CUYAHOGA HEIGHTS, Ohio — After a Cleveland man led police on a harrowing, high-speed chase with three kids in the backseat on Wednesday morning, an Ohio state trooper provided comfort in a time of chaos.
Beginning just after midnight on Wednesday, police said 31-year-old James Avery of Cleveland led Macedonia police on a winding and dangerous chase through northern Summit county before crossing into Cuyahoga County. During the pursuit, police said Avery struck two patrol cars while trying to elude authorities, further risking the safety of his passenger and three young children in the backseat.
About an hour after the chase began, officers from Cuyahoga Heights and Newburgh Heights surrounded the vehicle after Avery crashed into a tree lawn and took him into custody. OSHP Trooper Rick Suda, who had answered the call for officer assistance put out on the radio, arrived on scene and was immediately struck by what he heard.
"At one point I heard some kids crying in the back [of the car]," Trooper Suda said. "I decided the best thing I could do was get the kids out of there."
Trooper Suda said he focused his attention on the children in the back of the SUV because other officers on scene already had control of Avery, who also had warrants out for his arrest. According to video obtained by News 5 from the trooper's dash camera, a calm and collected Trooper Suda approached the back of the SUV and immediately tried to build a rapport with the sobbing children.
"They were crying because they [were involved in a high-speed chase], flying around the city. I'm sure they were terrified. It's important to try to let them know I'm friendly, I'm there to help," Trooper Suda said. "The way that I act with them now is going to stick with them the rest of their lives. If I seem friendly, hopefully for the rest of their lives, they view police as being friendly, a source that can help them when they need to."
In a soothing and reassuring tone of voice, Trooper Suda and two other officers managed to get the children out of the SUV and into his patrol car nearby. At first, the children, who were all under the age of 7, were inconsolable.
"Did you guys get hurt at all?" Trooper Suda asked as the children wailed. "Your stomach hurts?"
Not long after being seated in the back of the patrol car, the children began to calm down as Trooper Suda spoke to them, resembling more like a friend or family member to the children than a law enforcement officer.
"You guys are extra tough. Are you guys okay back here?" Trooper Suda said in the dashcam video. "I just don't want you standing out in the cold, alright? I'm going to pump the heat up okay so you guys can get warm."
Trooper Suda, who joined the state highway patrol five years ago, said the display of compassion has roots in the training and philosophy instilled in him on day one at OSHP.
"If I came up and started yelling at them to get out of the car, it'd scare them and they'd forever be scared of police. That's not what we're trying to do. We need to get them to safety as quickly as possible but we also need to let them know we're there to help them. That's really important," Trooper Suda said. "I would hate for them to be scared of police for the rest of their life because they were put through this traumatic incident which they had no control over. Thankfully, it ended pretty well for them."
Fellow OSHP trooper, Sgt. Ray Santiago, said Suda's actions are emblematic of the desire that troopers have to further lessen the divide between law enforcement and citizens.
"I think from everything that we've seen in recent times, one of the biggest requests that we hear is just to be "people," Sgt. Santiago said. "Providing service with respect is one of the founding principles of the patrol. When we conduct our business and our duties with that same level of compassion and level of professionalism as we always have, that's something the public expects from us and we expect from ourselves."
Authorities said the three children were not injured in the chase or crash and were released to the family member who was also a passenger in the car. Avery faces preliminary charges of felonious assault and failure to comply.