Twice in the past four months, Valley police chases have turned deadly.
On July 17, a panhandler at the Jensen Avenue offramp from Highway 99 was killed by a speeding car whose driver was fleeing officers.
In April, three members of a Visalia family -- a husband, his wife, and their 17-year-old son -- were killed when an ex-convict trying to outrun a Tulare County sheriff's deputy ran a red light in Visalia.
The four deaths add to the toll of those killed during police pursuits -- and renew the perpetual debate over the risks of chasing down lawbreakers.
"The bottom line is every single pursuit is dangerous," said Fresno County sheriff's deputy Chris Curtice, the office's spokesman, who has been in numerous high-speed chases in his career.
"It is dangerous for the public, for the officer, for assisting units getting there to help. It is dangerous for the suspect."
So, when to chase? When to abort? When does the risk outweigh the benefit?
It all depends, law enforcement officials say. While police agencies have developed detailed policies to help officers decide what to do, the final, split-second call about whether to start or continue a chase is subjective.
Policies vs. reality
Federal statistics show around 350 people are killed each year in police chases, though some advocates for change say the figures are flawed because reporting by law enforcement agencies is voluntary.
Pursuit policies of area police agencies -- including the Fresno and Clovis police departments, the Fresno and Tulare County sheriff's departments, and the California Highway Patrol -- tend to be heavy on protocol and sprinkled with common-sense advice and safety-first admonitions.
"Officers must not forget that the immediate apprehension of a suspect is generally not more important than the safety of the public and pursuing officers," the Fresno Police Department's policy states.
Fresno County's notes that "in the heat of a chase, the violator frequently refuses to give up and the officer likewise feels an obligation to succeed in the pursuit. This psychological phenomenon can cloud an officer's judgment and may cause the officer to continue a chase beyond the point where common sense and good judgment would require the pursuit to be terminated."
Geoffrey Alpert, a nationally recognized expert on police violence, pursuit driving, and training, notes that among law enforcement, the conventional wisdom is to apprehend suspects -- even at great peril.
Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, said around 35% to 40% of police chases result in crashes.
Not all are fatal.
In December, Fresno resident Kaylene Navarro was hit near Palm and Nees avenues by an armed robbery suspect fleeing police. The chase had started in Clovis and ended up involving multiple law enforcement agencies.
Navarro, 18, was on her way to work when the other car came out of nowhere. The impact, she said, sent her car over the sidewalk and into some bushes, trapping her inside.
She suffered cuts and bruises, and needed physical therapy for back pain.
Today, "I'm just a lot more careful and aware of what's going on around me," she said.
Advocates for reforming police chases believe they happen far too often -- and put the general public in too much danger.
"It happens every week where innocent bystanders are being killed," said Candy Priano, executive director of Voices Insisting On PursuitSAFETY, a nonprofit working to reform police pursuits. "How can we look at this and make it safer?"
Priano's 15-year-old daughter Kristie -- at the time a high school student from Chico -- was killed when a suspect in a van being chased by police slammed into a car carrying her family.
Priano said she's not anti-chase. But, she said, "for 100 years we have been repeating the same thing over and over, and nothing has changed. ... Whenever possible, the police need to look for alternative methods to catch suspects."
Weighing the risks
Police are well aware of the risks -- not just of pursuing somebody, but of calling it off. What happens, Fresno police Lt. Don Gross asked, if a pursuit is aborted, but the person is a murder suspect who goes on to kill other people?
But both Gross and Curtice, of the Fresno County Sheriff's Office, know that continuing a chase could result in a crash that injures or kills someone.
Every situation is different, Gross said. Officers must weigh the suspects' behavior, the time of day and traffic volume. Supervisors get involved, too. Each turn could bring a new development. For instance, does the suspect drive toward a school zone? Or leave the freeway for surface streets?
Departments with helicopters can follow a fleeing suspect from above, so police cars can be called off if things get too risky.
But Priano said history shows police don't always stop pursuits when they should.
The accident that killed her daughter was on a weeknight at 6 p.m. She cited another death involving a pregnant New Jersey woman during the evening rush hour. Other chases, she said, have been on rainy roads, snowy roads, through school zones when children are present and when bystanders were in harm's way.
Tulare sheriff's deputies are close to finishing an internal report on whether the department's pursuit policy was correctly followed in the April incident, said Lt. Keith Douglass.
Erick Head, the suspect who was driving the car, is facing three counts of murder. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Aug. 15.
In the July 17 incident, Javier Jardon, 20, of Fresno is facing murder, hit-and-run and evading charges. He pleaded not guilty Friday afternoon and is in the Fresno County Jail in lieu of $1.26 million bail.