WHAT'S UP WITH THAT - High-speed pursuits: Necessary or too dangerous to public?

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Local police say they follow strict guidelines.

Jeff Callow's yellow 1971 Chevrolet pickup is -- or was -- a familiar sight in Walla Walla, particularly along Howard Street, which is close to where Callow lives.

But nobody would have ever expected to see Callow's trusty truck on the front lawn of a home on Howard Street and Bryant Avenue with the passenger's side caved in with such force it looked as if it had been struck by a missile.

The pickup was actually hit by a stolen Honda Accord driven by a wanted felon being pursued by Walla Walla police officers at speeds of 50 mph or more westbound on Bryant. The exact speed is not known. The buzz around Walla Walla is the Honda was going 90 mph, but police officials said the vehicle was not going that fast.

Nevertheless, the Honda was really moving on a city street.

Was it wise to engage in a high-speed chase in the city limits? Isn't that really dangerous, putting pedestrians and motorists at risk? What's up with that?

Well, Walla Walla Police Chief Chuck Fulton, who will retire this month after nearly 29 years as chief and 43 years on the city police force, agreed that high-speed chases are dangerous -- extremely dangerous. And that, he said, is exactly why they are extremely rare in Walla Walla.

The Walla Walla Police Department has a 10-page policy detailing when officers should and should not engage in pursuits. The officers have the authority to use their judgment in relation to the situation, Fulton said. Officers are never disciplined for deciding not to pursue or for opting to break off a pursuit.

"I have been really, really proud of the men and women in the department," Fulton said. "I have heard it numerous times (over the police radio) when a sergeant makes an evaluation and cuts them off (from a chase). The sergeants -- we (as a department) -- have taken a very conservative approach to high-speed chases."

Why then were officers in pursuit of Vernon Ray Johnson and his passenger, Myranda R. York, on Feb 19.?

Fulton said the decision was made to pursue on that Sunday afternoon because of Johnson's extensive criminal record, his history of reckless driving and the belief he was armed and dangerous.

Johnson and York were allegedly involved in a high-speed chase in the Milton-Freeewater area just days before and are suspected of being involved in a seven-mile high-speed chase near Mountain Home, Idaho, on Feb. 4.

According to Walla Walla police, Johnson was wanted for escaping community custody, possession of dangerous drugs, eluding and possession of stolen property. Walla Walla officials found a loaded syringe containing an illegal substance on the passenger side of the stolen vehicle following the Howard Street crash.

"There was a reason he needed to be pursued and gotten off the streets," Fulton said, adding that the feeling among law enforcement officials was he was likely high on drugs and was a constant danger to the public when driving.

Fulton said the supervisor of the shift that day was about ready to call off the pursuit when Johnson smashed into Callow's truck as it headed north on Howard Street.

Sgt. Mike Moses, the shift supervisor, said if Johnson had turned right onto Howard from Bryant toward the center of town the pursuit would have been cut off. If he had turned left headed out of town police might have continued to pursue depending on circumstances that presented themselves.

Ultimately, the pursuit ended with the innocent citizen -- Callow -- sustaining a broken left wrist. Nevertheless, police would rather have had it end with nobody getting hurt and no vehicles damaged.

It's always a tough call, Moses said, adding that the decision not to pursue can have negative consequences if the wanted felon eventually hurts or kills somebody.

In this case, he said, the decision to pursue met all the criteria detailed in the manual.

Police had a report that Johnson had been spotted in the area of Wilbur Avenue and Pleasant Street. Officers were patrolling the area looking for the suspect. An officer driving north on Wilbur spotted Johnson going in the opposite direction. When the officer began to turn around, Johnson gunned it. The officer radioed for help, Moses said.

Johnson, going at a high rate of speed, cut in front of the second officer onto Bryant. The officer went after Johnson westbound on Bryant, following until the stolen Honda struck Callow's pickup, rolling it until it came to rest in a front yard.

The entire incident, Moses said, was over in less than three minutes.

For Callow, it started and ended in less than a second. When Johnson sped through the stop sign at Bryant the Honda hit the passenger's side of the Chevy pickup so hard it rolled twice before coming to rest in the front yard of a home on Howard Street.

Callow, who did not want to discuss the specifics of the chase, said he was fortunate to have not been seriously injured or killed. He believes the sturdy frame of the '71 Chevy saved him from the impact and the rolls.

Callow has been driving that truck since it was new. It was originally owned by the company he worked for and he later purchased it for his personal use, keeping it in top condition. It looks as if keeping the pickup was a life-saving decision.

Despite his obvious displeasure with seeing his truck destroyed, Callow said he was treated very well by law enforcement and emergency medical service personnel.

Johnson suffered serious head trauma and was taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he was in the intensive care unit. Johnson's passenger, York, was treated and released from Providence St. Mary Medical Center and then taken to the County Jail.

Fulton's empathy is with Callow.

Johnson "ran into an innocent person and that is tragic," Fulton said, adding it's situations such as this that re-enforce the policy to rarely engage in a pursuit.

"We take it very serious," the chief said. "Any time we are pushing a vehicle down the street there has to be a doggone good reason."

Rick Eskil can be reached at rickeskil@wwub.com or 509-526-8309. If you, too, wonder what's up with that, let Eskil know about it and maybe he can find out.

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