There were 24 police-involved pursuits in Grand Forks in 2019, a number that's down slightly from 2018's sharp increase but still considerably higher than in years prior.
In 2018, there were 26 police chases, marking a steep rise from 2011, when there were seven. In 2017, there were 13.
Grand Forks Police Lt. Derik Zimmel said the department is aware of the increase, also noting that he and others in the department are unable to explain it.
“I think it’s a widespread problem, and I think a number of agencies across the country are dealing with this,” he said. “So when we look at it in the context of across the country, perhaps ours were artificially low for a period of time, and now they’re coming up to what can be more reasonably expected. In the grand scheme of things, we’re a city of approximately 55,000 people and even this year, we’re averaging less than two pursuits per month.”
He said in that in officer training, the department emphasizes the danger vehicle pursuits pose to public safety. According to a GFPD directive, officers should weigh a number of factors before engaging in a pursuit, including the nature and seriousness of the offense involved, road and weather conditions, the presence of pedestrians, density of traffic and likelihood of successful apprehension.
Zimmel noted that as the number of pursuits has risen, so has the number of pursuits that are terminated before a fleeing driver is apprehended.
“So it’s a balancing act,” he said. “We’re not sure necessarily why the person is trying to get away, and you can certainly adapt any number of worst-case scenarios associated with that, but we also recognize the risk it poses to motorists and pedestrians. When those risks get out of balance, we’re going to call off the pursuit.”
Drivers fleeing from police is dangerous and sometimes deadly. In 2018, Tony James Smith, 33, of Grand Forks crashed his vehicle into a tree near downtown. According to an incident report, Smith fled from officers at approximately 5 a.m. Aug. 2 that year after a patrol car tried to stop him for expired license plates. Speeds reached 90 mph, and Smith was driving between 59 and 69 mph when he crashed, according to estimates in the report. He died at the scene.
Smith’s death was the first time in a decade that someone died in Grand Forks after an attempted traffic stop. Two people were killed in 2010 after a suspect fled from UND Police and crashed his vehicle into another car.
As the newspaper did in early 2019, the Herald this month reviewed the previous year's police pursuits via a records request. Some of the 2019 cases remain active, so some cases are still based on allegations. Other reports did not include an officer narrative, limiting the amount of information that could be gleaned about some pursuits. Cases in which Grand Forks Police assisted another agency on a pursuit also had limited information.
Of the 24 reports, 19 involved named offenders, with one repeat offender. All of the drivers were male. Ten were white, five were Native American, and three were black.
Ten were aged 30-39. Four were younger than 29, with the youngest offender at 19. Four were older than 40, with the oldest 77.
Eight pursuits involved foot chases, five involved collisions, and four involved stolen vehicles. Six were considered high-speed. Five involved alcohol, five included narcotics and one involved marijuana.
Officers deployed Tasers in two instances, and deployed K9 units in another two instances.
Excluding cases where other agencies took over the pursuit from Grand Forks Police, the suspect escaped on four occasions.
Following is a closer look at each officer-involved vehicle pursuit in Grand Forks in 2019, according to GFPD reports. Some of these cases remain active, which means the driver may only be accused:
Dean Vondal-Rinde, 35, Grand Forks: 12:23 a.m., Tuesday, March 5. Officer Kyle Saner observed a snowmobile driving down DeMers with no lights on. When Saner attempted to stop the vehicle, it fled, driving recklessly and jumping over medians and snow piles. When the snowmobile became stuck on a snow pile, the driver fled on foot. The driver fell down in some deep snow, allowing Saner to apprehend him.
Michael John Sebjornson, 33, Grand Forks: 8:56 p.m., Monday, March 11. Following a report of a possibly stolen vehicle, officers observed a residence where the vehicle was suspected to be located. When the driver left the residence in the vehicle, Cpl. Christopher Brown joined the pursuit. As Brown began to set up a spike strip on the Columbia overpass, he heard over his radio that all pursuing units had become stuck. Looking out from the overpass, he observed the suspect driving into the UND parking lot. Brown pursued the vehicle to the end of the road, where the suspect vehicle became stuck in some snow. The driver and his passenger were taken into custody without incident.
Unknown driver: 3:10 a.m., Sunday, March 31. Officer Cody Holte assisted another agency with an offender fleeing in a motor vehicle near the Kennedy Bridge. The driver was suspected of using alcohol. No further information was available.
Steven Joseph Hausauer, 38, Grand Forks: 12:28 a.m., Monday, April 15. Officer James Wright observed a vehicle traveling 68 mph in a 40 mph zone. He activated his emergency lights. The suspect's vehicle accelerated and traveled to a Grand Forks residence, where he was given a field sobriety test and taken into custody.
Steven Michael Jensen, 56, Grand Forks: 11 p.m., Wednesday, April 17. Officer Luke Wentz observed a vehicle commit multiple traffic infractions, and activated his emergency lights. The vehicle accelerated and turned into an alley and into a residential neighborhood, driving recklessly. Eventually, the driver exited the vehicle and ran. Wentz pursued the suspect on foot, and eventually caught up to him.
Steven King Summers, 31, Belcourt: 10 p.m., Thursday, May 9. Officer James Wright was informed by Grand Forks Sheriff’s Office units that they were currently involved in a pursuit and the suspect was heading toward Grand Forks. Wright traveled to the area to set up a perimeter when he observed the suspect vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed into an alley. Wright returned to his vehicle and activated his emergency lights. As the fleeing vehicle kicked up dust, Wright reported his visibility was limited, and when he arrived at the end of the alley, he found the vehicle was abandoned. A witness reported seeing a man matching the suspect’s description run through her back yard.
Thomas Leonard Hibpshman, 38, homeless: 3:09 p.m., Monday, May 13. Officer Brandis Lafrombois was notified of a pursuit initiated by the East Grand Forks Police Department that was crossing over the Kennedy Bridge into Grand Forks. As Lafrombois traveled to the area of the suspect vehicle, she was notified that the Grand Forks Sheriff’s Office was terminating their chase due to the vehicle entering a school zone. She then spotted the vehicle and initiated pursuit, following the vehicle until speeds reached 80 mph in town, at which time Lafrombois terminated the pursuit.
Deandre Francis, 35, Grand Forks: 3:08 p.m., Tuesday, May 14. Sgt. Danny Pemberton arrested a driver for fleeing in a motor vehicle, outstanding criminal warrants, shoplifting and reckless driving. No further information was available.
Joshua Jacob Grandbois, 31, Grand Forks: 1:02 p.m., Friday, May 24. Sgt. Kristofer Brown attempted to conduct a traffic stop, causing the vehicle to flee. The suspect's vehicle turned off into a park, where his vehicle came to a rest after his tires were deflated on rocks in the park. The driver fled on foot and was apprehended in an alley without incident.
Bruce Alan Austreng, 31, Grand Forks: 7:30 a.m., Friday, May 31. Officer Heather Hopkins responded to a report of a missing vehicle, and Hopkins learned from dispatch that the suspect driver was driving recklessly and had possibly hit a tree. Hopkins observed the vehicle committing multiple traffic infractions and initiated pursuit. Due to public safety concerns with the high rate of speed and the fact that the driver was disobeying stop signs and stop lights, Hopkins ultimately terminated the chase. On July 5, the victim of the vehicle theft left a voicemail with the police department to report that the suspect had returned her car.
Charles Lee Collins, 32, Grand Forks: 12:32 a.m., Monday, June 3. Officer Luke Wentz attempted to initiate a traffic stop, and initiated pursuit when the vehicle failed to stop. After an approximately 20-second chase, the driver and passenger fled the vehicle without putting it in park, causing the vehicle to continue to roll down the street and collide with two trees.
Unknown: 4:55 p.m., Saturday, June 22. Officer Brandis Lafrombois observed a vehicle disobey a stop sign. She attempted a traffic stop and the vehicle fled into East Grand Forks. East Grand Forks Police later terminated the pursuit.
Unknown: 1:34 a.m., Wednesday, June 26. Cpl. Preston Engstrom attempted a traffic stop on a speeding vehicle, but the vehicle failed to stop and accelerated at a high rate of speed. Engstrom pursued the vehicle until he lost sight of it, at which point the pursuit was terminated.
Otis Lindsey Heard III, 48, Grand Forks: 9:45 p.m., Friday, Aug. 23. Sgt. Barb McLeod responded to a report of a fleeing vehicle. She heard over the radio that the vehicle crashed, then resumed flight. When McLeod arrived at the scene, the suspect vehicle was heavily damaged and unable to drive. The driver fled the vehicle, but was stopped when Officer Nick Foley deployed his taser. McLeod then took the driver into custody without incident, and he was transported to Altru via ambulance, where he was cleared by medical staff to go to jail.
Joe Lewis Melvin Jr., 21, Grand Forks: 12:21 p.m., Friday, Sept. 6. Officer Jorge Elizondo responded to a fleeing vehicle in progress that had been initiated by the East Grand Forks Police Department. Elizondo came across the suspect vehicle pulled to the side of the road with no occupants. The driver was located nearby, laying in a grassy area with thick vegetation. Upon seeing officers, the driver ran across I-29 in front of approaching vehicles. Elizondo returned to his vehicle to continue the pursuit. As he got near the driver, the driver got down on the ground and was taken into custody.
Drew Amos Walter Brooks, 22, Grand Forks: 11:44 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 14. Cpl. Preston Engstrom reported a driver for simple assault, driving under the influence, reckless endangerment, fleeing in a motor vehicle, leaving the scene of an accident, open container, driving without liability insurance, and hit and run accident. No further information was available.
Kyle Christopher Snobeck, 21, Mekinock: 11:31 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 1. Officer Kyle Saner reported the driver on suspicion of leaving the scene of an accident, weapon law violations, fleeing in a motor vehicle, disobedience of a judicial order, reckless endangerment and driving under the influence. No further information was available.
Daniel Mallen, 32, Grand Forks: 2:02 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 2. Officer Jesse Younggren reported a driver for reckless endangerment, destruction/damage/vandalism of property/criminal mischief, and driving under the influence. No further information was available.
Robert Lee Fawley Jr., 45, Grand Forks: 6:13 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 13. Cpl. Andrew Ebertowski attempted a traffic stop and initiated a pursuit when the vehicle failed to stop. A Grand Forks Police sergeant asked Ebertowski for the reason for the pursuit, and when Ebertowski informed him, he asked him to terminate the pursuit. Shortly afterward, the suspect's vehicle was located in the middle of the roadway with nobody inside. An employee of a nearby business informed officers the occupant had run down an alley.
Chet Louis Brunelle, 34, Grand Forks: 12:42 a.m., Oct. 26. Cpl. Jerad Braaten reported a driver for driving with a suspended license, fleeing in a motor vehicle, tampering with physical evidence, drug or narcotic violations, and drug equipment violations. No further information was available.
Robert Lee Rawley Jr., 45, Grand Forks: 2:14 a.m., Tuesday, Nov. 19. Cpl. Jerad Braaten reported a driver for fleeing in a motor vehicle, driving with a suspended license, reckless endangerment, fleeing on foot, leaving the scene of an accident, delivering a controlled substance, drug equipment violations and hit and run accident. No further information was available.
Eugene Marvin Grover, 77, Grand Forks: 12:36 p.m., Friday, Dec. 20. Officer Shawn Thompson reported a driver for driving with a suspended license, fleeing in a motor vehicle, and driving without liability insurance. No further information was available.
Unknown: 3:07 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 21. Officer Brandan Steffan assisted the Grand Forks Sheriff’s Office with a pursuit. No further information was available.