ECTOR COUNTY, Texas (KMID/KPEJ) – Local law enforcement is kept busy in the basin.
Regularly, officers and deputies get involved in pursuits.
And so does the public. Facebook users shout out locations of recent pursuit sightings on group pages. Sometimes, the pursuit crosses an unsuspecting local’s path.
Like this man on foot in Odessa running just yards ahead of an OPD officer…
Or this suspect trespassing through one local’s yard near Permian High School.
Pursuits can become strange, and dangerous, public spectacles. Whether on the interstate on in your neighborhood, the unpredictability of a police chase raises the question:
How are innocent bystanders kept safe?
It’s common to hear a pursuit before you see a pursuit. It may be for a fleeting second as the vehicles race by.
“Anybody that’s on the roadway is in danger if that individual will not stop for us,” said Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis. “They have no regard for anybody but themselves.”
Sheriff Griffis knows what it’s like to be in a pursuit.
“I’ve been in many, many of them. I spent over 20 years on the street myself. Shift work, on patrol,” he said.
He says, if a person does not pull over during a traffic stop in Ector County and tries to escape deputies, the suspect will face an additional felony charge in court for evading arrest.
“If you don’t stop, we’re going to chase you,” Sheriff Griffis said.
Some recent chases in Texas have ended in tragedy.
A 21-year-old man killed an innocent driver while escaping police in Harris County. He crashed into four other cars.
A 16-year-old driver running from police caused a car crash in Houston that killed international rugby star Pedrie Wannenburg.
“Our number one priority is making sure that the innocent people out there are protected,” Sheriff Griffis said.
Over the years, the Ector County Sheriff’s Office evolved its pursuit protocol because of public safety.
Decisions are based on factors like time of day, traffic volume, and severity of the suspect’s crime.
“We’re not going to pursue those vehicles as much as we used to,” Sheriff Griffis said. “We’re going to get that car again another time.”
New technology is making pursuits safer.
For example, license plate reading cameras around Ector County can record a car’s plate and the car’s description in a statewide law enforcement system.
“That car hits one of those cameras, in whatever part of the county, it’ll notify all the officers on the street right now,” Sheriff Griffis said.
In Ector County, one of the biggest problems is stolen cars. The cameras help.
“Those stolen vehicles hit those cameras all day, every day. And it’s almost daily we have stolen vehicles recovered.”
Nighttime pursuits can get tricky.
But that’s where drones come in.
ECSO recently showcased a large drone at a job fair at Kellus Turner Park in West Odessa.
“We use it for search and rescues, for searching for people who fled on foot from us, who we have criminal charges on,” said Deputy Ryan Kelly.
ECSO’s drone can detect heat signatures from the sky.
But even with new additions in technology to make pursuits safer, there’s something else that has been a problem: repeat offenders.
Right now, the charge ‘evading arrest’ in Ector County is only a felony three.
“Felony 1 would suit me just fine,” Sheriff Griffis said. “Because you’re endangering everybody on the street, with no regard for nobody but themselves.”
On top of a more serious consequence, Sheriff Griffis believes there needs to be an overhaul of the justice system. First, he wants the state to increase capacity in its prisons.
“We need new mandatory minimums. And it’s sad to see these individuals that these officers go out there, work hard, trying to get put in jail, put in prison, get a ten year sentence, and the state lets them out in two years because of prison overcrowding,” Sheriff Griffis said. “The state has actually been closing prisons for years.”