Moments before the twisting car crash that paralyzed Dayten Gouviea from the waist down, left Jonaven Perkins-Sinapati on life support, fractured the spines of both Trenstin Matua and Justus Sinapati Mason, and sent glass shards into Krypton Afakasi’s eyes, Honolulu police vehicles were caught on security video pursuing the Honda Civic with their lights off.

The Police Files Project BadgeSinapati Mason, 20, said that the police vehicle bumped them twice before they veered off the street, struck a concrete curb, collided with trees and continued over a concrete wall at the intersection of Orange Street and Farrington Highway.

The violent end to the police pursuit drew media attention and at least one lawsuit. But a Civil Beat investigation found that in one respect it was not unusual — nearly a third of police chases on Oahu involve crashes.

The Honolulu Police Department has not said why officers were pursuing the Honda that night. But the majority of police pursuits in Honolulu begin as either property crimes or traffic violations, according to an analysis of more than 140 HPD pursuit reports obtained by Civil Beat spanning between 2017 and 2019.

Honolulu has an unusually open-ended policy for what justifies a pursuit. A review of more than 30 other cities of comparable size shows that most police departments direct officers only to engage in pursuits if the crime is violent in nature or if there is an imminent danger to the public.

HPD is one of the few departments that largely leaves it up to the officer, allowing chases for reasons such as stolen cars, “suspicious vehicles” and property crimes.

The vast majority of Honolulu police pursuits over the last five years would not have been authorized in many other major cities.

These pursuits don’t just have consequences for those directly involved. Bystanders, passengers and other motorists have been subjected to violent collisions as a result of pursuits that begin over property crimes and traffic infractions.

This includes a passenger who broke both legs and feet less than a minute into a June 2019 chase that began as a traffic stop. Also in 2019, three people standing on a sidewalk near Ala Moana Shopping Center were killed when a suspect being pursued by HPD ran over them.

Current and past chairmen of the HPD’s Pursuit Review Board, a panel tasked with determining whether pursuits followed the department’s policy, have also issued warnings about chases initiated over nonviolent crimes and officers who fail to adhere to the rules — an offense that rarely leads to any punishment beyond a written warning.

The Police Files

In 2015, the International Association of Chiefs of Police created a model pursuit policy that marked a shift in ideology now embraced by many departments.

According to the policy, “Pursuit is authorized only if the officer has a reasonable belief that the suspect, if allowed to flee, would present a danger to human life or cause serious injury. In general, pursuits for minor violations are discouraged.”

The family of Dayten Gouveia, paralyzed in a car crash, is suing HPD, alleging the crash resulted from a high-speed police chase. A Civil Beat review of pursuit-related crashes between 2017 and 2019 found that more than 40% resulted in injuries. Hawaii News Now

Yu said that all new recruits get 80 hours of tactical driving training, including four hours on the pursuit policy, so they can appraise the risks of each pursuit.

Officers also receive about an hour of driving-related refresher training every year, which covers pursuits, decision-making and liability.

“HPD recently produced a training video that goes over risk assessment and initiating and terminating pursuits,” Yu wrote. “The new video will be required viewing for all officers.”

Many Chases Involve Crashes And Injuries

The analysis of pursuit reports obtained by Civil Beat found that a collision was documented in approximately 32% of chases and nearly all of these collisions resulted in property damage.

Injuries were also documented in over 42% of pursuit-related collisions between 2017 and 2019.

Alex Garcia, an HPD lieutenant who retired in October 2019, said that number seems consistent with the reality that police are chasing people careless enough about danger to run from the authorities.

“In my opinion, that probably should be higher because of the risk involved,” Garcia said. “I think that’s pretty good because you go into these pursuits at high speeds. We’re trying to control the situation but the subject has no control, no rules, no limits.”

According to the HPD’s 2020 Analysis of Motor Vehicle Pursuits, over 12% of all chases reviewed by the Pursuit Review Board that year ended in a crash, although the annual review does not include pursuits that involved a collision that did not end the pursuit. Only one in every 10 chases reviewed in 2020 ended when the driver stopped, according to the analysis.

That year, 14% of police pursuits that the Pursuit Review Board looked at were for felony offenses other than a stolen vehicle — a crime that spawned approximately 45% of all chases. Of the chases reviewed in 2020, nearly a third began with traffic violations.

Crashes occurred more often in 2020 than in the previous year, which saw just 7.5% of all chases end in a crash. Suspects stopped just under 20% of the time during chases reviewed in 2019. The majority of pursuits ended with either the officer or their supervisor terminating the chase in 2020. 

“We can’t control what they do and if the guy is really out of control, it’s really up to the supervisors to pay attention and call it off,” Garcia said. “It happens frequently.”

In 2019, just over one in every 10 chases were for suspected felony offenses other a stolen vehicle. The same number of chases began after a report of a “suspicious vehicle.” Just under 30% of chases were for a stolen vehicle and more than 40% of chases began as traffic violations. 

In 2018, all but one chase reviewed by the Pursuit Review Board involved property crimes. The most notable case involved a suspect who stole an officer’s vehicle and tried to run him over, according to the 2018 year-end report.

The overwhelming majority of offenses that led to police chases on Oahu over the previous years would not justify a pursuit in numerous large cities that have amended their policies to exclude property crimes and traffic violations as pursuable offenses.

“People are realizing, and the police chain of command is realizing, that pursuits are inherently very dangerous,” said Gareth Jones, an international police pursuit expert who has investigated or reviewed approximately 175 incidents in which a vehicle driven by a police officer was involved in a death or serious injury. “Generally the trend is don’t engage in them unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

Mainland Departments Tightly Control Pursuits

According to an analysis of pursuit policies in 34 different mainland police departments that are either the same size or larger than Honolulu’s, HPD has one of the most lenient. In many large cities, pursuits are only justified when a violent felony has been committed or when the suspect is an immediate and clear danger to the public.

In comparison, HPD’s policy leaves the decision up to the officer.

“It is impractical to formulate precise, objective rules to cover all pursuit situations because of the number and complexity of variables involved,” HPD’s current pursuit policy reads.

“Decisions about pursuits must be based on judgments by the participating officers. These judgments must reflect the officer’s best efforts to apply common sense, training, experience, and departmental guidelines to the situation at hand.”

According to the policy, a pursuit can be initiated after “an officer directs a driver to stop but that driver exhibits intentions of eluding the officer by being evasive.”

“It is discretionary because every case is different,” Garcia said.

Once a Honolulu police officer decides to chase a driver, the officer must immediately declare a pursuit and notify a dispatcher so a supervisor can monitor it, and possibly terminate it, if it gets too dangerous.

Last year, 13 HPD employees were found to have broken that rule. The majority of them were given only written notices that they did not follow policy, although one was given verbal counseling and another was given a written reprimand.

Following the declaration of pursuit, an officer must continuously use the flashing blue lights and siren throughout the chase. One officer was given a notice that he or she failed to follow that part of the policy last year.

According to HPD protocol, police lights and sirens must be used throughout the entire duration of a pursuit. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

An additional two officers were disciplined for failing to activate their body-worn cameras, a rule put into effect in December 2020.

According to HPD policy, officers pursuing a vehicle must terminate the pursuit if a supervisor orders them to or if it becomes too hazardous. Six HPD employees were disciplined for failing to end a pursuit in 2020.

In the latest pursuit analysis report, HPD Maj. Calvin Tong, chair of the HPD’s Pursuit Review Board, recommended in-service training on officers’ need to clearly justify a pursuit instead of telling dispatch that they were “lighting them up” — activating their flashing lights — or simply that the subject was “not stopping.”

Tong also recommended training on risk assessment “so our officers will have the knowledge to make responsible decisions on when to self-terminate a motor vehicle pursuit based on the totality of the events and situations that present itself as the motor vehicle pursuit progresses.”

Finally, Tong recommended training on the requirement to activate body-worn cameras.

The previous chair of the Pursuit Review Board, William Baldwin, warned in 2018 that officers were circumventing pursuit policy simply by failing to declare the pursuit.

“Particularly troublesome is the fact that some officers still believe that if they say they were ‘following’ as opposed to ‘pursuing’ a vehicle that the policy does not apply to them,” Baldwin wrote.

The 2018 Pursuit Review Board chair also called for more training for the Crime Reduction Units after three chases for property crimes by those units ended in a crash in District 2 that year.

“Two of these cases involved a stolen vehicle, and the other involved a vehicle using a stolen license plate,” Baldwin wrote in the 2018 Analysis of Motor Vehicle Pursuit. “None of those cases involved a crime against a person. In each case, the driver had been identified.”

Despite Baldwin’s warnings, property crimes and traffic offenses remain the leading cause for chases and were the triggering factor in 65% of police chases that involved a collision in Honolulu between 2017 and 2019, according to an analysis of Pursuit Review Board reports.

City Paid Out $10 Million In Pursuit Case

According to pursuit reports obtained by Civil Beat, crashes resulting in serious injury are not uncommon. At least four people have been killed and dozens have been injured in police chases on Oahu over the last five years.

In some cases, crashes occurred during chases that would have been justified even under a more restrictive policy. But in some instances, the HPD officer failed to follow the department’s policy.

In early October, the Honolulu City Council unanimously approved a $10 million settlement with the family of a man who was among three people to die when a drunken driver fleeing police plowed through a group of pedestrians.

Photo: A Honolulu police officer was chasing a speeding vehicle in Kakaako in 2019 when the civilian plowed into pedestrians, killing three and injuring four others.
A Honolulu police officer was chasing a speeding vehicle in Kakaako in 2019 when the civilian plowed into pedestrians, killing three and injuring four others. Hawaii News Now

Two survivors of the crash, Lianna McCurdy and Daniel Verdarame, as well as Gail Garin, the mother of a man who was killed, sued the driver, the city and officer Sheldon Watts for violating the police department’s policy on pursuits by failing to activate his lights and siren.

The lawsuit also cited the HPD policy stating that police supervisors should terminate pursuits when they become dangerous.

Earlier this year, Matthew Zuchowski, 38, died after he struck a pole near the intersection of Kalakaua Avenue and Poni Moi Road. Witnesses told Hawaii News Now that Zuchowski sped past the Waikiki police substation when officers began to pursue his red Ford Mustang.

Yu, the HPD spokeswoman, said that the crash, which happened in late May, is still under investigation.

In June 2019, a woman was rushed to The Queen’s Medical Center in serious condition after police chased a car in which she was a passenger. The driver, who fled after the crash, lost control of the car on South Vineyard Boulevard. It jumped over a wall, and crashed into a state parking garage.

The passenger of a vehicle involved in a police chase was rushed to the hospital after the car crashed into a parking garage. Hawaii News Now

The chase reportedly began when the driver failed to stop for police. The accident left the female passenger with two broken legs and feet and damaged a Hawaiian Electric Co. utility box, resulting in a power outage for roughly 30 customers.

The officer involved, who never declared a pursuit, was given divisional counseling upon recommendation by the Pursuit Review Board.

In December 2017, a chase over a stolen vehicle ended with the death of Lawrence Williams Jr., who was fleeing police at 90 mph when he struck two cars and was ejected onto the grassy median at the intersection of Vineyard Boulevard and Palama Street.

In the case of the September crash in Makaha, which was initially branded a “single car accident” before the report was removed from HPD’s website, the department has opened an investigation and reassigned three officers involved to non-patrol duties.

“Until I can get some justification from police for the pursuit, I don’t know why it was initiated in the first place and they’ve given no indication,” Eric Seitz, an attorney suing the city on behalf of Dayten Gouveia’s family, said. “Secondly, I don’t know why it continued at high speed into an area where there might have been other people who could have been hurt.”

Pursuit-Related Crashes Elsewhere

Honolulu is not the only jurisdiction plagued by a high number of police pursuit-related crashes.

In California, highway patrol officers are also able to pursue vehicles that are believed to be stolen. Traffic violations may also justify a pursuit.

In 2019 alone, 23.3% of the CHP’s 1,354 pursuits ended in a crash and 35 people died as a result of these collisions.

Of those 35 deaths, 15 were the drivers of the pursued vehicles. Six passengers were killed as a result of pursuits, as well as 14 bystanders. A total of 1,202 people were injured due to CHP pursuits in 2019.

According to an analysis conducted by the Fine Law Firm and 1Point21 Interactive, at least 2,005 people were killed during police chases across the country between 2014 and 2018. Among those who died, 1,123, or 56%, were not the driver of the fleeing vehicle.

The study concluded that five of those deaths occurred in Hawaii, including one bystander.

In 2017, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a nationwide study on police chases that found that from 1996 to 2015 about one person per day was killed in pursuit-related crashes.

The study concluded that nearly two-thirds of those killed in pursuits were occupants of the pursued vehicle. A third were not involved in the pursuit and just over 1% of those killed were occupants or drivers of the pursuing police vehicle.

The study looked at the policies of all state police and highway patrol agencies and all local police departments serving 25,000 or more people that had a written pursuit policy as of January 2013. It found that about a third of state police and highway patrol agencies permitted officers to use their own discretion in initiating a pursuit.

Just 17% of sheriff’s offices and 13% of local police departments had discretionary pursuit policies like Honolulu’s current policy.

Those agencies with a discretionary policy had the highest vehicle pursuit rate — 17 pursuits per 100 officers. By contrast, agencies with restrictive policies conducted approximately eight pursuits per 100 officers.

Since the 2017 study, many more police departments have opted for stricter pursuit policies.

HPD’s Yu said that the department is not considering a change in policy.

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