LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — High-speed police chases are spinning out of control on Arkansas interstates every week.
FOX16 Investigates uncovered how Arkansas State Police, ASP, force drivers to stop using a risky maneuver that involves hitting the fleeing car. Records show many cases end in crashes, which sometimes not everyone walks away from.
The move is called a Precision Immobilization Technique, commonly referred to as a PIT, and involves a Trooper hitting the other car with their patrol car, causing the car to spin off the road.
ASP declined an interview for this story and instead sent a statement from ASP Director, Colonel Bill Bryant.
DEADLY FORCE BEHIND THE WHEEL
Dash camera video from November 2019, shows Trooper Kyle Ellison joining a pursuit late at night.
The chase started in Sherwood when a police officer there says they saw a driver who was traveling with his high beams on.
The driver did not stop and kept driving from Sherwood into southwest Little Rock.
When the driver pulled off the interstate and onto a two-lane road, traveling at speeds of 120 mph, Ellison decided to end the pursuit.
On dash camera video, Ellison can be seen pulling his patrol next to the other car and hitting it, causing it to crash into a tree.
“Is he alive?” Ellison can be heard asking as he ran to the scene of the wreck.
The car was left in pieces. The driver was 22-year-old Brian Brooks. No one will ever know why he didn’t stop. Brian died hours after the crash at the hospital.
“It was really horrific to know my child was in that car,” said LaTonya Brooks, Brian’s mom. “It cost my son’s life for no reason at all.”
It’s been two years since that crash. Brian’s death was ruled a homicide by the Pulaski County Coroner. The coroner’s report lists the PIT maneuver as the cause of Brian’s death. Those details were not included in the incident report filed by Ellison.
According to Ellison’s report, he performed a PIT on Brian’s car since he said the risk to other drivers was too great.
A PIT maneuver works by a patrol car turning into the back quarter of the fleeing car, which forces it to spin and ends the pursuit.
POLICIES VARY BY AGENCY
The risk and liability around the PIT maneuver prompted several law enforcement agencies to put strict limits on the move or ban it outright.
In North Carolina, a fatal PIT involving Highway Patrol prompted the department to cap speeds at 55 mph, unless the fleeing driver has committed a violent crime or there are other circumstances that warrant the use of deadly force.
PIT maneuvers are used by state police in several states including Texas, Georgia, and Oklahoma.
Rick Giovengo is a former law enforcement officer and spent years studying and teaching PITs at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers.
“The PIT is a risky maneuver, period it is,” Giovengo said.
Giovengo says during training officers at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers are taught that not every situation rises to the level of a PIT.
“The speed, the people in the car, the crime that’s been committed, those are things that all have to be taken into consideration by the responding officer before they do the pit.”
FOX16 Investigates searched for ASP records to see how often PITs are happening in Arkansas.
Based on records sent by ASP, between January 2017 to December 2020, officers attempted to or pitted drivers at least 306 times. Half of those happened in 2020.
Those records do not reflect a complete total since ASP says it can only pull records of PIT maneuvers that have been processed by the department, a process that can take months.
According to ASP, that search limitation means that at this time, the department can only give FOX16 Investigates one record of a PIT maneuver used in 2021.
Currently there is no state or federal requirement that police track PIT maneuver totals.
Records obtained by FOX16 Investigates show many purists that resulted in a PIT, started as minor traffic violations, which include improper lane change and speeding.
FORCE GONE TOO FAR?
According to ASP policy, the decision to use a PIT maneuver falls on the officer involved in the chase.
There are limits on vehicles a PIT can be used on.
In July 2020, Senior Cpl. Rodney Dunn said he clocked an SUV speeding on Highway 67/167 in Jacksonville.
The dash camera from Dunn’s patrol car shows the driver in the speeding SUV slowed down, moved into the right lane, and put hazards on.
According to Dunn’s incident report, the driver continued to travel below the speed limit, but the driver didn’t stop.
Dash camera shows the pursuit lasted three minutes before Dunn performed a PIT. The SUV spun into a concrete barrier and rolled, injuring the 38-year-old driver who was pregnant.
After the crash, Dunn asked the driver why she didn’t stop, that exchange was recorded on dashcam and Dunn’s body mic.
“I just didn’t feel the shoulder was big enough,” the driver is heard saying.
“Well this is what happens when people don’t stop for us,” Dunn responded.
“You wreck us?” the driver asked.
“We PIT the vehicle,” Sr. Cpl. Dunn said.
That’s one case of dozens where a chase that ended with a PIT started with a minor traffic violation.
FOX16 Investigates found several cases where a PIT was done on car with children inside.
In one instance an infant was thrown from an SUV, one of three people injured in that PIT.
Speed was also a factor. ASP records show most PITs happened above 60 mph, with some topping 100 to 120 mph.
When Giovengo was asked if there should be limits on speed, he said yes.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The higher the speed the higher the risk.”
Giovengo says the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers teach officers under strict limits. He says most training is done in the 40 mph range, and only the most experienced officers are allowed to pick up the pace.
“We still don’t go above 60 miles an hour. That’s the highest we’ll go,” Giovengo said.
Under ASP policy, there is no limit on speed for PITs, the ultimate decision to perform the maneuver falls on the officer.
After the PIT on Brian’s car, Trooper Ellison’s body mic recorded a phone he had with a supervisor talking about how fast he was going.
“How fast were you when you PITed him, roughly?” the supervisor asked.
“About 120,” Ellison said.
“Ok. It is what it is, we don’t dictate that,” the supervisor responded.
Hours after that phone call, Brian Brooks died at the hospital. He’s one of at least five people killed when ASP used a pit in the past four years.
Less than 24 hours after the crash, Ellison pitted another car while driving 90 mph. The driver and passenger in that car walked away unharmed.
“Somebody killed my child, and I wake up with that every day,” LaTonya Brooks said. “Whose child is going to be next?”
Since Brian’s death, ASP awarded Ellison the “Trooper’s Cross” which is given for showing courage. The department explained that it was because of Ellison’s PIT on Brian’s car and how he helped pull Brian from the wreck.
While ASP would not comment on any specifics in this story, in his statement, Col. Bryant explained that PIT maneuvers save the lives of people who choose to obey the law.
“In every case a state trooper has used a PIT maneuver, the fleeing driver could have chosen to end the pursuit by doing what all law abiding citizens do every day when a police officer turns-on the blue lights – they pull over and stop,” Col. Bryant wrote.
FAMILIES PUSH FOR CHANGE
At home, LaTonya Brooks transformed a room into a memorial, decked in Lakers purple and gold in a nod to Brian’s favorite team.
“Everybody who knows Brian knows he’s a Lakers fan,” LaTonya Brooks said.
Her son’s memory is driving her to keep questioning what happened that night in November 2019.
She points to the fact that this started over police saying Brian was driving with his high beams on, a minor traffic offense.
“You had his address, so if it was that serious you could have come to the house and got him,” LaTonya Brooks added.
She knows the choice to not stop cost her son his life but can’t help wondering if there could have been another ending.
“I pray something changes, because it has to change,” LaTonya Brooks said.
PIT maneuvers have been used by ASP for about 20 years.
FOX16 Investigates started pulling records on them in January 2021. A month later, ASP changed its policy. The changes require any PIT that leads to serious injuries or death to be turned over to the prosecutor’s office, and the officer involved placed on administrative leave. Before 2021, neither of those were requirements.
The two officers mentioned in this story, Senior Cpl. Rodney and Trooper Kyle Ellison, do not have any publicly disclosable disciplinary records. State law only allows the release of records if discipline results in suspension or termination.
Col. Bill Bryant issued the following statement about PIT maneuvers:
Over the past five years Arkansas State Troopers have documented a 52 percent increase in incidents of drivers making a conscious choice to ignore traffic stops initiated by the troopers. Instead of stopping, the drivers try to flee. In more populated areas of the state, the incidents of fleeing from troopers have risen by more than 80 percent. The fleeing drivers pull away at a high rate of speed, wildly driving, dangerously passing other vehicles, showing no regard for the safety of other motorists, creating an imminent threat to the public.
The Arkansas State Police began using the Precision Immobilization Technique (PIT) over two decades ago. Trooper recruits while attending the department’s academy receive comprehensive initial training in the use of PIT. All incumbent troopers receive recurring annual training in emergency vehicle operations which includes PIT instruction.
There’s a fundamental state law none of us should ever forget. All drivers are required under Arkansas law to safely pull-off the roadway and stop when a police officer activates the patrol vehicle emergency lights and siren. The language of the law is crystal clear. Upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle displaying the signal to stop, the driver must pull-over and stop. *(see Arkansas statutes ACA §27-51-901 & §27-49-107)
Should a driver make the decision to ignore the law and flee from police, state troopers are trained to consider their options. Based on the totality of circumstances a state trooper could deploy spike strips to deflate the tires of the vehicle being pursued, execute a boxing technique to contain the pursuit slowing the driver to a stop, execute a PIT maneuver or terminate the pursuit. Most Arkansas State Police pursuits end without a PIT maneuver being utilized.
PIT has proven to be an effective tool to stop drivers who are placing others in harm’s way. It has saved lives among those who choose to obey the law against those who choose to run from police. In every case a state trooper has used a PIT maneuver, the fleeing driver could have chosen to end the pursuit by doing what all law abiding citizens do every day when a police officer turns-on the blue lights – they pull over and stop.Col. Bill Bryant, Director of Arkansas State Police