Bolton: Warning: 3,000-pound missile could be approaching from Cayce

Associate EditorMarch 13, 2013 

 

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— FAIR WARNING to anyone driving or walking along or near the roadway on the Columbia side of the Blossom Street Bridge: At any given moment, without warning, a 3,000-pound missile could come hurtling at you at an ungodly speed, courtesy of the Cayce Department of Public Safety.

That’s the take away from the department’s determination that it doesn’t need to change a policy that allowed an officer to initiate a chase over a traffic violation that ended in the fleeing driver reaching speeds of 90 mph and plowing into a van, killing himself and an innocent motorist.

The department determined that the officer, John Reese, “worked within the guidelines of” the department’s pursuit policy. That’s fine. I had little concern that he had done anything wrong per se.

My concern in this case, as in other cases in which innocent pedestrians or motorists have been killed by fleeing drivers or police officers involved in a high-speed chase, is that police chase policies aren’t restrictive enough to protect the public and prevent loss of life.

It would be one thing if the officer was a cowboy who loved the chase and took unauthorized risks to nab the bad guy. As tragic as that would be, it would be an isolated case, a problem that could be corrected. But the fact that Cayce officials say the officer in this instance was doing the job just like they want it done is scary. Cayce police officers have the green light — or is it a requirement? — to chase a driver at ridiculous speeds for even routine traffic violations.

It certainly was a routine matter that sparked the Dec. 14 chase during which a driver fleeing Cayce police ran a stop light and crashed into a van driven by Chamberlain Branch. Both Mr. Branch and the fleeing driver died; three passengers in the fleeing car survived. 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. The fleeing driver reached 90 mph before the fiery crash at the Huger Street intersection.

A Highway Patrol investigation determined that the fleeing driver, Shyborn Belton, was at fault. Cayce came to the same conclusion, exonerating its officer and determining that its policy won’t be changed.

How can Cayce justify maintaining this policy?

Cayce residents should be worried about hot pursuits along Knoxx Abbott Drive that easily could end up blazing down a side street into a neighborhood or a school zone where children are just being dismissed or people are just leaving a night game.

As if it’s not enough to endanger their own residents, Cayce officials apparently believe it’s OK to impose their dangerous rules on other jurisdictions. Shyborn Belton headed into Columbia, a city that has a different chase policy.

That December chase was of a nature that Columbia police very likely wouldn’t engage, particularly after a resolution on chases the Columbia City Council adopted last week. The resolution says that “except in exigent (critical) circumstances, pursuits for misdemeanor offenses and traffic offenses are prohibited.”

Cayce’s policy says just the opposite, not only giving officers wide latitude in deciding whether to begin and continue high-speed chases but practically making it a job requirement: “If an officer attempts to stop a violator in accordance with the Department’s procedures and the violator attempts to escape or elude the officer, the officer is obligated to make a reasonable attempt to pursue the suspect or vehicle.”

Obligated.

If Cayce or any other jurisdiction chases suspects into a jurisdiction with very different pursuit guidelines, there are potential problems. The agency that instigates the chase is essentially making the decision for its neighbors as well. If someone’s zooming through at 90-plus mph, the second law enforcement agency is almost going to be compelled to chase, even if the first agency began the chase simply because the fleeing driver had his headlights off.

I wonder how many tickets Cayce police officers wrote or how many convictions they got in traffic court as a result of the Dec. 14 chase compared with the two funerals that resulted from the crash.

I know officers are called to protect and serve, but that must include making sure that citizens who are to be protected don’t die as a result of a high-speed police chase.

Not all chases are wise chases; most aren’t. Frankly, there rarely is a justifiable reason for officers to engage in a high-speed chase. It’s the equivalent of playing Russian roulette with innocent bystanders’ lives.

The only time a chase is absolutely warranted is when it involves a violent suspect — a murderer on the run or someone firing shots from a car — who is clearly endangering the public.

Whenever horrific crashes such as that on Dec. 14 occur, all law enforcement agencies should revisit their policy and be sure their officers are properly trained in its use. I commend Columbia for taking the initiative to do just that. But while Columbia has made changes to its policy, the fact that it won’t chase for small crimes only goes so far when a neighbor reaffirms that the tragic chase that ended in the city of Columbia lives up to the standard it wants to meet.

That’s why we need lawmakers to establish a uniform statewide policy that sets a minimum standard on chases. The policy should say we don’t chase unless it’s absolutely necessary.

While officers need latitude to make decisions in the field, their judgment can be clouded during a pressure-packed chase. The consequences of their split-second decisions can be deadly.

Why put the officer in a position to make a decision that, even if he is acting within the guidelines, could haunt him for life? Let’s not only establish a statewide minimum standard for police chases, but let’s require that officers be well-versed and well-trained on the policy and that they get authorization from a superior before initiating a chase.

I’d think that officers would be relieved. After all, it’s not just the public that is endangered in these chases; the officers themselves run the risk of injuring or killing someone — or losing their own lives.

So, let’s stop this madness before the next missile comes hurtling across the Blossom Street Bridge.

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

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