Author: Joel Eisenbaum, Investigative Reporter, Anchor, firstname.lastname@example.org Tera Roberson, Special Projects Producer
HOUSTON - They're dangerous, unpredictable, and too often, they turn deadly: high-speed chases.
Nearly every day, high-speed chases are playing out on Houston streets and highways. On average, Houston police are involved in two chases per day.
In the first four months of 2015, the Houston Police Department has been involved in more than 300 pursuits. Suspects have been killed. And in May, Officer Richard Martin died in the line of duty.
Esther Soanes of Austin, Texas, also knows how quickly the pursuits can turn tragic.
“I think about him every day,” Esther Soanes said.
It's been three years since Esther Soanes' husband James Soanes was killed.
On June 15, 2012, James was on his way to help a friend who was dying of cancer, when a man in a stolen truck spotted Austin police on his tail and blew through a red light.
“He started to drive 100 mph, running multiple red lights. Police officers pursued him at 100 mph, running multiple red lights as well,” Esther Soanes said.
James Soanes' Mitsubishi was crushed by the impact.
With a somber tone, Esther Soanes recalled the tragic details of her husband's death.
“He was T-boned and killed instantly," she said. "There was no way he could survive. I don’t think my husband should have died that day. I think there was a safer way to apprehend the suspect."
So, Channel 2 Investigates reporter Joel Eisenbaum traveled to Austin, where the Austin Police Department is using a GPS tracker to help curb police chases. The idea behind the technology is the key to safer police pursuits is stopping police pursuits before they ever get dangerous.
A year after James Soanes' death, APD began using Starchase -- a GPS tracker -- deployed from a pursuing police vehicle that attaches to a criminal's vehicle. The device allows officers to end the high-speed pursuit and follow the driver's every move from a safe distance.
Officer Marcus Davis of APD's Technology Unit trains other officers on how to use the device and said, “You can use it when a suspect is actively evading or if you see that there's potential for the suspect to evade.”
Davis demonstrated how the device worked.
“First, it will turn the system on and then they will arm the system. And then what it’s doing now is going through a series of checks. When you hear the triple time beep like it is now, the system is ready to fire.”
Once the system is ready to fire, the officer pushes a button that deploys the tracker. The device is a black cylinder with a GPS tracker inside. One end of the device is sticky, allowing it to adhere to the targeted vehicle. Once attached, police can then track the vehicle with direct pursuit.
Davis said Starchase has changed the department's approach to pursuits.
“That way, the officer can back up if need be and then we can pursue at a safe distance and call in other assets such as helicopters or canines to successfully capture the suspect, minimizing risks to officers or civilians," Davis said.
Each Starchase device costs $5,000 and about 5 percent of their 350 marked vehicles are equipped. APD has deployed the device 36 times in the 18 months its been in use.
When asked if the device has had a real impact in terms of keeping citizens safer, Davis said, “We have never had one officer injured, never had a suspect injured, we've never had any vehicle crashes and we've always been able to apprehend the suspects 100 percent of the time with this technology.”
After James Soanes' death, Esther Soanes began looking for other people who had lost a loved one during police pursuits. She found there were many others like her. She now works with other families who have lost loved ones in police chases. Their non-profit group, PursuitSAFETY, wants other departments to follow Austin's lead.
“We are looking to save lives. We don’t want anybody else to go through that,” Esther Soanes said.
If it's working in Austin, could it work here in Houston? The Houston Police Department told KPRC 2 News it researched Starchase when it was first introduced, but decided to pass. We're told now they'll take another look.
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