BRIGHTON, Colo. (KDVR) – Tim Morgan set up an email alert system for his inbox so he could keep track of news about deadly police pursuits around the country. That’s how he discovered two innocent people were killed in Brighton, Colorado, after a suspect, who was running from a rookie police officer in 2021, slammed into them.
“I get multiple emails a day with multiple stories in each email,” he said, “and I have over 5,000 that I haven’t read yet.”
Morgan, who is based in South Carolina, said he saw investigative reports about the incident and wondered if a safety product he spent years developing might help.
“There are so many pursuits around the country that end badly,” he said. “I’m trying to make a difference.”
Digital Siren technology
Morgan is the CEO and co-founder of Digital Siren. The technology sends warnings to drivers and pedestrians when they are located within two miles of an active police chase.
Patrol officers do this by pressing a button on a device that is installed in their vehicles. Right now, only people who downloaded the free corresponding app get the notification. Morgan said he hopes the system will evolve so the public will not need an app to receive the warning.
“We have Amber Alerts — that’s digital alerting. We have weather alerts — that’s digital alerting. It’s been very successful, but more people are killed in pursuits than all the weather events combined. It only makes sense to have an alerting system for the public for these dangerous events,” he told KDVR.
Another deadly incident
Morgan said he was inspired to create the Digital Siren system after a deadly crash in South Carolina in 2008. Morgan was the chief deputy at his department when a chase led to a crash that killed an innocent man, whose family he knew.
“The parents lost a son. The two little kids lost a dad. A wife lost a husband, and it wasn’t just a one-time event. This is a lifetime sentence for those folks,” he said. “I felt some sense of responsibility.”
Morgan said he went to work on trying to think of “a better way.”
How many are killed every year?
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which collects federal data in the Federal Analysis Reporting System (FARS), 9,311 people died in traffic crashes related to police pursuits between 1996 and 2020.
Between 2015 and 2020, an average of 432 people died every year in related crashes.
In Colorado, the system tracked 34 deaths related to police pursuits between 2018 and 2020.
Alabama is using the service
Morgan said at last check, he was told the app had been downloaded 55,000 times. He said 28 law enforcement agencies in three states — with more in the pipeline — have already invested in the product.
“For us, it’s kind of a no-brainer that we can alert the public of a high-speed pursuit,” said Charlie McNichol, the director of the emergency communications department in Mobile County, Alabama.
McNichol said his department funded 600 units — at a cost of $65,000 — for five area law enforcement agencies last year.
Regional departments nearby felt compelled to install the device after a deadly crash in Thomasville, Alabama, killed three innocent people in the same family.
“There’s a great cost attached to it, but not compared to lives,” McNichol said. “If we save one life or two or three lives, certainly it’s worth every dollar.”
Chief Paul Prine, the Mobile police chief, said it is difficult to measure how successful the product has been because it is used for prevention, but he told KDVR there have been no incidents in which an innocent motorist has been injured or killed since they implemented the system.
His department, meanwhile, regularly evaluates its own pursuit policies and procedures while implementing training.
Criminal justice professor is skeptical
Dr. Dennis Kenney, a criminal justice professor at City University of New York, worries the technology might intrigue drivers rather than cause drivers to avoid the chase. He mentioned the excitement of police chases in Los Angeles.
“The LAPD has found with their news media, [which] aggressively covers pursuits, that instead of warning people away, it has become exciting daytime TV,” he said. “And so, I can well imagine that they’d have a greater problem with … the app going off, indicating there’s a pursuit, and it would draw me to it as opposed to cause me to avoid it.”
However, Morgan said people are never alerted to the exact location of a pursuit.
“We do not give the location of the pursuit for that specific reason,” he said. “People are just alerted there is a pursuit nearby, but they do not know where.”
Kenney also said he thought the siren that already exists on a typical patrol car should be sufficient in these scenarios.
“The siren is supposed to warn them that there are things coming that they need to get out of the way of, and there’s a general agreement on the siren, that you pull over. There’s not a general agreement on what you do with the app,” he said.
“The last thing we need is distracted drivers that are paying attention to an app on their phone if they’re within proximity of a pursuit,” he said.
Morgan insisted the technology does not require anyone to be distracted by the app.
“The public does not have to look at their phone, the alert is a distinct tone to get their attention followed by a voice message,” he said. “We believe the result is people less distracted with a much higher situational awareness, paying attention to their surroundings and looking for a fleeing vehicle.”
Brighton Police reaction
While the Brighton Police Department is aware of the technology Morgan is offering, the deputy police chief, Matt Domenico, told members of the city council he had some reservations about it.
“There’s some new stuff out there about pursuit warning systems — which is really an intriguing idea — that can broadcast to cell phones,” he said at a recent city council study session. “The problem with that is, you have to opt into it, and so, how many people do you get to opt into these things right now?”
The city council is working on developing a special public safety committee to enhance accountability after learning about the pursuits uncovered by KDVR.
Morgan said the equipment can also offer other types of alerts to drivers, like warnings of wrong-way drivers or drunk drivers.
His intent is to offer equipment and system operation “at cost” to the first agencies in a state to adopt the technology, within a reasonable amount of time. The cost for the hardware, he said, is currently $150. and system operation is currently $6.25/month/unit. The total does not cover internal operational costs. Normal retail for the hardware, he said, is $199, and the retail operating cost is $12.50/unit/month.