Just as the sun was rising on April 10 near Fort Smith, Arkansas, 34-year-old Justin Battenfield ran a red light in the black Dodge Ram pickup he had purchased a few days before.
For reasons that will never be known, Battenfield, who lived on Social Security payments from a mental disability, refused to stop when a U.S. Forest Service officer tried to pull him over.
It was a decision that cost him his life.
A high-speed chase ensued, and Battenfield began weaving in and out of traffic as an Arkansas State Police trooper picked up the pursuit, the trooper’s dash cam video shows.
Ordered to get the truck stopped, the trooper deliberately bumped the truck at a speed of 109 miles per hour, using what is known as a Precision Immobilization Technique, or PIT.
What happened next was predictable, experts say. The truck flipped and rolled, and Battenfield was killed in the crash.
He was one of at least 30 people who died since 2016 when police performed the PIT maneuver to stop a fleeing vehicle, according to a year-long Washington Post investigation featured Sunday.
Combing through news reports and public records, the Post also found hundreds of people who had been injured when police used the PIT. But the actual number of deaths and injuries is unknown, because there is no federal requirement that police departments keep track.
Eighteen of the deaths came after drivers were suspected of minor traffic violations, such as speeding, the Post found. Ten killed were passengers and four were bystanders.
Nearly half of those who died were minorities: nine Black, four Hispanic and one Native American.
When the technique is used successfully, an officer in pursuit uses the cruiser to push the fleeing car’s rear end sideways, sending it into a spin and ending the pursuit, according to the Post.
Experts consulted by the Post say the PIT maneuver can be relatively safe and predictable at speeds under 35 miles per hour, but grows increasingly dangerous at higher speeds. Experts say it’s also more dangerous when used against vehicles with higher centers of gravity such as SUVs, trucks and minivans, because they are more prone to flipping.
“If used properly, a PIT is a good, safe maneuver,” Geoff Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, said. “And if used improperly, at high speeds, in the wrong area, against the wrong vehicle, it’s deadly.”
An Arkansas State Police spokesman defended his agency’s actions to local media after the crash.
“PIT has been used by the Arkansas State Police for no less than the past 18-20 years and continues to be used by state troopers, particularly if innocent lives are being threatened, as was the case involving the Fort Smith incident,” spokesman Bill Sadler was quoted as saying at the time.
Linda Hamm, a close family friend who helped raise Justin Battenfield, wondered why the police weren’t able to stop him using less violent means — or why they didn’t just break off the pursuit and arrest him later.
A temporary license plate on the new truck was in Battenfield’s name, she said.
“I don’t believe it should have happened,” she said. “They had plenty of opportunity to stop him before he got back in town. … I’m very hurt over it. I just don’t understand why they do that rate of speed.”
The PIT maneuver was developed for police decades ago in Fairfax County, Virginia, police there say. Officers gave a demonstration on their track in Chantilly, near Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.
Lt. Jay Jackson, who supervises the training, said Fairfax County police perform the PIT about 13 times a year, and no one has been seriously hurt.
“It all comes down to training,” he said. “Here in Fairfax County we do extensive training on the PIT maneuver. They have to do eight successful PITs to even become certified.”
The county also has policies that prohibit high speed chases of minor offenders, which means the PIT likely would not be used on someone who ran a red light, Jackson said.
Some departments, including New York State police, have banned the PIT, while others, such as LAPD, forbid it at speeds over 35 miles an hour.
But at least 30 large police agencies allow the technique at any speed, The Washington Post found.
That was the policy of the North Carolina State Police in 2017, when a group of teenagers drove away from a state trooper trying to pull over their minivan.
The trooper bumped the vehicle at at one hundred miles an hour. It flipped and rolled and all four teens were thrown out
Two girls, ages 15 and 16, were killed.
Jonathan Thomas suffered a broken neck. The last thing he remembers before the crash is holding his girlfriend, Maria Lopez, who died.
“There’s no justification in taking two lives and almost three,” he said.
The trooper was not charged, police said. North Carolina instituted a new policy prohibiting the PIT over 55 miles per hour.