THANQUARIUS CALHOUN liked to run from cops. In 2010, he fled from police in Georgia twice and was arrested for it each time. The next year he fled and was arrested again. On May 3, 2013, he did it again. Then, 11 days later, he ran from the cops for the very last time.
On that Tuesday afternoon, Calhoun, who was born and raised in Henry County, Georgia, was caught speeding on I-85, heading north, when a Banks County sheriff’s deputy put on his lights to pull the gray Toyota Corolla over for a traffic stop. Calhoun decided to hit the gas instead of the brakes and make a run for it, as he had so many times in the past. Police officers from Banks County, Franklin County, and eventually the Georgia State Patrol chased him at speeds exceeding 120 mph, with Calhoun and his pursuers weaving around cars on the highway.
At 2:03 p.m., after 14 minutes and 21 miles of pursuit, Trooper Donnie O’Neal Saddler decided that Calhoun had to be stopped to protect the lives of innocent people on the highway. Saddler pulled his car alongside Calhoun’s and performed, at 111 mph, what is called a Precision Immobilization Technique, or PIT maneuver, making contact with the back of Calhoun’s car and causing it to spin clockwise and careen off the side of the highway across the rumble strips and into a small embankment, eventually striking a tree. Calhoun was completely ejected from the car and sustained major injuries, but somehow survived.
If Calhoun had been alone in the car, he might have received little or no prison time, as he had with all his previous arrests for minor crimes. He was driving with a suspended license — and some counterfeit currency was later found in the wreckage — but his most serious offense was running from the police. That Tuesday, however, he had two friends as passengers, 20-year-old Relpheal Morton and 19-year-old Marion Shore. In court, Trooper Saddler described seeing Morton at the scene. “He was still in the back seat,” Saddler said. “He was kind of just looking around … I will never forget it. He just kept looking around.”
Morton, whom I was not able to interview for this article, must have been stunned to be alive and relatively unharmed. The crash was so violent that the car’s roof was ripped completely off. The car looked flattened, like a tank had ridden over it. In one of the police dashcam videos that shows the crash, pieces of the car fly dozens of feet in the air toward the camera. According to a report by the Georgia State Patrol’s Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team, “The damage to the Toyota Corolla was too extensive to describe all the damage.” It seems almost impossible that two people survived.
Marion Shore was not so lucky. She was sitting in the passenger seat, wearing her seatbelt, but the force of the crash was so strong that she was partially ejected from the car while it was flipping and rolling. Shore, the mother of a 3-year-old boy, was trapped halfway inside the car, in an in-between place where death was certain. The car rolled over her several times. The chief medical examiner for the state of Georgia examined Shore’s body and said in court that, as the car was rolling, the forces propelling it “literally bent her body almost in half.”
THE PIT MANEUVER is a modified version of an anti-terrorist driving tactic that has been taught for four decades by BSR, a private training facility in West Virginia that works with U.S. military and law enforcement personnel. According to BSR, the technique was originally developed by Germany’s federal police to give security details the ability to take out a car that was threatening a convoy. In 1985, the maneuver was developed by the Fairfax County, Virginia, police department in order to end pursuits with little danger to police or the general public.
This is how it is supposed to work: An officer pulls alongside a fleeing vehicle so that the officer’s front bumper is just ahead of the other vehicle’s back bumper. The officer matches the fleeing driver’s speed, gently touches — not rams — the other vehicle, and then makes a quick quarter turn of the wheel toward it. The other car then spins out safely to a stop. According to California Highway Patrol instructions, “The key to proper execution of the PIT is finesse. Ideally, the initial contact with the subject vehicle should be so gentle the operator of the subject vehicle is not aware that contact has been made.” It’s a difficult maneuver to learn, even for seasoned police officers, because the training goes up against a lifetime of being told not to touch things with your moving vehicle, especially other cars. Officers are generally trained on closed roadways at speeds between 25 and 40 mph. The PIT is now used by agencies throughout the U.S., and if used correctly at slow speeds and in the right circumstances — little traffic, no bystanders, open road — it can be an effective and predictable method to cut short pursuits and save lives. At high speeds, it becomes a deadly force technique, a way to stop a driver at all costs. As one expert put it, the PIT would only be predictable at high speeds if performed “on an airport runway.”
One state agency in particular, the Georgia State Patrol, empowered by its vague, unrestrictive PIT maneuver policy, has been using the PIT at high speeds. Yet responsibility for the deaths of innocent passengers has been placed completely on the drivers whose cars were “pitted.” Thanquarius Calhoun, just 21 years old when he was caught speeding and decided to flee, received a life sentence for the death of his friend Marion Shore.
No comprehensive or reliable data has been collected on the PIT maneuver’s use nationwide, and no true empirical studies have been done on its effectiveness or safety. What little is known can be found only piecemeal, hidden within notoriously incomplete data on police pursuits in general.
Just over half of state law enforcement agencies train their officers in the PIT maneuver. Some call it “tactical vehicle interception,” or TVI, and in Kentucky they call it “legal intervention,” but it’s the same technique. You can get pitted on highways running the entire West Coast and in the Southeast from Florida to Virginia. You can get pitted driving from Michigan all the way to California, unless you go through North Dakota, Wyoming, or Montana. The Northeast is mostly PIT-free, with the exceptions of Maine, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. You can get pitted in Arkansas, Indiana, and Iowa. Texas’ Highway Patrol, with more than 2,000 troopers, is now piloting the PIT maneuver, and the Highway Patrol in South Carolina began using it in April 2015. Those are just the state agencies, and don’t include the roughly 18,000 city, county, and local agencies nationwide, each with its own ever-evolving policy on pursuits.
Although some state police agencies refused to reveal the details of their PIT maneuver policies (and in the case of Missouri, whether or not the PIT is used), the policies I have seen vary greatly. Most state that you should never pit a motorcycle or vehicles carrying hazardous materials. Some emphasize that you should take into account the condition of the road, visibility, pedestrians, traffic volume, and if there are other occupants in the car. The Florida Highway Patrol’s PIT policy, for example, tells officers to consider their proximity to blind curves, highway grades, bridges, guardrails, barriers, other traffic, freeway ramps, and roadside obstacles such as rocks, trees, deep ditches, signs, utility posts, traffic islands, and curbs.
Some agencies do not specify the type of eluder who can be pitted, whereas some make clear it must be someone who has committed, or is suspected of having committed, a felony. The Nevada Highway Patrol’s policy states that a PIT cannot be performed unless “the suspect is an actual or suspected felon who reasonably appears to represent a serious threat to society if not apprehended.” Some agencies require supervisory approval before an officer can pit; others prefer that the officer simply use good judgment.
Where the biggest differences lie is in perhaps the most important aspect: speed. Some agencies have very strict caps on the maximum speed at which a PIT maneuver can be performed, some have speed recommendations, and some omit any mention of speed whatsoever. The California Highway Patrol sets a hard cap of 35 mph, as recommended by the department that developed the technique in Fairfax County, Virginia. According to Don Gotthardt, a spokesperson for the Fairfax police department, “We know with great certainty where a violator will end up at speeds 45 mph or lower.” Indiana State Police sets the cap at 50 mph, Michigan State Police and New Hampshire State Police cap it at 40 mph, and Iowa State Patrol caps it at 35 mph. In Virginia and Washington, state agencies require supervisory approval if an officer is going to pit at more than 40 mph, and in Oregon and Wisconsin, the PIT is considered use of deadly force if performed above 35 mph, so officers better have a damn good reason to use it.
THE GEORGIA STATE PATROL’S PIT policy states that “if the trooper or troopers in the pursuit determine that the fleeing vehicle must be stopped immediately to safeguard life and preserve public safety, the PIT maneuver may be used.” The policy does not specify a maximum speed, and Georgia appears to be by far the most aggressive of all state agencies when it comes to using the technique. While several agencies have policies without speed caps, the information I gathered shows a huge discrepancy in total maneuvers performed, and injuries and deaths resulting from them, between the Georgia State Patrol and other state agencies that use the PIT.
Since Georgia began using the PIT maneuver in 1998, at least 28 people have been killed and 296 injured in PIT-related pursuits, the vast majority of them riding in the fleeing vehicle. That number certainly understates the problem because data is either partially or entirely missing for eight of those years. The data I was able to collect was pieced together from open records requests, courts exhibits and depositions, and Georgia State Patrol reports. As far as I can determine, the agency has performed more than 1,100 PIT maneuvers since 1998, and 2015 had the largest annual number yet, with 155 performed. Roughly 20 percent of Georgia State Patrol pursuits involve a PIT maneuver, and the agency has never punished an officer for using it inappropriately.
In comparison, California’s Highway Patrol, which collects statistics from its own officers as well as from other California law enforcement agencies, listed 967 pursuits terminated with a PIT maneuver since 2002, about 1 percent of total pursuits, with only one death and 83 injuries. Minnesota’s State Patrol recorded 225 PITs since 2008, with no deaths and five minor injuries. The North Carolina State Highway Patrol reported 303 PIT maneuvers, with no deaths, since 2007. (North Carolina does not record injuries.) Maine’s State Police reported 17 PITs since 2012, with no injuries or deaths. Nebraska’s State Patrol reported 25 PITs, with two injuries and no deaths, since 2013. Indiana reported only five PIT maneuvers performed since 2009 and no injuries or deaths. Virginia State Police has trained officers in the PIT since January 2015, but none have performed the maneuver on duty.
There have also been fatalities in Nevada, Oklahoma, and Washington, but when you Google “PIT maneuver” and “death,” most of the hits point you to Georgia, specifically the Georgia State Patrol. Thanquarius Calhoun’s case provides some recent insight into what’s happening in Georgia, but an incident from more than 10 years ago reveals more details: the crash that resulted in the deaths of Katie Sharp and Garrett Gabe.
ON THE MORNING of August 17, 2004, 21-year-old Katie Sharp was driving her parents’ Nissan Pathfinder from Pennsylvania to her home in Holly Hill, Florida. In the car with Sharp was her boyfriend, 17-year-old Garrett Gabe. They were heading southbound on I-95 in South Carolina when she was caught speeding by Colleton County sheriff’s deputies. Sharp was doing 86 in a 70-mph zone. Perhaps because she had initially taken the car without her parents’ permission, or perhaps because she had run out of gas earlier that morning and had been chewed out by a police officer who saw her on the side of the road, or perhaps because her license had recently been suspended due to traffic violations, Sharp failed to stop when the sirens came on. Instead, she sped forward toward home, where her parents and young child were waiting for her.
Nobody will ever know exactly what was going through her head when she decided to try to outrun the cops — a terrible idea in almost any circumstances — because after leading officers on a high-speed chase for 50 miles in South Carolina, Sharp’s car entered Georgia. “They won’t get past my two, trust me,” a Georgia State Patrol dispatcher told a South Carolina dispatcher as the chase crossed state lines. They didn’t. Georgia took over the chase, and the 75-mile pursuit ended just 53 seconds after Trooper William Scott Fisher joined it.
Fisher saw Sharp driving erratically and dangerously at very high speeds. Hoping to save innocent bystanders, he later said, he pitted her SUV, which was traveling at 107 mph. The vehicle spun off the highway, clockwise, hurtling 400 feet over an embankment and into a tree. Both Katie Sharp and Garrett Gabe were killed. “The trooper executed his training. He acted properly,” said a Georgia State Patrol spokesperson. “It was a long, dangerous chase, and we felt we needed to stop it before some innocent bystander got killed.” Of course, an innocent bystander named Garrett Gabe did get killed. He just happened to be inside the car.
Sharp’s parents filed a lawuit against Fisher and other members of the Georgia State Patrol, and the case went to the United States Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit. According to a statement of material facts submitted to the court in 2007 on behalf of Fisher and his colleagues, “Fisher has no recollection of ever being told a specific speed that should be used before applying a PIT maneuver, just to use his judgment depending on the situation, to use his discretion as to whether other individuals were being placed at risk of death or serious bodily injury as a result of the actions of the person being pursued.”
Trooper Fisher didn’t even know why he was chasing Sharp. In a deposition, he said he assumed she had committed some serious crime or felony because she was being chased across state lines. In reality, the crime that started the chase was a simple moving violation. Fisher said, “I absolutely wanted to end the pursuit to save innocent people on the road that day. The way she was driving with total disregard, the way she was traveling, I thought she was going to kill somebody. I thought there was a certain death fixing to occur.” Instead, it was Fisher’s PIT maneuver that resulted in the deaths of two people, one of whom was utterly innocent. The other was guilty of speeding. “I just don’t think it’s right,” Charles Sharp, Katie’s father and a former police officer, told me. “He was judge, jury, and executioner in less than two miles.”
THE MOST STRIKING statements in the Sharp case came from Soffie Thigpen, the first female captain in the history of the Georgia State Patrol. Thigpen, who initially brought the PIT maneuver to Georgia, was a lieutenant at the time. In her 2006 deposition, Thigpen called the PIT maneuver that killed Katie Sharp and her boyfriend a “picture perfect” example and said that it would be perfectly reasonable to perform the maneuver at speeds most vehicles can’t even reach. “It’s okay to do a PIT from zero to whatever the car will run,” said Thigpen, “whether it be a hundred, 150 or 190, or 30.”
Geoffrey Alpert, an expert on high-risk police activities at the University of South Carolina, who was a paid consultant on the Sharp case, called Thigpen’s words “a shocking statement from someone who’s in a decision-making status in that department and training officers to conduct the PIT.” He said, “She’ll pit anything at any speed.”
When I reached Thigpen, now retired, on the phone, she reiterated her support for the maneuver. “The PIT’s probably the greatest technique that we’ve been doing in Georgia. It’s sending out a message that we won’t tolerate bad people running over folks. If you don’t stop, we’re going to stop you. It’s just that simple.” Her take is that the PIT has saved lives by stopping chases before they go on too long. “I never did understand why anybody thought there should be a speed limit on it. I never could get that,” she said in her deposition. At the time, 12 people had died as a result of PIT maneuvers in Georgia. “On paper, 12 fatalities is a large number, but when you look at the number of PITs and the possible lives that have been saved, the number is small in comparison.”
It’s certainly possible that lives have been saved as a result of PIT maneuvers, but the cars driven by Katie Sharp and Thanquarius Calhoun, which each held passengers as innocent as any bystander on the street, were purposefully pitted at extreme speeds. Counterfeit money was found at the scene of Calhoun’s wreck, but police didn’t know about it at the time of the pursuit, and no one was charged with possessing it. Both cars had been identified by their license plates well before the PIT maneuver was performed, and it would not have been difficult to track the drivers down and put them in jail at a later time if they truly were never going to stop.
At the time of Sharp’s death, the Georgia State Patrol’s PIT maneuver policy consisted of two sentences. It said merely that officers must use the PIT in accordance with training and “at reasonable speeds and in locations where it is reasonable to expect that the maneuver can be safely accomplished.” The policy has since been revised, but still allows officers plenty of leeway in determining a “reasonable speed” when performing the PIT in a given situation. The factors they must now consider are:
a) Whether the violator is showing total disregard for public safety
b) Whether the violator is slowing but not stopping for stop signs or other traffic control devices
c) Whether the violator is darting at other vehicles
d) Whether the violator is driving on the wrong side of the road
e) Whether the violator is running other motorists off the road
Trooper Fisher admitted that he didn’t know how fast he was going when he pitted Sharp’s car. One expert brought in from Oklahoma said, “You can’t look at your speedometer and try to position yourself to the back of the vehicle and know what is ahead of you. You can’t do all that.” The Georgia State Patrol was comfortable with an officer performing a PIT maneuver on Sharp with no knowledge of his own speed — which happened to be 107 mph — while working under a policy in which “reasonable speed” was a key determinant. According to an internal affairs document, Trooper Fisher “acted in accordance with his training and within departmental policy.”
The 11th Circuit threw out the lawsuit, mostly based on a precedent set by another pursuit gone bad in Georgia. In 2001, 19-year-old Victor Harris fled Coweta County troopers who caught him doing 73 in a 55-mph zone. His car was eventually rammed (not pitted), and, as a result of his injuries, Harris was left a quadriplegic. He sued and his case made it to the Supreme Court. In the end, eight out of nine justices found that Harris’ driving was so dangerous that he posed a threat great enough to justify deadly force. The 11th Circuit judge in the Sharp case came to the same conclusion, though the presence of passenger Garrett Gabe was not mentioned as a factor and his name did not make it into the decision, essentially allowing the court to sidestep the fact that a second, innocent, person was in the car.
In 2006, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police commissioned a white paper on pursuits and pursuit policy in the state, with a heavy focus on use of the PIT maneuver. The committee in charge asked the faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology to study the technique’s safety. Four undergraduate engineering students executed the study, simulating a PIT maneuver in a computer engineering program, and determined that it was safe at both high and low speeds, in both wet and dry conditions. The simulation specified a car with a low center of gravity and wide tires. The study failed even to suggest anything that would happen on a real road with grass, bystanders, trees, and embankments, in any car but a simulated high-performance sports car that few people drive. Nevertheless, the Georgia committee relied on the students’ research in reaching its conclusion, writing, “It is the Committee’s opinion that the PIT maneuver is not deadly force because death or serious injury is not a likely consequence of using the PIT maneuver in accordance with proper training and policy.”
While the courts have said that using deadly force to stop a recklessly speeding fugitive is acceptable, Georgia’s police chiefs took a more radical position: that not withstanding the dozens of deaths it has caused, the PIT maneuver does not constitute deadly force at any speed.
IN SEPTEMBER, the police department in LaGrange, Georgia, invited me to a PIT-training exercise at a closed-off roadway in Monroe County. About a dozen police officers attended that morning to perform the PIT maneuver on one another. After some practice, each would have to perform four out of five PITs correctly — matching the pursued vehicle’s speed, touching it a single time without ramming, making a quarter turn of the steering wheel, and pitting it to a stop in a designated area — in order to be allowed to perform the PIT in a real-life situation.
I rode in both the cars performing the PITs and the target vehicles, all of which were driven at about 30 mph, the preferred speed for training. By the time the training had been underway for an hour, screeches could be heard from all sides of the track and there was a strong smell of burnt rubber in the air. The cars used at the training center were old beaters, one step away from the dump, but fitted with metals bars on both sides and roll bars in case something went wrong. The side mirrors were missing or hanging on wire threads, the windows didn’t roll up or down, and the bodies were covered in dents, bruises, and scratches. Without the metal bars, one of the instructors said, they’d be destroyed in a day.
“If you can’t [pit] in training, I don’t have a lot of confidence that you can do it on the road,” Lt. Mark Kostial, one of four LaGrange PD PIT instructors, told me. “Remember, this is a thinking man’s game.” All involved wore helmets and heavy restraints.
As a passenger on both sides of the PIT, I found the force of the maneuver to be quite strong at 30 mph. It strained the neck to be in the pitted car, and was disconcerting to be spun off the roadway onto the grass. At 30 mph, the maneuver felt fairly controlled, and most, but not all, of the officers who trained that day passed. But they will rarely use the maneuver on the road. LaGrange’s police department, whose policy requires supervisory approval when a PIT is performed at more than 60 mph, has been training the PIT for about a dozen years, and the department has never had an injury that Chief Louis Dekmar can remember. Dekmar told me LaGrange will perform about two PITs in a typical year. Of course, LaGrange is a relatively small agency with only 80 or so people on the payroll.
One thing heavily emphasized by Lt. Kostial during the training was picking a location where a PIT maneuver may be safely performed. “If you’re going to spin someone out, it’s gotta be in the appropriate area. There’s a lot of responsibility in that,” Lt. Kostial told his trainees. Another instructor said, “There can be a speed that the PIT won’t work. The risks are too high. It’s not the be-all, end-all. … Just like we carry the belt and have a Taser and baton and gun, with the pursuit we have options.” LaGrange’s officers must be re-certified in the PIT every year.
WHEN I ASKED the Georgia State Patrol why there was no speed restriction in its PIT policy, Capt. Mark Perry replied that, “A vehicle pursuit is not a static event, it is very fluid, dynamic and rapidly evolving evolution.” The Georgia Department of Public Safety, he said, “doesn’t feel it is prudent to constrict a decision to one factor such as a minimum or maximum speed. It has to be a totality of the circumstances.”
I also spoke to officers from agencies with more restrictive PIT policies about their speed caps, and the consensus was that PIT maneuvers are unsafe at high speeds. “At really high speeds,” Trooper Dallas Greer of Kentucky State Police told me, “it’s not something you can use safely.” Major Russell Conte of New Hampshire State Police agreed. “It’s a dangerous maneuver any way you look at it,” he said. “It’s dangerous for the public, it’s dangerous for the perpetrators, it’s dangerous for the troopers.”
Officer David Northway of the Tallahassee Police Department, just across the border from Georgia, told me that his department trains its officers to use the PIT judiciously, with a cap of 45 mph. “We do not want it to be used on a day-to-day basis because of its inherent dangers to officers, to drivers, innocent bystanders, and the general public,” Northway said. “Above 45, the speed is too high so it is unsafe, and there is the possibility of collision.” He also said that his officers must have supervisory permission before any PIT. “It’s not something that you can just go ahead and do.” Northway could not recall any injuries from PITs in the past five years.
For an international perspective, I reached out to Peter Hosking, formerly the police inspector in charge of the reform program dealing with high-speed police pursuits in Queensland, Australia. After 29 years working for the Queensland Police Service, Hosking is now researching high-speed police pursuits and police use of force at Griffith University. “PIT maneuvers are not permitted in any Australian jurisdiction,” he wrote in an email. “In this country we are very risk averse. We tend to see PIT maneuvers as very risky behavior. In effect, it is a form of dangerous driving, the very behavior we are trying to eliminate through enforcement.”
Geoffrey Alpert, the criminology professor at USC, can be found quoted in just about any academic or journalistic article written on pursuits. Alpert told me that nobody knows how many agencies use the PIT. He said that above 35 mph, the PIT “becomes a deadly force technique.” When I asked why some agencies don’t have a cap, he said, “They’re not familiar with the risks and the liabilities.”
“Like any other piece of equipment, any other new technology,” Alpert told me, “when it’s used properly, it’s a very good technique. It’s just you gotta understand its limitations.”
In 2008, Ford Motor Company commissioned a paper on the PIT maneuver by three engineers, two from the University of Michigan and one from Ford. The authors created simulations in order to “provide guidelines for the effective execution of the maneuver.” Their intent was not to determine safety protocols for law enforcement agencies, but among their conclusions, the authors wrote, “PIT involves high risks, especially at elevated speed. The authors do not endorse the use of PIT maneuver at high-speed situations.”
“At higher speeds, the combined effects of spinning and skidding after the maneuver is more pronounced,” the authors wrote. “Although it destabilizes the pursued vehicle to a larger extent, it is more likely to induce unintended injuries since the pursued vehicle skids more at higher speeds. Because the ultimate purpose of PIT maneuver is to prevent the pursued from proceeding forward, instead of throwing it into complete instability, the execution of PIT maneuvers should be limited to relatively low speeds.”
“ICAN’T HELP BUT FEEL like the GSP officer who executed the PIT maneuver should be on trial with him,” wrote Patti Shore, Marion’s mother, when Thanquarius Calhoun was arrested in 2014. “His whole way of thinking was, it wasn’t his fault,” Shore said of Calhoun. “He didn’t do it. The Georgia State Patrol officer did it. And this is where I agree.”
Patti Shore is mad at Calhoun, and has been since the day Marion died, but when I spoke to her, it was clear she was equally angry at Trooper Saddler and the Georgia State Patrol. During the one-day trial in March 2015, Shore passed a note to Calhoun, which Calhoun’s mother now keeps in her records. It reads, “Thanquarius, I just want you to know I forgive you. I miss my baby. She was my best friend. But I do forgive you & I know in part that fucken officer was at fault.”
I asked Shore why she felt the need to send Calhoun this message, and she said, “Because I felt like that was something my daughter would have wanted. She wouldn’t have wanted me to hate him, and in order for me to progress and get past this, I had to forgive him. But I haven’t forgiven that Georgia State Patrol officer. I can’t.”
One witness in the Sharp trial referred to an agency’s chosen pursuit policy as “a philosophical decision.” The decision to perform a PIT maneuver at high speeds can thus be seen as a choice to protect hypothetical people, victims who may or may not exist farther down the road. Patti Shore put it best when telling me about the district attorney who prosecuted Calhoun, but failed to place any blame on the officer who performed the PIT or the agency that allowed him to do so: “He made it all about the people that could have lost their lives,” she said. “Not the one that did.”
A clearer, more restrictive policy might help the Georgia State Patrol save more real lives rather than hypothetical ones. It might bring the numbers closer to those in California, where the PIT is practiced more safely. Georgia State Patrol officers wouldn’t have to “just go on their own feelings,” as Patti Shore put it. At the very least, the agency should be dissatisfied with a policy that depends on almost no science and very little data, except the numbers that show the Georgia State Patrol kills many more people with the PIT maneuver than other agencies do.
Causation was often discussed in the Sharp and Calhoun cases. What caused the cars to leave the road? What caused the young adults to run from the police? In the closing argument for Calhoun’s prosecution, Assistant District Attorney Brian Atkinson said, “If Thanquarius Calhoun had not committed that felonious act, Marion Shore would be alive today; therefore, Thanquarius Calhoun caused her death. Causation is as simple as that.”
Calhoun’s lawyer retorted, in his closing argument, that Marion Shore “is part of the public that this law enforcement was supposed to protect and serve. They did not do that. Was there another option other than that PIT maneuver? I don’t know. I don’t know if there was another option. Maybe. Maybe law enforcement should have backed off and just let that vehicle go. At some point they may have slowed down. But we know one thing, Marion Shore is dead because of Trooper Saddler.”
When I spoke to Calhoun’s mother, Rosie, in her home in McDonough, she offered an alternative solution, one that was pure fantasy but pointed toward a gentler idea of law enforcement more in line with that of policy expert Geoffrey Alpert, who believes pursuits should not occur unless a violent crime has been committed; the dangers do not outweigh the benefits. Rosie said she wished the police could have just put her in front of her son as he sped down the road, to show him that she was there waiting on the other end. Instead of police barricades and flashing lights, he would have seen Rosie, his mama. “And knowing my child,” she told me, “he would have slowed down.”
In a letter sent from Autry State Prison, Calhoun, who is now 24, told me that when he was fleeing from the cops that day, he was doing everything he could to avoid crashing: “In my eyes, I was driving good and trying not to wreck. Just trying to get us back home safe and not go to jail.” He doesn’t think the police should be able to perform a PIT at such high speeds for a speeding violation. “It’s too dangerous even for the officer,” he wrote. “They can get hurt behind it as well.”
In his letter, Calhoun said he hasn’t been the same mentally or physically since the PIT maneuver. He’s off balance when he walks, his reflexes are slower, and he dreams about Marion and the chase. He regrets running from the cops that day and regrets putting innocent people, including the police, in harm’s way. He regrets making that decision because now he’s away from his little girl, his mother, and everyone he loves, including his friend Marion Shore. He wishes he could go back and pull over that afternoon, but he doesn’t believe he deserves a life sentence for her death — the same sentence a serial murderer might receive in many states — or that he was the only one at fault. “I almost died the day of that crash, and then they gone try to take my life away again,” he wrote. “How much more they gone keep hurting me.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from the Puffin Foundation.