SPECIAL REPORT: What's the law?

WSBT 22 photo

You do your best to be safe behind the wheel, so it probably makes you wonder when you see a police officer do something you would not be allowed to do.

So what's the law for officers out on the road?

WSBT 22's Katlin Connin found there are some misunderstanding about what's allowed.

Police have a lot of information that the public doesn't have. They use that information to make choices about how they drive to a scene, and some of the things they do are designed to make sure you stay safe.

"If I'm honest, my first intuition, pretty much whenever I see the cops is either one of anger or fear,” said law student James Cheney.

Those feelings may be compounded by a lack of understanding. St. Joseph County Assistant Chief of Police Bill Thompson says officers don't always drive the way they should, but there are some driving behaviors the public simply doesn't understand.

WSBT 22 got a small, randomly selected group of drivers to sit down with Thompson to talk about some of the most common police driving complaints.

"Someone will see one of our cars or a police car come up to an intersection. It'll come up to the intersection, it'll stop for a second, it'll turn it's red lights on, go through the red light at the intersection and once it gets past it, it'll turn them off again,” Thompson said.

"You always have to wonder if they're actually doing something pertinent to their job. When they do that it seems like it's a hazard,” said salesman Steve Witcher.

“It's a question of, a guy's in a hurry to get to a call but not such a big hurry that he's going to turn his equipment on and leave it on for the entire time it takes him, the entire distance to get there. But he'll use it usually to get through an intersection,” Thompson said. “The way the law's written, if we turn our emergency equipment on, make sure that nobody's coming, it's a legal thing for us to do.”

Some panelists said maybe officers should turn their lights and sirens on the whole time.

“If there was an actual emergency, the lights would already be on,” Witcher said.

“I imagine there's probably a lot of stuff going on that might merit sirens. I definitely hear emergency vehicles like ambulances and firefighters far more often than police,” said Cheney, the law student.

But Thompson says using those sirens is a balancing act.

"If things are lit up and we use sirens all the time every time, they'll lose some of their importance. Drivers will get used to it, they'll adjust,” Thompson said.

"If you we're hearing it all the time then you might just ignore it, but by that same account, if they never see it and never deal with the situation, they're more likely to not know what to do,” Witcher, the salesman said.

"I think it's a good thing that I don't hear them often so that when I do hear them I kind of get out of the way, obey that aspect more,” said Shane Inez, who helps manage his family business. “Rather if I heard them all the time, and I'd just keep driving along while guys try to get past me to the emergency site."

Another big complaint officers hear involves chases.

"One of the things that sometimes happens is there'll be this big long line of police cars behind a vehicle they're chasing,” Thompson said.

"Seems a little excessive. Four or five police cars? Maybe two would be nice,” Inez said.

"It seems like the faster a chase is, the fewer cars following might be a better idea,” Witcher said. “Fewer cars going faster just means more safety for everybody.”

“Looking in the rearview mirror and seeing like five cop cars, I don't know what's going through their heads, but it might be just what they want. It's like glorifying their criminality,” Cheney said.

“What happens sometimes -- and guys get caught up in it -- a chase is one of those things where there’s all those type a personality cops, there's a chase and everybody wants to catch the person that's fleeing,” Thompson said.

But Thompson says his department and many others have a policy of only two cars per chase.

"The more cars you have going fast like that the greater the possibility of something bad happening. It's something that we really try to control," Thompson said.

Thompson says when lights and sirens are on an officer can break the speed limit and ignore traffic signals and directional lanes, but that doesn't mean officers have total immunity.

"We can in certain situations do those things, but it's still tempered with a requirement that we do them in a reasonable and a responsible way," Thompson said.

All information these panelists seemed glad to know.

"Public relations is definitely a good thing,” Witcher the salesman said. “There can never be too much communication, too much transparency between parties."

Thompson says he recognizes that people are often nervous around police, but he says that's not the intent of most officers. He says the reason most people join law enforcement is because they want to keep people safe.

After the discussion, the group seemed to feel like they understood that sentiment a little better.

Like Thompson says, there's a lot of information police have that the public doesn't. Those panelists all said there's no such thing as too much clarity.

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