Bolton: High-speed chases have deadly consequences

Associate EditorDecember 23, 2012 

— CHAMBERLAIN Branch shouldn’t have died in the manner that he did. No one should.

But it happens far too often: An innocent bystander — whether a motorist or a pedestrian — is heading to work, home or some other routine destination, when he’s blindsided by a 3,000-pound missile hurtling recklessly toward him.

That’s the way it is with high-speed police chases.

While we’re still awaiting details from an investigation, Chamberlain’s Dec. 14 death appears to be one of those tragedies precipitated by a questionable high-speed chase. He was killed when the car driven by a suspect fleeing police ran a red light and crashed into the minivan he was driving.

For sure, this is personal to me: He was a friend. This devoted husband and father served this state as supervisor of the Governor’s Mansion for the past 10 years; he had so much to live for. But this isn’t just about Chamberlain; it’s about community safety and the well being of any innocent bystander.

We should all be disturbed when innocent people perish in part because law enforcement might have instigated an unwise chase. Over the years, I’ve written columns and editorials condemning unnecessary and unjustifiable high-speed chases and urging law enforcement agencies and the Legislature to devise a uniform chase policy that has strict guidelines of when to engage in hot pursuit.

I’m not blaming anyone in particular for what happened Dec. 14. But we can’t ignore the fact that a high-speed chase occurred and, like so many others, possibly contributed to the death of an innocent man.

While I respect law officers and the job of quickly responding to calls of distress or danger, they must not allow the desire to nab the bad guy to overshadow the need to keep the innocent safe. This responsibility doesn’t rest only on individual officers; the policies of their departments and the laws of this state should provide clear guidelines.

Frankly, I’m beginning to wonder whether there is ever a justifiable reason for officers to engage in a high-speed chase.

To the degree that we allow them, it must be in only very rare circumstances. The suspect must be clearly endangering the public; I’m talking about violent criminals: a murderer on the run or someone riding down the road shooting.

But it’s absolutely inexcusable for law enforcement to engage in high-speed chases in our streets over small crimes such as running a stop sign or red light or speeding.

Don’t get me wrong. We want officers to apprehend and punish lawbreakers. But when ordinary methods such as blue lights and sirens aren’t successful, officers must exercise good judgment and call for backup or choose some other alternative to initiating a danger-filled chase.

Based on what has been reported so far, the Dec. 14 chase that ended in Chamberlain’s death began after a 2011 Hyundai disregarded a traffic stop near Knox Abbott Drive and State Street in Cayce. The driver, headed toward Columbia, ignored a patrol car’s blue lights and sirens; the car reached speeds of 70 miles per hour and crossed the Knox Abbott Drive bridge onto Blossom Street.

The officer pursued. The Hyundai went through the red light at Huger and Blossom streets and struck the minivan Chamberlain was driving; another vehicle also was struck.

Isn’t it legitimate to ask whether this chase should have been engaged? If the driver was being pursued only for disregarding a traffic stop, was it worth it?

Cayce Department of Public Safety said the car driven by Shyborn Belton, who died in the crash, was stolen and that officers found drugs and a stolen pistol in the vehicle. Did police know about any of those things prior to the chase and crash? Was the driver posing an imminent danger to the public?

Two lives were lost — Chamberlain’s and that of the driver who was fleeing police. And it could have been worse: Three passengers in the suspect’s car survived. And the driver of another minivan struck by the fleeing vehicle also was spared.

Such a tragedy demands that the law enforcement agency involved determines whether this chase was justifiable and report the findings to the public. It also should carefully review its chase policy. But it shouldn’t stop there; other agencies ought to review there policies as well to make sure they adequately protect the public.

I know many people feel that it’s the fault of the fleeing suspects if someone is injured or killed; and, yes, police do charge them — if they survive. But let’s be real: How likely is someone who has broken the law, refuses to stop for police and is fleeing with no regard for his own safety or that of his passengers going to look out for the public’s good? No, it’s up to highly trained law enforcement officers to make rational, thoughtful decisions and cut off a pursuit rather than endanger the public.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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