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Arkansas State Police change policy on when to crash fleeing vehicles as part of settlement

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Arkansas State Police
The scene from a state trooper's dash camera showing the aftermath of a technique used to intentionally crash a suspect's vehicle in July 2020.

A settlement has been reached in a lawsuit filed by a woman whose vehicle was intentionally caused to crash by an Arkansas State Police trooper. Part of the agreement, which a state police spokesman said he expects will be finalized next week, calls for a change in policy for when troopers can use a precision immobilization technique (PIT).

On July 9, 2020, Janice Nicole Harper, who was two months pregnant at the time, was driving over the speed limit on U.S. Highway 67/167 in Pulaski County. Trooper Rodney K. Dunn turned on his flashing blue lights to initiate a traffic stop. Dash camera footage from showed Harper turning on her flashing hazard lights and slowing down, which attorney Andrew Norwood says was to indicate she was looking for a safe place to pull off the roadway, complying with the first rule in the Arkansas Driver License Study Guide on what to do when stopped by law enforcement.

Norwood said she was concerned about the narrow space on the highway with concrete walls where the officer was trying to stop her vehicle. After several minutes, Dunn used his police vehicle to bump Harper’s car, causing it to flip over and crash into the median wall.

Norwood said that after reviewing the video footage, every one of the trooper’s superiors determined the action was a violation of the department’s policy related to the use of PIT maneuvers. Norwood said he’s pleased the lawsuit will result in a change in policy.

“There’s no court in the State of Arkansas or in the country, not even the federal court; the United States Supreme Court cannot force the Arkansas State Police to change their policy. So, for us to be able to do that is kind of a big deal for us,” Norwood said.

The policy will change the required justification for officers to use a PIT maneuver from a “subjective standard” to an “objective standard” as part of the settlement. That means PIT maneuvers should only be used when an officer believes it is objectively reasonable to protect a third person or an officer from imminent death or serious physical injury. Video of the incident will also be used in training for other troopers to show what not to do in similar situations, Norwood said.

“It used to be what the officer thought. So, if the officer thought that the PIT maneuver was needed then that was enough to stay within the policy. Now, it’s an objective standard. So, it’s what a reasonable officer in that officer’s shoes would have thought,” said Norwood.

Arkansas State Police said Dunn was disciplined after an internal review. The agency also said this kind of change is not unusual.

“The Arkansas State Police periodically initiates revisions to its pursuit policy to ensure it is consistent with applicable case law and existing training related to the PIT maneuver,” the agency said in a statement. “The department has consistently required its troopers to apply an objectively reasonable standard when using the PIT maneuver and will continue to do so.”

It’s unclear when the policy change will go into effect.