Hall County Sheriff's Office deputies and patrol cars have been put to the test in two high-speed chases across county lines in the past two weeks.
Three suspects were arrested Wednesday after they allegedly robbed an armored truck in front of Walmart in Oakwood and then led police on a chase into Gwinnett County before losing control and resting in a creek near Woodward Mill Road.
The chase involved Hall County deputies, as well as Oakwood police and Gwinnett County authorities.
Another chase Dec. 28 began on McEver Road in South Hall, wound its way through Gwinnett County and ended in a three-car wreck at Johns Creek in Fulton County.
In that chase, police said when James Thomas Faulkner failed to stop he led police on the wild chase, reaching speeds up to 80 mph.
The Flowery Branch man was wanted on several charges stemming from an incident in which he allegedly stole his ex-girlfriend's SUV, held her hostage in the vehicle and made physical threats before letting her out. He was charged with theft by taking motor vehicle, battery, false imprisonment, terroristic threats and failure to register as a sex offender, as well as two White County charges for aggravated assault.
In both cases a decision had to be made to continue the chase or terminate it because of a potential danger to others on the roadways.
The sheriff's office policy manual details the guidelines that must be followed when pursuing a suspect.
In a section discussing pursuits, it states, "Although traffic laws may be violated when conducting pursuit operations, no pursuit shall be of such importance that the safe operation and full control of the vehicle becomes secondary."
The decision to continue is ultimately made by the on-duty supervisor.
Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks with the sheriff's office said the on-duty supervisor "is constantly involved in evaluating the environment surrounding a pursuit."
The primary patrol deputy can also make a decision to discontinue a pursuit if he or she believes the risk to the public outweighs the benefit of arresting the suspect.
The deputy in pursuit is also analyzed and factored into any decision. That includes the deputy's driving history, level of maturity and judgment skills.
According the policy, officers must continuously update dispatch and the supervisor of the status of the chase and any information that would either support the necessity to continue or end the chase.
Various factors are considered when making that decision including reason for the pursuit, traffic congestion, speed, road conditions, time of day, weather conditions, and various others, Wilbanks said.
Those factors are constantly being considered, Wilbanks said, because the unexpected can occur at any given time.
"That applies to everyday driving just as much as it applies to pursuits," he said. "...we have to evaluate all of the circumstances known to us at the time of the pursuit."
Deputies pursuing Faulkner reached high speeds and even continued through several residential streets. But Maj. Woodrow Tripp with the sheriff's office said speeds never reached more than 60 mph in those residential areas and never went through any school zones.
"High speeds in residential areas can be one of the factors considered in a pursuit, but merely passing through a residential area alone is not sufficient enough information," Wilbanks said. "All other existing factors have to be added to the equation."
Deputies can't put a cap on speed because, depending on the circumstances, certain speeds may not constitute an extreme danger, Wilbanks said. Depending on the road type and its conditions, certain situations may not pose an excessive risk to the public.
"...the point must be made that no pursuit is the same and that the nature of the charges will determine the extent and length of the pursuit," Tripp said. "A speeder is certainly not worth risking the public's safety, but a person who has assaulted and murdered a child ... if you're the family member ... what would you want us to do?"
Each of the various other factors were also considered during the pursuit of Faulkner, Tripp said.
The chase was in midafternoon, prior to rush hour, and the weather was clear.
Because Faulkner was a wanted sex offender on a child molestation conviction, Tripp said deputies felt he posed enough danger to the society to allow for the continuation of the chase. The accusation that he assaulted his ex-girlfriend was also a significant factor.
If deputies chose to end the pursuit, the sheriff's office would be under scrutiny for allowing an at-risk suspect to escape, Tripp said.
"If another citizen's family member was sexually assaulted, kidnapped or possibly murdered, we would then have to answer to an outraged citizenry as to why we let this person remain free when, in fact, we could have protected the public from further harm by apprehending him," Tripp said.
The policy manual doesn't include what charges constitute the continuation of a chase. That decision has to be made by the supervisor and deputies involved, Wilbanks said.
"We have to determine if allowing a criminal to escape poses a greater threat to the public than does the risk of the pursuit," he said. "In most cases of prolonged pursuit, we're dealing with someone who has committed a forcible felony."
Each of the past two chases entered surrounding jurisdictions. When it is believed the chase will continue into another jurisdiction, dispatch notifies that agency to seek assistance, Tripp said.
However, consent of that agency is not required to continue the pursuit, according to state law.
That law is referred to as "hot pursuit" and states a suspected criminal can be pursued outside the jurisdiction where the original crime occurred. If the jurisdiction the pursuit enters into joins the chase, that agency can then take over primary responsibility until the chase ends or enters another jurisdiction. The original agency would continue but assume a secondary role.
"The point at which a pursuit has gone too far from our jurisdiction would have to be determined by the supervisor, taking into account such things as how much support is being received from the adjoining jurisdictions, ability to identify the offender, in addition to all other safety factors," Wilbanks said.
Tripp said the decision to continue a pursuit or not is one of the more difficult decisions a sheriff's office employee must make.
"It's very much a balancing act in which the environment is literally changing every moment. In a matter of mere seconds, the circumstances may change, and the balance of that threat versus the risk tips from one direction to another and back again," he said.