Four months after a high-speed pursuit ended with a suspect crashing into a taxi and killing two people in Somerville, State Police officials quietly overhauled the agency's chase policy, placing greater emphasis on assessing the potential risk to the public.
Spokesmen for the State Police and the Executive Office of Public Safety said the change to the 2001 policy, which went into effect Sept. 7, was set in motion well before the crash in Somerville on May 27.
Still, had the new guidelines been in place at the time, the ultimately fatal pursuit probably would have been called off earlier.
Under the pursuit guidelines, which grew from four to six pages, troopers are instructed: "A motor vehicle pursuit is justified when the necessity of the apprehension of a suspect outweighs the risk created by the pursuit."
On Friday, Trooper Kevin Collins was involved in a high-speed chase in which the driver of a Ford Taurus being pursued died after hitting a tree in front of a house on Oak Street in Foxborough. The street cuts through a quiet neighborhood and many residents were inside their homes at the time of the chase, which started on Interstate 95 in Sharon, roughly 7 miles from the scene of the accident.
The driver has been identified as Jorge Soriano, 28, of Boston.
"Trooper Collins followed proper procedure in the pursuit, he did what he was required to do," said Lieutenant Eric Anderson, a State Police spokesman.
Key changes to the policy include the following instructions:
Troopers must check in frequently with supervisors at all points during a chase.
A chase involving a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony must be terminated when the suspect enters a densely populated area or heavily congested roadway.
The pursuing officer must provide assistance to any civilian vehicle involved in a crash, with assistance to injured people taking precedence over continuing the pursuit.
The policy also establishes an internal committee charged with reviewing every pursuit for compliance with the new guidelines.
"As a public safety agency, you weigh public safety against pursuing a suspect," said Terrel Harris, spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety. "Public safety should win out every time."
In the May 27 crash, Paul V. Farris, a 23-year-old Tufts University graduate who was the lead singer of a rock band, and Walid Chahine, a 45-year-old cabdriver, died after Chahine's cab was struck by a driver fleeing State Police.
Farris was a passenger in the cab, along with his girlfriend, Katelyn Hoyt, who was seriously injured.
Javier Morales, 29, of Somerville, fled a trooper trying to stop him about 1:20 a.m. on Route 16 in Everett. The trooper was pulling Morales over for cutting across several lanes of traffic in his Mercury Mountaineer, but Morales later told authorities he fled because he feared being arrested over a suspended license.
The driver led Trooper Joseph Kalil on a high-speed chase through Everett, Medford, and Somerville, prosecutors have said.
Chahine was finishing his shift about 1:30 a.m. when Morales struck the taxi at the intersection of Kidder Avenue and Highland Road. Farris was thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene. Chahine died several days later in a hospital.
Morales has been charged with two counts each of manslaughter and motor vehicle homicide. Prosecutors charged that Morales exhibited "extreme recklessness."
After the crash, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville urged State Police to reevaluate their pursuit policies, saying that his city's police would never have continued the pursuit through residential streets.
Shown a copy of the updated policy, Curtatone said he was satisfied that it would result in fewer dangerous pursuits.
"We felt this could have been avoided, and the amended policy addresses the areas of concern, which have been the focal point of our attention since the tragedy here in Somerville," Curtatone said in a telephone interview. "While the ultimate responsibility rests with Morales, I applaud the State Police for stepping back and taking a look at this policy to avoid any future tragedy of this kind happening again."
He said the previous policy was vague in describing the circumstances under which a pursuit should be called off.
For example, the old policy states that in any of six stated situations "the most intelligent course of action may be to not pursue or to abandon pursuit."
The updated policy is more explicit, stating, "Officers will immediately terminate pursuit" under any of several situations, including when a suspect wanted for a minor violation enters a densely populated area.
While statistics were not immediately available, Harris said State Police lieutenants have noticed that "pursuit calls are down dramatically," since the implementation of the new guidelines.
Asked whether that means more suspects are eluding capture, Harris said, "Perhaps temporarily."
"What it really means is . . . supervisors would rather a trooper err on the side of caution and not pursue somebody if it creates a real dangerous situation," Harris said.
But the policy change has not ended all pursuits.
In the fatal pursuit crash that occurred Friday, Collins constantly radioed in his position and when the suspect turned onto Oak Street, Collins slowed down to create a wider distance between his cruiser and the Taurus. As soon as Collins entered Foxborough, town police were notified.
The suspect tossed a handgun from his car during the chase and authorities found illegal drugs and cash inside the car, Anderson said.
Just a day before, early Thursday morning, a car being chased by State Police along Interstate 495 in Boxford burst into flames, ran off the road and hit a tree, seriously injuring the driver and leaving the passenger with minor injuries. State Police said the crash was being investigated.
Sergeant Mike Rafferty, a State Police spokesman, said a trooper attempted to pull the car over for speeding shortly after midnight in Westford, but the car did not stop, and a trooper began a pursuit.
The car, driven by 22-year-old Shawn Nash of Lowell, caught fire possibly because of a blown tire or overheated engine, Rafferty said.
John C. Drake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.