Editorial: SC needs standard policy for high-speed police chases

02/24/2013 12:00 AM

02/22/2013 4:55 PM

EVERY FEW years, South Carolina’s law enforcement community, lawmakers and citizens get a grim reminder of an undeniable fact: High-speed police chases aren’t just dangerous; they can kill.

And, all too often, innocent motorists and bystanders are among those injured or killed during these perilous pursuits. Unfortunately, the latest, sad chapter in that recurring story line was written Dec. 14, when Chamberlain Branch, a beloved father, husband and manager of the S.C. Governor’s Mansion, died when a car driven by a suspect fleeing Cayce police roared through a stop light and struck his minivan. The fleeing driver, Shyborn Belton, also died.

The Cayce police officer pursuing the suspect was making a well-intentioned attempt to serve justice by stopping a car driving without its headlights on. When the driver failed to stop, the officer pursued, and the driver sped across the Blossom Street Bridge into Columbia at an estimated 90 mph. The two-minute pursuit ended in a fiery crash at the Huger Street intersection.

It wasn’t worth it. High-speed police chases over routine stops rarely are. They pose far too much danger to the public. No innocent bystander — whether a motorist or a pedestrian — is prepared to evade multiple two-ton vehicles, including police cruisers, hurtling toward them at excessive speeds.

Are there times when police chases are worth the risk? Yes — when the suspect poses an immediate threat to the public or is wanted in a serious felony, for instance. But law enforcement should not place innocent lives at risk simply because someone did not stop for a blue light.

No matter how good their motives, officers’ judgment can be clouded during a pressure-packed, adrenaline-fed pursuit; they are compelled to make split-second decisions that could have consequences that last a lifetime. While officers need latitude to make judgment calls in the field, this one should not be left entirely up to them.

For the good of the officer and the public, we need a statewide minimum standard for police chases and requirements that police be well-versed on the policy and well-trained on how to react to fleeing suspects. That standard should, at a minimum, require authorization from a superior. Local jurisdictions certainly could go beyond the minimum.

A Highway Patrol investigation found the driver of the fleeing vehicle at fault in the Dec. 14 crash. But that’s not the end of the matter. Cayce must complete its review of its officer’s actions and make it public. In addition, it must ensure that its pursuit policy protects the public from unwise chases and, more importantly, that officers are properly trained in its application.

Obviously, fleeing suspects bear much of the blame when someone is injured or killed. But it’s unrealistic to believe that someone who has broken the law and is fleeing police with no regard for his own safety is going to protect the public’s good. It’s up to highly trained officers to make rational, thoughtful decisions and end a pursuit rather than endanger those they are sworn to protect and serve.

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