Decision on police chases boils down to danger to public
FARGO – With a helicopter tracking his moves, Kendall Feist jumped out of a pickup truck, ducked into J.C. Penney and made his way into West Acres as the mall buzzed with evening shoppers.
Wanted on felony charges of selling methamphetamine and possessing stolen property, 33-year-old Feist was intent on eluding police. He had already driven across a Moorhead golf course and sent players running for cover as squad cars trailed behind.
Now, with Feist in West Acres, three agents from the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation had to make a quick judgment call. What was more dangerous to the public: a police chase through the mall or a wanted man inside on the loose? The answer, in the case of any pursuit, depends on whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the public, officers or himself, according to law enforcement experts.
“You’ve got to make a split-second decision, and you’ve got to take in the totality of everything,” said David Hinners, deputy director of the U.S. Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.
Ultimately, the BCI agents, wearing plainclothes and carrying guns at the ready, ended up hustling through the mall in search of Feist. Their actions, which caused alarm inside West Acres, irked mall managers and Fargo police officials, prompting Chief Keith Ternes to publicly question the need for the June 17 chase.
“It does not appear to me as though Mr. Feist presented an imminent threat to anybody within the shopping mall,” Ternes said.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who oversees the BCI, said Feist, a convicted felon with a lengthy criminal history, was not a certain threat to the public, but a potential one – and that was enough of a reason for the agents to keep pursuing him.
“Nobody knew if he was armed or not or what kind of a danger he posed, if any,” Stenehjem said. The BCI agents “needed to act with great haste out of concern that he could have been armed and posed an immediate danger to people in the mall.”
Within minutes of Feist entering West Acres, the agents found him hiding in a trash bin just outside the mall. He did not have a gun, Stenehjem said.
Jack Rinchich, president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, said it’s often difficult for officers to disengage from a pursuit once it starts.
“There’s something about the chase – the adrenaline running high. You don’t want the bad guys to get away,” he said. “So psychologically, it’s tough to back down.”
But backing down is what Ternes wishes would have happened at West Acres. The chief has suggested that rather than continuing the chase into the mall, the BCI agents should have secured the perimeter of the building and waited for uniformed officers to go after Feist.
However, Hinners, with the U.S. Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, says there are flaws in Ternes’ plan.
“To set up a perimeter around a mall is going to take dozens and dozens of officers” to monitor numerous exits, Hinners said. And as the perimeter is established, officers need to consider what the suspect could be doing while the clock ticks.
“You’ve got hundreds of possible hostages” in the mall, Hinners said. “You’ve got somebody that sells drugs. Guns always go with drugs. You know, you have no idea if this guy’s armed or not.”
A large percentage of drug dealers often tote guns for protection from other dealers, customers and anyone who would want to rob them, said Harvey Hedden, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association.
“That’s why law enforcement, when they make arrests of felony drug offenders, they very often, you know, have weapons ready,” Hedden said, but added that a gun isn’t always needed. “In many cases, you can find other ways to arrest people and make it safer.”
At West Acres, at least one of the BCI agents was carrying a long gun, and at some point, all three had guns drawn, Fargo police said. Surveillance video showed an agent wearing a vest that said “police” and another agent displaying a badge on a chain. Nonetheless, it was difficult to identify the agents as law enforcement officers, Ternes said.
Hedden said officers in pursuit ought to be as identifiable as possible to avoid friendly fire from other officers or armed civilians confused about what’s happening. He said plainclothes officers are trained to carry their guns inconspicuously to avoid panic among the public.
The BCI requires its agents to do the same. “Weapons should be carried discreetly and concealed from public view. An agent should whenever possible, display proper identification if carrying a weapon that is in view to the general public,” according to the bureau’s firearms policy.
The BCI has said that after a routine debriefing, officials found that no bureau policies were violated during the pursuit of Feist, which began in Moorhead before moving into Fargo. Stenehjem said that because of the attention the chase has attracted, he’s asked BCI officials for a written report on the incident that will be made public.
Meanwhile, the Moorhead Police Department is conducting an internal investigation into how the chase was handled, including the matter of three city squad cars following Feist onto the Village Green Golf Course. A bystander’s video of the pursuit down a fairway received national TV news coverage and more than 145,000 clicks on YouTube.
The BCI has maintained that their agents did not take part in the vehicle pursuit that preceded the foot chase at the mall. A red SUV driven by a BCI agent was monitoring the chase on a road next to the golf course in Moorhead, Stenehjem said.
“A citizen, who lived right on the golf course, alerted our agent and kind of directed him through the yard, which abutted up against the fairway of the golf course. And he turned on his siren at that time more to just alert anybody who was out golfing or pedestrians,” Stenehjem said.
Moorhead police eventually stopped pursuing Feist while on the golf course, but resumed the chase near Eighth Street and 24th Avenue South. It was stopped again for the sake of workers in a construction zone along 25th Street South in Fargo. When Feist came into North Dakota, Fargo police declined to join the chase because it didn’t meet the department’s requirements for a pursuit. The helicopter, operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, later spotted Feist in the West Acres lot.
Initially, the chase began after BCI agents were at a home on Moorhead’s south side to arrest Feist as part of what the BCI has called a lengthy multijurisdictional criminal investigation. He left the home in the pickup, and Moorhead police tried to pull him over, but he sped away, according to court documents.
Feist, of Bismarck, had been wanted on charges filed in Walsh County, N.D., that alleged he delivered nearly 5 ounces of meth and some stolen property to a Grafton man in late May. In connection with the chase, Feist faces a misdemeanor count of reckless driving and felony charges of fleeing a peace officer and damage to property. He was being held at the Walsh County Jail.
Kiara Kraus-Parr, who’s running against Stenehjem in the upcoming election, has criticized the BCI’s actions during the chase and put the blame on the attorney general.
Kraus-Parr, a Grand Forks defense attorney, agrees with Ternes’ assessment that Feist was not an immediate danger to the community and that BCI agents did not need to enter the mall. “They clearly knew where this guy was,” she said. “They could have had him picked up later.”
She said BCI agents need more oversight, especially during quickly developing situations like pursuits. “BCI just does what they want, essentially, and I don’t think that’s a good way to run an agency,” she said.
Kraus-Parr said she doesn’t understand how it’s possible no BCI policies were violated during the chase.
“It may just be that they’re just not holding guys accountable to the policy that’s in place,” she said. “Or it could be that they just don’t have a good policy that’s comprehensive.”
Stenehjem stood by the BCI’s pursuit policy. “I think it’s a very thorough and good policy,” he said. “It was followed.”
He said the notion that BCI agents lack supervision is “nonsense,” and he defended the bureau as the state’s “premier investigative agency,” which is called on to help with major criminal cases and drug enforcement.
“I am proud of the work that the Bureau of Criminal Investigation does under my direction,” he said.