Newton police chief explains department’s vehicle pursuit policy

NEWTON, Kan. (KSNW) – It was a horrific crash Friday morning where the only one who survived was the driver of a semi truck.

It started with the report of three people shoplifting about $1,100 worth of items from the Newton Walmart.

Police spotted one of the two suspect vehicles heading for Hutchinson.

Newton police say the car was stolen, and the chase reached speeds of more than a 100 mph.

Twenty four miles down the road, the car swerved to miss stop sticks on the highway and crashed into the front of a semi.

The two suspects, 27-year-old Wendell Lue Hicks III and his passenger 48-year-old Lee Francis Billinger, were pronounced dead at the scene.

KSN sat down with Newton Police Chief Eric Murphy Friday afternoon to talk about their vehicle pursuit policy.

Murphy says they have about 10 to 15 factors they take into account before deciding whether or not to pursue a vehicle.

“One is the nature of the crime, another would be whether we know who the individuals are that are trying to elude us,” said Murphy.

Murphy says other factors include the amount of traffic in the area, the location of the pursuit and the overall general safety of the public.

KSN asked, who is responsible for making the call to engage in a pursuit?

“It’s kind of a judgement call on the officer based on the information that he has as to whether, what level of crime it is,” said Murphy.

Murphy says any member of their command staff has the power to call off a pursuit at any time, if they feel the danger is too high to the public.

The chief adds there is no set time limit for how long they pursue a vehicle.

KSN asked Murphy, with the suspects vehicle reaching speeds of up to 115 miles per hour, would there have been a point in time under their per policy, to stop the pursuit?

“Had we went into a heavily populated area like the city of Hutchinson, we would have probably looked at terminating the pursuit,” said Murphy.

Murphy says for simple thefts, like shoplifting, they usually don’t pursue vehicles.

KSN asked him to explain, under their policy, why they did in this case?

“They attempted to steal $1,100 of property from Walmart, they were also driving a vehicle they had put stolen tags on and so this just wasn’t a regular shoplifting,” said Murphy.

Murphy says his staff will be reviewing the incident today to make sure the policies they have in place for vehicle pursuits were followed correctly.

He says they review the policy on a one to two year basis, making sure they are utilizing the best practices.

The Newton police chase policy limits the number of units they send in a pursuit.

They have to make sure some officers remain in the city to deal with local emergencies.

Two Newton officers were part of Friday’s pursuit, which is within policy.