Pursuits and the Clifton Police Department
By Lt. Patrick J. Ciser (Ret.)
(Disclaimer: This article is the sole opinion of the writer, and does not imply that these are the views, opinions, or policies of the Clifton NJ Police Department or any of its personnel.)
Pursuits: What an adrenaline rush! For this reason, an officer must be well-trained and have an even temperament. The pursuing officer and the supervisor approving the pursuit have to take so many things into account and constantly reevaluate the situation as it unfolds. What is the violator/perpetrator wanted for? What is the risk to the motoring public and pedestrian traffic, as well as time of day and traffic conditions? The condition of the vehicle and how much experience the officer has in high-speed chases must also be considered. (“A man’s gotta know his limitations,” Clint Eastwood - The Enforcer)
Supervisors and administrators have become “gun shy” over the years involving pursuits. Years ago, the New Jersey Attorney General developed guidelines to be considered when making the decision to pursue a suspect vehicle or not. Higher echelons in law enforcement across the state interpreted these guidelines differently. Some thought that if they followed the guidelines, they would be shielded from liability. Others, however, read them in a different light, believing that the state was trying to discourage pursuits. If we don’t back down to a man with a gun, why would we back down to a pursuit, as they are both inherently dangerous for the police and the public.
When I was on the job, the City of Clifton had approximately 30 cars stolen out of its jurisdiction each month. Newark, New Jersey’s largest city to our south, had an alarming number stolen each month by comparison. We used to call Newark “the stolen car capital of the world.” As a result, I’d say that 2/3 of the cars we were chasing either came out of Newark or were fleeing to Newark. Newark has always had a high crime rate, and I don’t think that their “No-Chase” policy helped much. Cocky car thieves in Newark used to do “donuts” in an intersection, just to get the cops to chase them; a lot of fun I guess for these incorrigibles on a boring night. The Clifton chief at the time, Frank LoGioco, surmised that if we break off all chases, our monthly number would most likely double, and most of us knew that he was right and applauded his stand on the matter. I arrested suspects in stolen cars out of Paterson who told me they were advised to drive around Clifton by their friends, and they wished they would have followed their advice. Now we all know that you can chase a vehicle for first-or second-degree crimes, and also for certain enumerated third-degree crimes. One such case is when the stolen car is being driven in a way that’s a danger to the motoring public and/or pedestrians. While I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not a good idea to chase cars for minor motor vehicle infractions, I’ve unfortunately seen some departments break off chases for robberies; which is of course, a second-degree crime in New Jersey. One Essex County town, I understand, told their officers to stay off Route 21 as they didn’t want to get “jammed up” and embroiled in a Clifton chase. It used to be upsetting years ago when a single, one-man Clifton radio car was in pursuit of a vehicle, and often couldn’t get help from a neighboring town when passing through. Cops from other jurisdictions shouldn’t leave another cop “out to dry” because they’re afraid to do their job! Or should I say, because their boss won’t let them do their job. But what if there’s a crash and the shooting starts? How would they feel at that cop’s funeral?
I continued to give kudos to Chief LoGioco when years ago, he made a statement to the Herald News; “We’ll chase you to Cape May if we have to,” (That’s the furthest town south, in the state of New Jersey before Delaware). A leader like that sets the tone for the department, builds morale, and gave Clifton the proud reputation of having “No Fear” when apprehending criminals. In 1992 alone, I was involved in 36 high-speed chases. Other cops like Sam Skidmore, Tommy Burrows (RIP) and Billy Stark, to name a few, also had high numbers back in the day. One thing that I learned early on was that people run for a reason. How many times do we find evidence of a crime inside the vehicle, or find out that there are several arrest warrants out for the driver? Over the years, I have found drugs, guns, assault victims and a body in the trunk one time.
You see, Clifton saw the Attorney General Guidelines as “permission” to chase felony vehicles, which is exactly what it does. This pretty much absolves the officers from any liability while performing their lawful duties, so long as they adhere to the guidelines. If they didn’t, who the hell would want to be a cop? State law reads that absent “Willful Misconduct,” an officer cannot be held liable as long as they adhere to the A.G. Guidelines and act in good faith. Federal law’s threshold is “Shocks the conscience.”
Years ago, I was working Clifton’s east-side traveling north on Hazel St. near Rt. 46 at the time of the call. Paterson was in pursuit of a vehicle that was wanted for street robberies using a handgun. A description of the car, its occupants (four black males), and license plate were broadcast by the pursuing unit. The suspect vehicle entered the Garden State Parkway South, off Hazel Street in Clifton, with two Paterson units pursuing. I, along with two other Clifton units, joined in on the pursuit. Remember, there were four occupants, and we didn’t know how many were armed. A State Police unit also appeared in my rear-view mirror as we crossed into Essex County. To my surprise, both Paterson units turned off their overheads and exited the Parkway in Bloomfield. Now, let me say this. I’ve witnessed Paterson police perform their duties in stellar fashion over the years, and I do not believe that this reflects on their department as a whole, as they’ve always had a lot of tough cops over the years. One supervisor, for reasons unknown, broke off those officers who must have been livid at the time. Can you imagine if we didn’t chase cars for second-degree crimes? Might as well turn in your badge and give up right there!
The chase, taking place in the late afternoon, was only hitting speeds of about 70 mph due to traffic. Suddenly, the pursued vehicle started to slow down to 60, and then about 50 mph. The back door on the left side swung open as the occupants threw one of the passengers from the vehicle. Clifton Officer Chris Vassoler and I were able to drive slowly around the person lying on the highway and continued pursuing the suspect vehicle, while Clifton Officer Bill Gibson, and the State Police unit came to a stop to protect the man from getting hit. Thinking he was pretty beaten up from hitting the macadam, Gibson and the trooper were surprised to see him now run like a rabbit toward the houses next to the Parkway. Gibson, being a former track star, was able to chase him down and tackle him. “One under,” Gibson reported to headquarters. I surmised at the time that they threw the guy out who suggested giving up, in order to cause a traffic accident and slow us down. Well, it worked, as they were now a distance between me and Vassoler, and took a quick exit in the area of East Orange. We also took the exit, but lost sight of the perps. Vassoler, checking a nearby project, found the vehicle abandoned and a gun under the front seat. THESE are the type of vehicles/suspects we should be chasing! Additionally, today, how many cars are valued at over $75k, which makes stealing one a second-degree crime! When you no longer combat crime, it only exacerbates the problem.
As public safety officers, we need to weigh the dichotomy of needing to apprehend felons and the desire to keep the public safe. I’m sure it would be difficult to have a consensus as to where to draw the line in relation to pursuits. Do we pursue violators for speeding, reckless driving, suspected drunken driving, disorderly persons offenses, or felonies only? Just like we have, rightfully so, use of force including deadly force policies/guidelines, we should not look negatively at the AG guidelines for pursuits. Simply follow the policy and you’re good to go. The problem that we face with feckless leadership in our departments is when bosses are afraid to let us do our jobs. It’s a sad state of affairs when both politicians and supervisors needlessly turn our hawks into doves.
Pat Ciser is a retired lieutenant from the Clifton Police Department, and a 7th Degree Black Belt. He was a member of 5 U.S. Karate Teams, winning gold medals in South America and Europe. He is the Author of BUDO and the BADGE; Exploits of a Jersey Cop (BN.com/Amazon), and is a guest writer for Official Karate Magazine.