Bolton: High-speed police chases kill

Associate EditorFebruary 24, 2013 

 

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— WHEN A motorcyclist bolted through a 55-mph zone at a reported 120 mph last month, Kershaw County sheriff’s deputies gave chase.

But the motorcyclist ignored the blue lights and siren and sped off, reaching speeds in excess of 150 mph while traveling U.S. 521 outside of Camden.

As the speeder headed toward Camden town limits, deputies had a decision to make. Should they continue this chase at excessive speed or pull back, understanding the motorcyclist might get away but innocent bystanders ahead might be spared?

The officers did the right thing and ended the pursuit. Then they did another smart thing and radioed ahead; the motorcyclist was arrested by the S.C. Highway Patrol in Camden near patrol headquarters.

I don’t know if this is a textbook example of how to handle suspects who flee the police or not. But I can’t argue with the results: The deputies got their man, and no one was hurt.

It just as easily could have gone badly, if the deputies had barreled into town in hot pursuit, their patrol car as much a deadly missile as the speeding motorcycle.

Which is why I have concluded that there rarely is a justifiable reason for officers to engage in a high-speed chase. We shouldn’t play Russian roulette with innocent bystanders’ lives. Just because one chase is successful doesn’t mean the next one won’t be deadly.

Some experts suggest that a third or more of high-speed chases lead to the injury or death of innocent citizens. Federal officials say one person dies each day in America as the result of a high-speed chase. Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor who studies law enforcement pursuits and has helped departments write their policies, said he believes the number is at least twice that.

The only time I can imagine a chase being absolutely warranted is when the suspect is clearly endangering the public. I’m talking about violent criminals, such as a murderer on the run or someone riding down the road shooting.

It’s unacceptable to engage in high-speed chases in our streets over small crimes such as running a stop sign or red light or speeding.

Yes, we want officers to apprehend lawbreakers. But when ordinary methods such as blue lights and sirens aren’t successful, officers must exercise good judgment, as the Kershaw County deputies did, and call for backup or choose some other alternative.

It’s preferable to let small-time offenders go than to send an innocent bystander to the morgue.

The Dec. 14 death of Chamberlain Branch is a perfect example. Mr. Branch, who was a friend and former classmate of mine, died when a driver fleeing Cayce police ran a stop light and crashed into his minivan. The fleeing driver also died. The Cayce police officer had attempted to stop the car because its headlights were not on. When the driver failed to stop, the officer pursued him at high speed toward the Blossom Street Bridge into Columbia, culminating in a fiery crash at the Huger Street intersection that claimed two lives.

That’s two lives too many, which is why law enforcement across this state should not only revisit their policies but properly train their officers. Better yet, we need a uniform statewide policy that sets a minimum standard on chases. I believe it should state that we don’t chase unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Some might suggest this is a knee-jerk reaction to the death of a friend.

Yes, it’s personal to me. But it ought to be personal to all of us who drive the roads, live and work in the various communities in this state. This could happen to any of us. An innocent bystander — whether a motorist or a pedestrian — could be heading to work or home and, without warning, be blindsided by a 3,000-pound missile hurtling recklessly toward him.

Unfortunately, I’ve written my share of columns and editorials over the years after some of our fellow citizens were innocent victims of crashes following high-speed police chases.

Lest we forget:

On July 2, 2004, 29-year-old Melissa Busby was killed when a driver fleeing a DUI checkpoint in Boiling Springs and being chased by police crashed into the car driven by Ms. Busby. Both were killed.

On May 27, 2003, Beverly Meyers, 50, died when the car she was riding in was struck by a vehicle driven by a man fleeing Forest Acres police. The police had pursued the suspect at reckless speeds — up to 65 mph — through residential neighborhoods after he wrote a bad check.

On Jan. 10, 1999, a trooper pursuing a motorcyclist for traffic violations in Newberry County passed on the wrong side of a two-lane road, claiming the life of 43-year-old Martha Longshore Ward of Gaffney, a passenger in an oncoming vehicle.

As we discussed the Dec. 14 chase and crash involving Cayce police, Mr. Alpert said that in such instances, officers must have a very good answer to one question in particular. It’s a question I’m sure every innocent victim’s family wants answered.

“Why did they chase this guy?” Mr. Alpert asked. “The chase is what kind of created the monster.”

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

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