is killed or hurt during a police chase. The high cost of awards in civil suits has convinced some states — Nebraska, most recently — to pull the plug on high-speed chases across the board, putting their faith instead in CCTV cameras for after-the-fact arrests, spike belts that deflate tires at controlled rates, or deployment of police helicopters.

Money talks and so police administrators have been listening. But that shouldn’t be the defining factor. The danger to both civilians and cops, that’s what matters. And the emphasis, whether via legislation or police training and culture, should be on avoiding dangerous pursuits, restricting them only to suspects in violent crimes, and even then only as a last resort.

To counter any tendency for cowboy-style police chasing, especially among young front-line officers, the Calgary police manual makes clear that abandoning a pursuit “will not be considered an act of cowardice.” Similar discouraging language is employed in Manitoba, where officers are told “their professionalism will not be questioned’’ when a chase is halted.

While the particulars of why and how Maria Christina Valvis Rocha’s borrowed car came to be wrapped around a pole may not yet be publicly known, the fact is she’s dead, at 23, and this horror is far from uncommon in Ontario.

There have been too many tears shed, too many grieving families, over nothing more than traffic violations, minor crimes and youthful recklessness.

Give up the chase, now.

Rosie DiManno – The Star.com

1 Comment

  1. Why is it that the media NEVER finds fault with the law breaker, the person who takes off when pulled over? Why is there little or no policy or law change surrounding what the law-breaker does, only the police? The penalties for initiating a police chase should be significant and a deterent, so much so that no matter what the “reason” for taking off is, the penalty would be less. Why would we give all criminals the right to run should police come on scene? That makes no sense.

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