Weaving through Fitchburg recently at speeds well above legal limits, motorcyclist Daniel W. Banks allegedly was trying to elude town of Madison police officers. Instead, he crashed, killing James W. Hammer, 49, who police say was Banks' passenger.
That rush-hour chase began like most others in Wisconsin. More than 80 percent of the time, police cite a traffic violation as the reason for starting a pursuit, State Patrol records indicate.
Not many end in death -- just 14 of 5,500 or so chases from 1999 through 2003 were fatal, the records show.
While some law enforcement officials defend the judicious use of high-speed pursuits to stop fleeing suspects, critics say even a few deaths or injuries are too high a price to pay for the possibility of catching what may be a petty offender.
Using the State Patrol statistics to inform the debate, though, is rife with hazards.
A 1997 state law requires all police departments to collect and provide data on pursuits to the State Patrol. The State Patrol was directed to then assemble a report on the data to the Legislature every two years.
The problem: Only about 40 percent of the state's 620 police departments have complied with the reporting rule in any given year.
In addition, State Patrol officials acknowledged Thursday that they have never followed through and compiled the required biennial report.
"I'm disappointed," said former Rep. Doris Hanson, D-Monona, the law's author. "I was working with law enforcement people to put my legislation together, and they were surprised, too, that there wasn't any reporting mechanism."
Data for decision making
Michael Scott, policing expert at University of Wisconsin Law School, said the data would be an invaluable tool in both assessing and training officers in pursuits.
"There are a number of beliefs about high-speed pursuits that may not prove to be accurate," he said. "Careful analysis of the data can help police and lawmakers better understand the hard facts."
Until Thursday, the Department of Transportation, which includes the State Patrol, overlooked its failure to comply, in part because the statutes describing the requirements were confusing, spokeswoman Peg Schmitt said.
After the State Journal raised questions about the lack of reporting, the state said it would comply with the law in its October report to the Legislature.
Nationwide, police chiefs have cited data when restricting pursuits, saying public safety outweighs the need to capture non-dangerous violators. Many -- including two local police departments -- restrict pursuits to cases in which the suspect is a violent felon or about to cause death or injury.
According to available State Patrol records, less than 20 percent of pursuits statewide are related to felonies.
Data compiled in other communities have also been used to show that cases of fleeing don't increase after officials restrict pursuits, Scott said.
Rep. Hanson said she hoped Wisconsin's pursuit data would answer similar questions after her housemate, Ursula Schmitt, was killed in 1993. A man being chased by police crashed his car into the car occupied by Hanson and Schmitt on Highway 51 in McFarland.
Hanson became concerned when she couldn't readily gather data, and neither could policing agencies.
"Basically that was the key thing after my accident was that we never could find anything about how many people got hurt," Hanson said.
Data for 2004 are due Monday.
Denise Hottmann also wants answers about police pursuits in Wisconsin.
Her son was fleeing from Deerfield Police Officer Matthew Ritzema on Nov. 30, 2002, when he rolled his car in a farmer's field.
She acknowledges her son was guilty of running away. But the consequences of his behavior in relation to his alleged offense is sometimes unbearable, Hottmann, of Cottage Grove, said.
That cold night, the chase began when Matthew Hottmann, 22, failed to dim his lights when the police car passed him from the opposite direction.
He and two of his passengers -- Jeremy Budahn, 20, of Cottage Grove, and Kyle Smith, 19, of Deerfield -- were killed that night.
The only survivor in the car, Mary Reinhart, then 17, said fleeing seemed like the best choice at the time. They had been drinking and she was underage.
"We were young and felt invincible, just like any other teenager," Reinhart said.
They were wrong, she knows.
"I really cannot believe that we ran from police," Reinhart said. "All it would be was a drunk-driving ticket. Instead, three of my friends are dead."
What she doesn't remember clearly is whether police were still following them when they drove off the road.
Studies elsewhere show that fleeing subjects often don't know when the pursuit has been called off, UW's Scott said.
And people often run for seemingly unimportant reasons, he said.
"It's somewhat counterintuitive that people would flee from police for any reason other than a serious crime," Scott said. "But the truth of the matter is that they do. Some people have an instinctive reaction to try to escape from the police, and often make very poor decisions in those few seconds when they decide to flee."
All involved understand that adrenaline plays a big part in police officers' decision making during pursuits. It's why supervisors are required in Wisconsin to monitor pursuits and help decide when road, weather, traffic or other conditions warrant calling off the pursuit.
"Police officers are trained to overcome those instinctive reactions and not to treat every defiance of their authority as a life-or-death matter," Scott said. "But it's a difficult thing to take lying down. You treasure very much people's respect for your authority. ... When it's flagrantly defied, you can take it personally, but it's also a professional affront. That's why it's important for police departments to have clear policies."
Madison Police Lt. Sherrie Strand said all police want to capture "the bad guy."
"That's the job that we do, and I think sometimes you get that adrenaline rush and the tunnel vision of going after the bad guy," she said. "What we try to express to officers particularly in their pursuit training ... is sometimes we just have to let that bad guy go."
In June, Middleton Police Chief Brad Keil limited the department's pursuits to chasing violent felons or those who have a high probability of committing a violent crime.
He instituted the same policy in Monona several years ago while he was chief there.
"It's just my belief that there are certain situations where the safety of the officers and the motoring public in general is a higher priority than pursuing someone for minor offenses," Keil said. "It's not just my belief. There's a movement around the country to do this."
But since the state's recommendation for pursuits doesn't restrict them based on cause -- only conditions -- Keil's are among the strictest in the county.
Madison's policy says officers "shall" pursue suspected felons or suspects in other criminal offenses. They "may" pursue for traffic violations if conditions aren't too dangerous for the public.
It's similar to many others in the area.
Just 25 years ago, police always pursued suspects, Scott said. But increasing legal liability associated with chases has led to more restrictive policies.
But many police agencies are reluctant to change, he said.
"There's a concern that if it becomes widely known that police will not pursue, then there's a concern that it will encourage more people to flee from police," Scott said. "There's also a concern that if a small percentage of people who flee from police are violent offenders, police would miss out on apprehending some of those dangerous individuals."
Shortly after the motorcycle crash in Fitchburg, town of Madison Chief Scott Gregory said he would review his department's policy. He has Middleton's policy, but said he's more likely to look at those of communities adjoining the town, such as Madison and Fitchburg.
Good statewide data could help Gregory review his policy.
Peg Schmitt said the state had no intention of ignoring its requirements in the legislation.
Rather, the law's language is confusing because it's split between several statutes, which she said allowed it to fall through the cracks.
They also haven't pushed police departments very hard to file the data if they failed to do so, Schmitt said. It's not clear if they have the authority to do anything if departments don't comply.
Asking for change
Even without good statewide data, some are asking for stricter policies.
Hottmann wants all pursuits banned.
"With today's technology, I can't believe there (aren't) other ways to apprehend these people without high-speed chases," Hottmann said. "There are too many opportunities for innocent bystanders to be killed."
State law does allow police to ticket people if they can be identified through license plates, a law intended to reduce high-speed pursuits by giving police other options for catching people.
And Scott, a former police officer and chief, said he also supports restrictive policies because the deaths of even a few people -- including those who flee from police -- are too many.
"Police understand what human nature leads people to do and we know people will do some dumb things," he said. "But that doesn't mean they need to die for it."