April 18–Steven Gaydos didn’t see anyone when he blew through a stop sign on his motorcycle “out in the middle of nowhere” just past midnight on Dec. 23, 2012. But parked in the shadows of the intersection in unincorporated Chambers County was a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper. He pulled in behind the 25-year-old’s Suzuki 750 and started following.
“I knew it was a cop,” Gaydos said later. “I took off, thinking I could easily lose him.” Nearly 40 miles later, however, after a hair-raising chase over Chambers and Harris county highways that reached speeds of 130 mph, Gaydos lay on the side of a residential road just outside of Houston — shot in the thigh and then karate kicked off his bike by another state trooper who’d joined the chase.
The trooper, Abraham Martinez, last year received a minor penalty for the incident — three days off without pay. Yet the fact that a traffic infraction could escalate into a lengthy, high-speed motorcycle pursuit ending in gun shots provides graphic illustration of how DPS’s relatively permissive use-of-force restrictions during pursuits is out of step with evolving national standards, experts said. The nation’s leading researcher on police pursuits, University of South Carolina criminal justice Professor Geoffrey Alpert, called the agency’s policy permitting troopers to shoot at fleeing vehicles “stupid.”
“They’re just creating an incredibly high risk for everyone,” he said. “It’s part of the DPS culture that needs to come into the 21st century.”
Two months before the Gaydos chase, the Department of Public Safety’s pursuit and force policies had come under intense national scrutiny when a trooper flying over Hidalgo County fired his rifle out of a helicopter at the back wheel of a fleeing pickup truck. Several of the shots traveled high and entered the bed, killing two Guatemalans hiding under a tarp in the back. A grand jury declined to indict the trooper, and DPS determined that he had violated no policies.
The agency has since modified its rules for when troopers can use their guns during pursuits, adding clauses about shooting from helicopters and boats, and at any vehicle that might have occupants. Yet DPS maintains the occasional use of firearms from vehicles continues to be necessary because of the high-risk work it performs, as well as operations carried out in remote areas where back-up support is minimal.
The policy limits troopers’ use of their guns to situations in which it “is immediately necessary to make an arrest and the officer reasonably believes there is a substantial risk that the person to be arrested will cause death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another if the arrest is delayed.”
As the Gaydos incident demonstrates, however, the rule still leaves ample room for interpretation. Martinez, a 10-year veteran trooper, cited the wording to justify his shooting of Gaydos. “I knew that it was necessary to terminate the pursuit in order to avoid any more injuries or serious bodily injuries, possibly even deaths from happening,” he told a supervisor during a post-incident interview, according to a transcript.
“So you were using your firearm to disable the motorcycle to prevent deaths or injuries?”
Chasing motorcycles is high-risk
Through his attorney, Don Lee Smith, Gaydos declined an interview; Martinez did not respond for an interview request through a DPS spokesman. But police records give a detailed account of the incident.
After leaving a party at a friend’s house, Gaydos, a bartender at a local strip club, conceded he ran the stop sign and knew he was being chased by police. But with a suspended license, he said he feared that if he was caught he’d lose the motorcycle — “all I had.” So when he saw Blackburn’s cruiser gaining on him, he yanked on the throttle.
Texas troopers pull over between 2 million and 3 million motorists a year. Compared to those figures, the number of times they end up chasing drivers is small — about 900 a year. The pursuits occur more often in the southern part of the state, where drug and human smuggling activity is concentrated.
Motorcycles make up a small subset of the pursuits, according to an American-Statesman analysis of agency statistics between 2006 and 2010. (DPS maintains an up-to-date database of its pursuits but has changed some fields recently, preventing direct comparisons of newer incidents.) According to the analysis, troopers chased between 75 and 100 motorcyclists a year.
Pursuing criminals is at the core of police work. Yet chases — often conducted at high speeds on sometimes congested roadways — can be dangerous, resulting in more than 350 deaths per year nationally, many of them bystanders. In August 2013, six people were killed outside of Mission in South Texas when a stolen truck being pursued by a DPS trooper slammed into several vehicles.
The newspaper’s examination shows the Texas motorcycle pursuits are especially high-risk.
With increasingly powerful machines being sold, motorcycle pursuits are much more likely to occur at extreme speeds. As with the Gaydos chase, two thirds of DPS’s bike pursuits between 2006 and 2010 surpassed 100 mph — a rate four times higher than for other vehicles. “It’s always a more dangerous situation because of the speed,” said Hassan Aden, director of research for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
They tend to cover more ground than car or truck chases, as well. While the average non-motorcycle pursuit lasted about seven and a half minutes, motorcycle chases averaged more than 11 minutes, or 45 percent longer.
And while the rate of rider and driver crashes resulting from the pursuit was about the same — a quarter of all chases end in a crash — motorcyclists were much more likely to end up injured or dead than automobile occupants. According to DPS figures, 7 motorcyclists died during a high-speed chase between 2006 and 2010, a fatality rate three times greater than that of other motorists.
Such numbers have led many law enforcement agencies to add restrictions to their pursuit policies, said Cynthia Lum, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University. The Florida Highway Patrol’s policy, for example, limits its bike chases to only the most dangerous criminals: “Pursuit of motorcycles is restricted to forcible felonies.” Those include murder, kidnapping and crimes involving “the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual.”
Texas effectively draws no distinction between minor and major offenders who flee. “Once a driver makes a conscious decision to evade law enforcement they are automatically committing a felony offense and endangering the public,” explained Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger.
Nearly everyone who flees, in other words, is a serious offender demanding pursuit. While studies show just under half of all pursuits nationally begin after police observe only a traffic violation, for DPS the number is three out of four. When it comes to motorcyclists, the number of DPS pursuits initiated following only a traffic violation approaches 90 percent, the paper’s analysis showed.
DPS also is much less likely to call off a chase once it has begun. A large 2008 International Association of Chiefs of Police study found departments on average called off about 9 percent of their pursuits. For Texas troopers, the number is only 3 percent.
The state’s troopers are rarely disciplined for their behavior during chases, either. Of approximately 8,000 chases since 2006, public records show only eight Texas troopers have been sanctioned for breaking the agency’s pursuit rules by endangering the public — three of those during high-speed motorcycle pursuits. Most were punished with two days off without pay.
Flying kick “comes natural”
As Gaydos appeared to be getting ready to turn left off a four-lane road onto a smaller street, Martinez pulled up alongside him and shouted for him to pull over. Seconds later, the trooper held his .357 handgun out of the driver’s-side window and fired four times in rapid succession.
Documents in Martinez’s personnel file show disagreement over whether his training included instructions against shooting at motorcycles. DPS instructors said they mentioned it in the same category as the agency’s ban on using tire-deflating devices on fleeing motorcycles so as not to cause a high-speed, possibly fatal crash. Martinez said he didn’t recall that part of the class and “did not associate the same dangers of using a firearm on a motorcycle,” his supervisor concluded.
Martinez insisted he aimed at Gaydos’s rear tire “with the sole purpose of disabling the motorcycle.” None of his shots found its mark, however. One hit the wheel rim and a second glanced off the engine frame. A third entered Gaydos’s right thigh. A forensics report attributed the misses to “muzzle climb” plus the extreme difficulty of shooting at and from moving vehicles while also turning.
In addition to potentially saving lives, Martinez said he resorted to using deadly force because Gaydos’s flight suggested he was a dangerous criminal (troopers said they were unable to obtain registration information during the chase). “Past experience has taught me that people evade arrest to conceal their identity after committing felonious crimes to include but not limited to, murders, aggravated robberies, sexual assaults, burglaries, and/or the vehicle utilized to evade arrest is stolen,” he wrote.
After being shot, Gaydos, who subsequently was charged with evading arrest, driving with an invalid license and possessing two Percocet pills, rode briefly down the road before raising his hand to signal a stop. As Gaydos put down his kickstand, Martinez’s dash camera shows the trooper executing a leaping kick into the motorcyclist’s back.
“Obviously we don’t teach that,” he said later. “I think it’s something that just comes natural to some of us.” In an interview with his supervisor, the trooper added he used the unusual move because Gaydos might have a gun.
Supervisor: “Do you feel it was probable he was armed?”
Martinez: “Good possibility. Anything’s possible. Considering how determined he was.”
A Harris County grand jury in February 2013 declined to indict Martinez for the shooting. After a series of appeals, last summer Martinez was ordered to take three days off without pay for violating DPS’s policy by using force inconsistent with his training.
Interviewed by police at the hospital after the incident, Gaydos readily conceded he did a lot of things wrong that night. “But,” he added, “he didn’t have to shoot me.”
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