Starting today, Bernalillo County sheriff's officers can give chase more often, but they can't shoot as much.
Sheriff Dan Houston has expanded the department's policy on vehicle pursuits, allowing deputies to chase suspected drunken drivers and misdemeanor traffic violators "when there is a clear and immediate threat to the safety of other motorists or the public."
At the same time, deputies will no longer be allowed to shoot at fleeing vehicles.
Also, the County Attorney's Office will no longer review pursuit reports, and BCSO command staff will no longer be allowed to second guess supervisors' decisions to end chases.
The changes all go into effect today.
"This is kind of a double-edged sword: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," Houston said in an interview Thursday. "I understand the dangers of pursuits and that, to some extent, we're going to be creating more danger. But we can't just let criminals think they can do whatever they want, and we're going to wave goodbye."
The old policy forbids deputies from pursuing suspected misdemeanor traffic violators. It does not address DWI.
The Albuquerque Police Department's pursuit policy also does not address DWI specifically, spokesman Rob Gibbs said.
The sheriff said he began researching pursuit policies at departments in Denver; Portland, Ore.; San Antonio, Texas; and other places not long after he took office on Jan. 1.
Houston said the changes were not a reaction to an incident last month in which Undersheriff Ron Paiz launched a high-speed chase of a man who h a d a l l e g -- edly rammed i nt o P a i z 's u nma rked car.
The suspect, Roy Holliday, a conv icted f e l o n , w a s arrested after a pursuit of several miles -- at speeds of up to 100 mph-- and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (his car) and aggravated fleeing.
Paiz received a letter of reprimand for the incident. Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon against an officer, while a felony, was not one of the felonies that warranted a high-speed chase, under the department's standard operating procedure in place at the time.
The language in that part of the policy is among the changes effective today.
Previously, agg ravated assaults had to have been committed with a firearm to warrant a pursuit. That has been changed to "deadly weapon."
Details of the changes:
Deputies will no longer be allowed to shoot at fleeing suspects or their vehicles. Previously, a supervisor could authorize a deputy to fire at the tires of a vehicle or its driver if deadly force was warranted.
Supervisors, who bear significant responsibility for authorizing and monitoring pursuits, "shall not have their judgment called into question" for calling off a chase, according to a draft copy of the policy. Supervisors "aren't going to be subject to reprimand" or Internal Affairs investigations for calling off chases, Houston said. "We're going to consider that the supervisor made the right call" no matter what.
The County Attorney's Office will no longer review post-incident reports of pursuits. Instead, "the sheriff, command staff and department legal adviser will review the pursuit" to determine whether procedures were followed.
Houston said the county attorney will still handle lawsuits against the department that arise from pursuits.
"No disrespect to county legal, but (County Attorney) Jeff Landers works for the County Commission. He's just an adviser to me, and I'm not aware of any expertise he has on" pursuits, the sheriff said. "So I'm not going to enter into verbiage where he supervises anything this department does. It's not his job."
The Bernalillo County Deputy Sheriff's Association applauded the changes -- in particular the increased flexibility to chase DWI suspects.
"The (association) is happy that the sheriff has expanded the department's pursuit policy to include the apprehension of DWI drivers and vehicles that are causing an immediate threat to the safety of the public," union Vice President Kyle Hartsock said in an email to the Journal. "With pursuit policies that are too restrictive, it nurtures a criminal culture that running from the police will be met with little resistance."