January 19, 2013

Deadly December car chase into Columbia raises questions

A police chase that ended with the deaths of two people in downtown Columbia last month has focused attention once again on the practice of allowing law officers to ride in hot pursuit of suspects who are speeding away.

A police chase that ended with the deaths of two people in downtown Columbia last month has focused attention once again on the practice of allowing law officers to ride in hot pursuit of suspects who are speeding away.

And it has raised a key question: Whether police should have even begun the chase.

The chase ended in a wreck shortly after midnight early on Dec. 14 that killed Chamberlain Branch, 48, a beloved supervisor at the Governor’s Mansion who is survived by a wife and three school-age children. It also killed fleeing driver Shyborn Belton, 23, who was driving a stolen 2011 Hyundai that ran a red light and smashed into Branch’s van at the intersection of Huger and Blossom streets.

A Cayce police officer pursued Belton’s car at speeds that reached 90 mph, according to a preliminary report from the S.C. Highway Patrol. Police said Belton had disregarded a traffic stop near Knox Abbott Drive and State Street in Cayce and fled across the Blossom Street bridge into downtown Columbia.

Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor who studies law enforcement pursuits and has helped departments write their policies, said police departments try to balance the need to apprehend a suspect with the risk created by the chase.

A growing number of law agencies across the country, however, are restricting chases to those involving fleeing drivers accused of violent crimes. Alpert said he thinks only going after violent suspects is the safest and best policy.

“A lot of people get hurt during these chases,” said Alpert, adding that federal statistics show that at least one person dies every day in a police chase in the United States. No such statistics are available for South Carolina.

One reason chases are so dangerous, Alpert said, is that the fugitive is often going full speed and not paying attention to what’s in front of him.

“We know from people who’ve fled from the police that they are glued to the rear view mirror, looking at the blue lights, seeing where the cops are. ... They aren’t really looking straight ahead and are going back and forth.

Meanwhile, police see someone fleeing and think, “Well, he must have done something really wrong,” Alpert said. “But you don’t risk people’s lives based on hunches like that.”

It isn’t known just how dangerous Cayce police considered Belton at the beginning of what became the high speed chase. Cayce police did say they found a gun and drugs in Belton’s car after the crash.

If an innocent person winds up being killed as a result of a police chase, the dead person’s estate often sues the department, Alpert said.

“There can be a big cost to the taxpayer,” said Alpert, noting a study of the state Insurance Reserve Fund about 10 years ago showed payouts by S.C. police departments for injuries or deaths caused by police on chases were among the largest category of payouts.

Until the Highway Patrol’s final report is released – at the end of this month at the earliest, officials say – the patrol and Cayce police are releasing no other information.

The city of Cayce will likely release more information on the chase after the Highway Patrol makes public its investigation, said Lake Summers, a Columbia attorney who represents the Cayce Department of Public Safety.

However, Summers did say that the video dash camera in the pursuing officer’s car had been scheduled for repair and may not have captured the video part of the chase. It likely captured “at least the audio,” he said. The Highway Patrol is examining the camera’s contents.

Cayce’s written police policy regarding chases says if someone tries to escape a police stop, an officer “is obligated to make a reasonable attempt to pursue the vehicle or suspect.” But an officer must also terminate a chase if “unreasonable risks or dangers arising from the pursuit” outweigh the potential harm of the fugitive.

One key consideration, Cayce’s policy says: “If the pursuit reasonably could have resulted in injury or death or significant property damage, would a reasonable person understand why the pursuit occurred?”

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Lexington County Sheriff James Metts, whose departments are among the largest in the state, said unless the fugitive has committed a violent crime, their policy is to call off a police chase if it gets too dangerous. Numerous factors go into any chase decision, including how congested an area is, whether it’s near a school and the weather, they said.

“We err on the side of caution,” Metts said. “Our policy is very strict. We have tried to build every precaution in there.”

“Every chase is like a no-win situation for us,” Lott said. “We can be criticized if we do chase but also if we don’t.”

Lott said his officers’ job is “to catch bad guys. So in a chase, a lot is determined by how bad the bad guy is. Is he a speeder? Or is he someone who’s breaking into someone’s homes, robbing people – that’s the big determining factor.”

Lott, who estimated his deputies participate in at least one chase a day, said, “We do it in the safest way we can.”

All Richland County sheriff’s department pursuits have to be approved by a supervisor in radio contact who – like the pursuing officer – can terminate the chase at any time if it gets too dangerous, Lott said. All chases are recorded on the pursuit car’s video and reviewed by supervisors after the chase. Many chases are concluded relatively quickly without incident and with an arrest.

In one recent Richland County chase, the fleeing suspect – who’d been spotted trying to break into a car on Long Creek Drive – crashed. Officers caught him, and he confessed to being part of a car theft ring, Lott said. “They’d stolen three cars earlier that night. They took orders on what kind of car to steal.”

Other chases, like the Cayce chase, end with sudden injury or death to bystanders like Branch.

At the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy, which trains the state’s city and county officers, recruits are given general advice to help them make decisions on pursuits. This includes considering the weather, traffic and even the condition of the pursuing officer – is he or she tired or sick – and is the police car in good condition before beginning a pursuit. But since each law agency has its own chase policy, the recruits are told to learn their agency’s policy.

“It all falls back on your department, its policies and what you’re authorized to do,” said John McMahan, the Academy’s firing and driving range instructor.

Local agencies such as Cayce, Richland and Lexington sheriffs, and the S.C. Highway Patrol have extensive chase policies, detailing circumstances when an officer should chase and should not.

One bottom line, law enforcement officers say: Cops have to be able to chase bad guys.

“You can’t have a no-chase policy,” Metts said. “That would be a very bad sign to the criminal element.”

Alpert said he didn’t have enough facts to give an opinion on the Cayce chase.

But, he said, “When you are chasing across that (Blossom Street) bridge, and you coming into the city, that gets pretty dangerous. You’re coming into a relatively populated area.”

Alpert said that when he teaches police officers about high-speed chases, “I ask them, ‘How would you feel if your 16-year-old daughter was killed as a result of a pursuit that one of your fellow officers was involved in as a result of a traffic offense?’”

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