Connecticut considers restricting police chases

Connecticut officials are considering restricting when police statewide can chase cars and trucks in response to what appears to be an increase in dangerous pursuits, including several that ended with deaths or serious injuries over the past few years.

State public safety Commissioner James Rovella and state Rep. Joe Verrengia led efforts to create a working group that will review the state's 19-year-old police pursuit policy and produce a report to state lawmakers, likely by October. The panel is expected to begin meeting next month and includes police officials, community leaders and civil rights advocates.

"Police pursuits are very dangerous," said Verrengia, a West Hartford Democrat and former police officer who co-chairs the legislature's Public Safety and Security Committee. "Innocent people are getting seriously hurt, if not killed. Officers are getting hurt."

Police departments around the country, including in New Haven, Connecticut, have restricted pursuits only to when the fleeing driver has committed the most serious of crimes, and officers retain the discretion of whether to chase those drivers. The new working group is expected to consider a similar policy.

Last week in Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine called on a state board to develop standards on police pursuits, also citing deaths and serious injuries that occurred during chases.

The Connecticut statewide chase policy approved in 2000 sets minimum standards police must follow and allows local departments to implement stricter policies. The current policy says officers must conclude the dangers to themselves and the public created by the pursuit are less than the dangers to the public if the driver and passengers of the fleeing car were to remain at large. There are no restrictions regarding the type of crime committed.

Last month, a police officer shot to death Anthony Jose Vega Cruz, 18, in Wethersfield after a brief chase. Cruz fled a traffic stop over an alleged minor license plate violation. Video shows Officer Layau Eulizier ramming Vega Cruz's car, then getting out of his cruiser and opening fire when Vega Cruz drives toward him. The April 20 shooting is under investigation.

Hamden police were involved in two chases, last January and August, that ended in crashes that killed one person in each case. Mayor Curt Leng is calling on local officials to approve a stricter policy on pursuits.

In 2017, a teenager fleeing police struck and killed a 3-year-old boy and seriously injured three other people in Waterbury.

There also have been several harrowing police chases around the state within the past year involving teenagers in stolen vehicles that prompted state lawmakers to submit a bill calling for an updated statewide policy of police pursuits involving juveniles.

Connecticut police departments began compiling pursuit data in January under a new state law. None of that data is publicly available yet.

The number of people killed in police chases nationally increased for four consecutive years between 2013 and 2017, according to an analysis by the FairWarning nonprofit news organization of records of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. At least 416 people were killed in police pursuits in 2017, the organization reported. The numbers for 2018 have not been released yet.

Rovella, the Connecticut public safety commissioner and former Hartford police chief, said the goal of the working group is to draft recommendations aimed at reducing deaths and injuries.

"This has been concerning for several years," he said. "Serious physical injury or death — we have to avoid that. Another part of it is responsible policing on our part."