State line does not get in way

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 1, 2003

When blue lights are flashing in the rear-view mirror and sirens are blaring, crossing a state line is not a one-way ticket to freedom.

Unlike what is presented in old television shows such as "The Dukes of Hazzard" or movies such as "Smokey and the Bandit," state lines do not prevent Tri-State area law enforcement officials from doing their jobs. When it comes to cooperation between the three states' law enforcement agencies, most law enforcement officials consider the boundaries between the three states imaginary.

Sharing a common goal

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"Just as criminals don't adhere to state lines, law enforcement has the ability to effectively investigate and prosecute," said Lt. Carl Roark, commander of the Ohio State Highway Patrol's Ironton Post.

For more than 20 years, the Tri-State Law Enforcement Council, which consists of every nearby state, county and city or municipality police department in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, has enabled law enforcement officials to share intelligence and coordinate various efforts to ensure the safety of Tri-State area citizens. Roark is the council chairman.

"In the spirit of cooperation, state lines are not a barrier," Chief Tom Kelley of the Ashland Police Department said. "They're just little dotted lines."

Signs welcoming visitors into another state can be somewhat misleading. The high water marker of the Ohio River is where Ohio ends and Kentucky or West Virginia begins, Roark said. Incidents taking place over water are under Kentucky or West Virginia's jurisdiction, depending on the bridge. Signs are located at areas of convenience.

Officers must think first

When pursuing a suspect who eventually crosses the bridge into another state, coordination between law enforcement officials is highly important as well as a police officer's decision of whether or not to follow someone into another state in the first place.

The policy at the Ironton Police Department is not to chase a suspect into another state unless the suspect is charged with a felony, Chief Bill Garland said. However, when an officer believes he or she is following a drunken driver, the officer will usually request permission to follow the driver into another state because

it could place others in danger. An Ironton officer will follow the driver until an officer from the other jurisdiction such as Russell, Ky. picks up the pursuit. The Ironton officer will usually stay with the officer from the other state until the driver is arrested by the other state's officer.

Because an officer from another state has as much authority as a private citizen in Kentucky, liability during an out-of-state pursuit is high, especially if an officer were to be involved in an automobile accident, Garland said.

The necessity of the apprehension is what determines whether or not an Ohio state trooper will chase someone across the bridge, Roark said. Because an Ohio officer is not as protected in the other state as he or she is in Ohio, decisions must be made carefully because an officer will have to justify decisions made if an accident occurs. Also, officers pursuing a suspect in another state is not as familiar with the territory there, and they may not know where to send help.

In the case of suspects crossing county lines, an Ohio police officer can arrest a felony suspect anywhere in the state, Ironton police detective Capt. Chris Bowman said. If the county is an adjacent one, such as Jackson, Gallia or Scioto, the officer can bring the suspect back to Lawrence County. If the suspect were to cross into another county such as Ross, the suspect must be brought before that county's court of record first.

Some more than others

Garland, Roark, and Kelley have said multi-state police pursuits in their jurisdictions are fairly rare. However, Chief Russell Bennett of the Chesapeake Police Department, whose jurisdiction includes the Sixth Street bridge into Huntington, W.Va., and State Route 527, a connector to the four-lane portion of State Route 7 that eventually becomes U.S. 52, said multi-state pursuits occur fairly often.

"This is the first place (suspects from Huntington) run, over to Chesapeake," he said.

Chesapeake works well with the Huntington Police Department and the Cabell County Sheriff's Department, Bennett said. Even though Chesapeake is a dry village, the department still arrests its fair share of drunken drivers because many of Huntington's bars are located near the bridge. West Virginia authorities are also responsive, he said.

"When we pursue someone into West Virginia, they respond right then and there," Bennett said.

"Running across state borders is not an effective means of escape," Sgt. Hank Dial of the Huntington Police Department said.

Dial's department handles incidents that occur on the 31st Street, Sixth Street and 17th Street West bridges into Ohio. However, Ohio officers will handle traffic on their side of the river during the process, Dial said.

Lending a helping hand

On Dec. 18, 2002, nearly a dozen law enforcement, fire and rescue agencies from Ohio and Kentucky descended on the Ironton Boat Ramp after Larry E. Barker of South Webster drove his car off the ramp and into the Ohio River. Russell Police Department handled the investigation.

The investigation was technically IPD's, Garland said, because the car was still near the low water mark and Barker drove into the river from the Ohio side. However, Ironton's divers were 45 minutes away at the time, while Russell's were available in 15 minutes, and the car was in danger of sinking further. Ironton authorities helped Russell with the investigation, and IPD was appreciative of Russell for taking it over, Garland said.

Working together

The rapport built between the agencies has been a huge help in several recent cases. Perhaps the most visible is the disappearance of Marshall University student Samantha Burns and the apprehension of Branden Basham, a Kentucky jail escapee suspected of abducting her, in Ashland.

The list of crimes that cross state lines is practically endless. When a theft occurs in Ironton, the stolen property is commonly pawned in Kentucky and West Virginia, Bowman said. Theft is a hard charge to prove, but someone can be charged with receiving stolen property in another state.

Drug trafficking is another crime that transcends state lines, Roark said.

The council has also helped when agencies do not have enough manpower for major events. When Fred Phelps and his followers from the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., arrived in areas of both Kentucky and West Virginia last fall, various agencies in both states worked together to provide intelligence and surveillance, Kelley said. The area of the group's protest would be the lead agency, and when the group moved into another area, that agency would be the lead.

The number of police officers present kept the likelihood of incidents happening down, Kelley said. Members of the community were thankful for the agencies' professionalism as well as Phelps' church, who sent a thank-you letter.

"I don't know how to take it, but while they were delivering their bizarre message, we kept them from getting hurt," Kelley said.

Bowman says most cases in the Tri-State involve agencies from all three states.

"Very few cases don't involve another jurisdiction," Bowman said. "We're thankful and lucky to have a close working relationship. It's amazing what you can do with cooperation."