Jerry Davich: Police chase warranted in fatal cycle crash?
Jerry Davich email@example.com June 17, 2012 8:22PM
Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 19, 2012 6:09AM
Timothy “Big Country” Gajdik lived up to his nickname at 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 220 pounds. But the larger-than-life Chesterton man lost his in the wee hours of the morning on June 7 after celebrating his 33rd birthday the day before.
Around 3 a.m., Gajdik rode his yellow 2003 Honda motorcycle past police officers in Portage at a high rate of speed. He caught their attention of course. A chase was on.
First, by a Portage police officer who noticed Gajdik speeding through a city side street, at Hamstrom Road and Fallen Timbers Avenue. Then by a Porter County Sheriff’s Police officer who just happened to be wrapping up another unrelated traffic stop nearby.
With officers trying to keep up with him, Gajdik sped east to Airport Road, then east again to Robbins Road, where he reportedly opened up the throttle even more. Gajdik disregarded several stop signs, crossed Indiana 149, ran off the road, hit a tree and a sign, police said. He died at the scene, and police cars had to swerve around his body.
When officers caught up to the crash site, the “fog” that appeared there was actually dust from the violent crash. So violent that Gajdik lost part of his leg, his motorcycle split into two, and broken pieces of his helmet were found, according to police reports from both departments.
I reviewed the reports because I’ve been hearing from readers and residents who claim that police should not have chased Gajdik “to his death,” as one reader phrased it.
“If they just would have let him go, he would still be alive today,” the reader noted.
Maybe so, I agree.
But I disagree that police should have not engaged in a chase in this case. When a speeding vehicle — any vehicle — zooms past a police officer on patrol — any police officer — a chase will most likely ensue. That it took place at 3 a.m. on mostly empty, rural roads probably confirmed the cops’ decision to run down this speeder.
This case, however, leads to a broader issue: Just how aggressive should a police chase be while considering public safety and the safety of the speeding suspect? Also, it should be noted that Gajdik wasn’t fleeing a crime. He was “only” speeding, yet it’s still a traffic violation that could also endanger public safety.
Gajdik could have pulled over when he saw police lights in his side mirrors. He didn’t. But should police have simply let him go by turning around and abandoning the chase? Is it worth chasing down a speeder if it means possibly endangering innocent bystanders or motorists in the process?
Is that good police work? Is that smart police work? Is that serving and protecting the public?
“No matter what we do, or don’t do, a certain segment of the people we protect will find an officer at fault,” said Porter County Sheriff David Lain, echoing other cops I talked to about this issue.
Police policies vary
Police pursuits in general are often controversial in nature, at least regarding public opinion.
There is no national standardized policy, police tell me. So each department has its own policy and procedures when it comes to police pursuits. Some departments will chase criminals depending on the circumstances. Others will not chase regardless of crime.
“Yes, we have a pursuit policy for our department,” said Portage Police Sgt. Keith Hughes.
The policy states, in part, that its officers are “to operate their vehicles with due regard for the safety of all persons and are to consider the road, traffic and weather conditions while operating their police vehicles and need to use that due regard regardless of the nature of the call.”
“When it comes to pursuing motorcycles, our policy says that officers must decide whether the operator of the motorcycle will present the public with a tangible risk by being allowed to remain at large,” Hughes noted. “Officers should use extreme caution when deciding to pursue one.”
More to the point of this particular case, “If the motorcyclist has committed a forcible felony, then the officer can pursue. If the motorcyclist has not committed any offense other than a traffic-related offense, the officer must be able to explain why they chose to pursue and also explain why they felt the motorcyclist actions would put the public in immediate danger.”
“If the officer can’t immediately define an immediate reason to pursue, the officer should terminate the pursuit,” Hughes said, noting that officers should not pursue a motorcycle if it’s occupied by a passenger.
Porter County Sheriff’s Police also has its own policy, which states in part: “A motor vehicle pursuit is justified when the officer determines, through his discretion, that the necessity of immediate apprehension clearly outweighs the potential level of danger created by the pursuit.”
And, “Totally encompassing guidelines cannot be established to cover all types and circumstances of emergency and pursuit driving. However, officers involved in emergency driving or vehicular pursuits shall be held accountable for their decisions made during the pursuit and must constantly strive to use good judgment and observe for the unexpected variables that spontaneously occur.”
In Gajdik’s case, the unexpected variable that spontaneously occurred was his death. Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris told me that results from a toxicology test on Gajdik’s body will return in about three weeks, to determine whether alcohol or drugs were a factor in the crash and, possibly, the chase.
Was it a tragic shame that Gajdik died? Yes. Was it a poor and possibly knee-jerk decision for him to try to outrun police? Yes. (Although I’ve seen too many bikers do this because they know they can usually escape such a pursuit.)
But should have police from either department just “let him go” without knowing, of course, the fatal outcome of the pursuit? I say no. Their job is to serve and protect and, with due respect to Gajdik’s family and friends, I believe police were doing both duties in the wee hours of that morning.
If there can be a silver lining in all this and such police chases, maybe Gajdik’s death will serve as a wake-up call to other motorcyclists who may be tempted to outrun the long arm of the law, as well as the greedy grasp of the Grim Reaper.
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