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Sheriff violated official pursuit policy

Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson’s signature is right at the top of his office’s vehicle pursuit policy. And he appeared to violate the policy in a high-speed chase on May 9.

Nelson’s actions warrant an investigation and a more complete explanation to the public.

Nelson was chasing a suspect, Zenler Allen Clairmont, 19. Clairmont was allegedly impaired and suicidal, according to a call from a relative. “I felt there was a significant public safety risk to the citizens we serve,” Nelson explained to KTVZ.

But the sheriff’s office does have its pursuit policies for a reason. Except when a deputy must use deadly force, “there is no other action on the part of a deputy which creates such a substantial risk of injury to the public, the deputy, or the violator, than that of a vehicular pursuit,” the policy says. Nelson’s choice of pursuit tactic arguably endangered the public and law enforcement.

After the call came in, Nelson spotted Clairmont’s Jeep driving on U.S. Highway 97 in midafternoon. He gave chase toward Bend in his unmarked Dodge Charger, which does have unmistakable police lights. State Trooper Caleb Ratliff joined in. A dashcam video from Ratliff’s vehicle was released Friday. Clairmont turned right on Cooley Road and the chase wound back around to Tumalo and onto U.S. Highway 20. He managed to avoid spike strips laid out in the road.

Then Nelson made a questionable decision. The policy advises deputies to “keep a safe distance from the suspect and merely attempt to keep the suspect vehicle in sight until the suspect voluntarily stops or the decision to use other means to stop the vehicle has been made.” Another alternative is to try what is called a PIT maneuver — police nudge the back side panel of a suspect vehicle in an attempt to spin it out.

Nelson did something different. He passed Clairmont’s Jeep on Highway 20 where the road is multiple lanes climbing out of Tumalo toward Bend. Nelson then braked in front of Clairmont, blocking both lanes toward Bend. Clairmont swerved to the left into the lane of oncoming traffic to get around Nelson and nearly hit a sheriff’s deputy’s vehicle head on. “This is not good. Stop,” shouted Trooper Ratliff, who was still following.

Nelson’s passing action appears to directly violate the pursuit policy. “When in pursuit of a fleeing suspect, deputies should not attempt to overtake or pass the suspect. This action places the deputy in a highly vulnerable position,” the policy says. Even if Nelson believed Clairmont was a danger, it was not the best option.

Another curious matter is that Nelson’s name was left out of the original news release describing the incident. He was also described as a deputy. While some initial news releases from law enforcement do not include names, it was false to describe Nelson as a deputy.

Clairmont was eventually captured and arrested after he ran into a Bend police vehicle, injuring an officer and a police dog. And no one else was apparently injured in the chase.

Who is going to investigate the pursuit to ensure the policy was followed? What if anything has been learned about pursuits from this incident? Normally an investigation would be conducted by the chain of command in the sheriff’s office, but that hardly seems appropriate in this case. The sheriff’s office has declined to speak to The Bulletin about the incident. The public deserves more answers.