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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Penn. -- The decision by state police to pursue an 11-year-old boy at speeds up to 85 miles per hour Sunday was a bad one, experts say.
State troopers from Washington County heard an announcement over their radios that evening that the boy had taken his foster mother's Toyota Camry station wagon in North Strabane and very well might be headed to his parents' home in Cokeburg.
He was just a few miles from there when Trooper Brian Bell spotted the car on State Route 917 in Bentleyville at 9:15 p.m. He tried to stop the car, but the boy fled, and Trooper Bell began the chase.
The boy got onto Interstate 70 and traveled eight to 10 miles, hitting speeds of 80 to 85 mph. When he exited onto State Route 519, he struck another trooper's vehicle.
Then Trooper Bell rammed the boy's car, spinning it into a utility pole. The juvenile tried to run, but was quickly caught.
He's been charged with a slew of counts, including aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.
"It's a recipe for disaster," said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police pursuit policies.
When told the details of the chase, he said, "That's just absolutely ridiculous.
"Eleven years old -- I don't know how he sees over the steering wheel," Mr. Alpert said. "Should he be chased? I don't think so."
Because police knew the identity of the boy -- and where he was headed -- they could just as easily have arrested him later.
"You can just go home and pick him up in a few hours," Mr. Alpert said. "An 11-year-old, you could probably assume he's going to go home at some point."
That factor -- "whether the operator can be identified for later prosecution" -- is one that is used by state police to determine if a chase should be continued, said state police spokesman Jack J. Lewis.
Other considerations, he said, include the amount of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and weather and roadway conditions.
State police policy gives troopers discretion to initiate a pursuit of a fleeing motorist, Mr. Lewis said. They must, however, immediately notify their station and a supervisor.
He could not comment on the specifics of the Sunday night incident.
Trooper Joseph Christy, a spokesman for the Washington barracks, did not return a phone call seeking comment. It is not known if there is any internal review of the chase being conducted.
Mr. Alpert, who has been researching police pursuits since the 1980s, said the troopers should have recognized that an 11-year-old would not make good decisions under such stressful circumstances.
"He was the one who was wrong in this," he said. "But police officers should be trained to realize these people don't have any rules.
"It's going to end up as a disaster in most cases."
Whether Trooper Bell should have rammed the boy's car, Mr. Alpert said, depends on whether the suspect hit the other trooper's car purposefully.
"If it was an intentional ram, then the stakes are raised, and it's no holds barred," he said.
The maneuver used by Trooper Bell is something that should only be done at speeds of 40 mph or less, Mr. Alpert said. It is not known how fast the pursuit was moving at the time.
Most progressive police departments do not ram, he added.
Police pursuits should be reserved for violent criminals, Mr. Alpert said, and not be used for traffic stops or minor violations.
Professor Dennis Kenney, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, agreed.
"The whole idea behind pursuit is to catch a dangerous person," he said.
If the state police policy permitted such a chase, Mr. Kenney called it "bad policy."
"In this case, the crime committed by the kid would not support the added risk to the public.
"Obviously, the better decision would have been to just follow him to [his parents' home]," Mr. Kenney said.
But discontinuing a chase is hard for an officer, Mr. Alpert said.
"On the face of it, you're letting the bad guy go, and that's contrary to the entire reason why people become police officers."