Cayce police pounded on the front door around 1 a.m., startling Cherisse Branch and her three small children awake.
She quickly realized her husband, Chamberlain, a popular supervisor at the Governor's Mansion, had not yet returned home from his second job as a bartender.
“Something is wrong,” she thought.
The police had come to tell her what many S.C. families have heard before — her loved one, an innocent bystander, was killed by a suspect leading police on a high-speed chase. It started over a moving traffic violation.
“You hear that, but you don’t really believe it,” Cherisse Branch said. “I felt it was a chase that was unwarranted.”
Her story is not an anomaly. At least 1 in 10 S.C. high-speed police pursuits in the past decade has resulted in a crash with an innocent bystander, often causing injury or death, according to a review of media reports by The State newspaper.
Each of those chases were initiated over traffic violations or other nonviolent crimes, raising alarms by affected families and national law enforcement experts that say the pursuits are not worth the risk to the public.
The exact number of affected bystanders is not known because no state agency or organization collects data on high-speed pursuits among all S.C. law enforcement.
But a review of data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ranks South Carolina in the top 10 nationally for deaths as a result of police pursuits per capita.
In Chamberlain Branch's case, Cayce police had attempted to stop a car for driving with only its parking lights on shortly after midnight in December 2012. The suspect sped away, and police chased him at 90 miles per hour across the Blossom Street bridge.
Nearby, Chamberlain Branch was heading home from his bartending shift. He was broadsided by the suspect's van at the Huger Street intersection, killing him and the suspect in a fiery crash.
When those running from the police are considered, the rate of injury or death spikes to one of every three pursuits in the past decade, according to The State newspaper's analysis.
“You could, literally, be driving down the road, minding your own business, and be killed in a police pursuit,” said Tulsa, Oklahoma, Police Maj. Travis Yates, who runs SAFETAC, a national pursuit-training academy. “That’s a real danger to citizens, and no one is even talking about it.”
Today, there is a national push among law enforcement to initiate high-speed chases only when a driver is suspected of a violent crime such as murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery and aggravated assault.
Despite that, S.C. law enforcement shows no sign of slowing down:
▪ Three teens were killed in Irmo last month after fleeing police and crashing a stolen car.
▪ A 30-year-old Columbia man was killed earlier this month in Irmo after fleeing a checkpoint.
▪ A 29-year-old West Columbia man was shot by deputies in March after leading them on pursuit and initiating an hourslong standoff on I-26. It started because he matched the description of a suspect running from a disabled car with a bag in his hand.
Some S.C. sheriffs say the suspects are the ones who initiate the high-speed chase, not their deputies. They defend the pursuits, saying it’s impossible to tell what a person has done, or is about to do, when running from the police.
“They’re running for a reason and that’s because they’ve done something wrong, and our job is to arrest those who break the law,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. “We’re preventing other crimes. There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever.”
But experts say police should make decisions based only on what they know at the time, not assumptions. In addition, that kind of mindset doesn’t take into account the risk police chases pose to others on the road.
“I’ve seen the cost. I’ve spoken with parents who have lost their innocent kids in police pursuits,” Yates said. “If all we know at the time is that it’s a minor offense or a traffic offense, is that really worth someone being severely injured or dying?”
'It leaves a hole in your heart'
The decision to give chase over a traffic violation upended the lives of Cherisse Branch and her three children.
As Cayce police explained what happened, her mind leapt to the future she and her husband had planned together, and the children she was left to raise alone.
Chamberlain would not be there to attend three high school graduations, to walk their two daughters down the aisle or to serve as a role model for their son.
As her mind raced through a future now obliterated, she realized her 12-year-old daughter was listening from the next room. She heard the child begin to whimper, then wail.
The nights following his death were unbearable.
Unable to sleep in the bed they had shared, Cherisse Branch made a cocoon of blankets and pillows on the living room floor. One of her daughters sat nearby in the dim light, holding her mother's hand.
"If you're used to sleeping with someone for over 10 years and suddenly they're not there, it leaves a hole in your heart," Branch said. "Like your soul is being torn in two."
He was also missed on the job, where he took care of the needs of South Carolina's first family, serving Jim Hodges, then Mark Sanford and, finally, Nikki Haley.
"His smile and laugh were contagious," Haley said shortly after his death, adding that she was heartbroken. "He was a very special part of our family, and his gentle soul, good humor, and care will always be treasured memories for each of us."
The Cayce Department of Public Safety has since changed its pursuit policy, removing an officer's obligation to apprehend someone who fails to stop for blue lights.
Is it worth chasing stolen cars?
People who run from the police do so for a reason, but that reason is usually shortsighted, said Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor who studies high-speed pursuits and has helped departments write their policies.
“The myth is there’s a dead body in the trunk or that these are bad, violent criminals and, for the most part, they’re not. A lot of them are car thieves,” he said.
One such chase in 2015 cost a firefighter his life.
John William Kennedy led Greenville County Sheriff’s deputies on a high-speed chase in a stolen Ford F-150. Dash cam footage shows Kennedy zooming past cars, even using a grassy shoulder to bypass another truck, at speeds between 80 and 90 miles per hour.
Other drivers were forced to slow down or swerve to avoid the chase. At one point, Kennedy crossed the median and drove into oncoming traffic.
A deputy involved in the chase radioed to a supervisor, requesting to terminate the dangerous pursuit. But he was overruled.
Jordan Howard, a North Greenville firefighter, was riding his motorcycle to work that morning when Kennedy crashed into him head-on, killing him instantly. He left behind a wife, Amber, and 3-month-old daughter, Aubree. Kennedy was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Within an hour of learning her husband’s fate, Amber Howard said more than 100 friends, family and community members arrived at her home to comfort her.
“There was so much chaos going on that I couldn’t take it,” she said.
Wanting to be near her husband, she crawled into the backseat of his Ford Excursion and sat there alone for the rest of the day.
“He was so proud of that truck, and it’s just where I wanted to be. I just wanted to be there,” she said. “It was a safe place.”
Greenville County interim Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown wasn't serving at the time of the wreck, but he defended the decisions made that day.
"You never know what's in that stolen vehicle," Brown said. "It could have a (dead) body in the back of it."
But at the same time, Brown agreed that pursuits should be restricted to only those suspected of violent crimes.
Following the chase, Amber Howard filed a lawsuit against the Greenville County Sheriff's Office that was settled for an undisclosed amount.
The Greenville County Sheriff's Office has since changed its pursuit policy to prohibit supervisors from overriding a deputy's decision to terminate pursuits.
And now, Brown said, it might be worth restricting chases to suspects of violent offenses.
"Maybe that's something we ought to look at," he said.
Meanwhile, members of the Howard family will continue to struggle with this tragedy for the rest of their lives.
“Trying to raise Aubree by myself has been extremely hard," Amber Howard said. "She’s beginning to ask questions about her daddy.”
Aubree, who is almost 3 now, loves to put on a miniature fireman's hat and run around with her toy firetruck.
It's a happy sight, but also a reminder that Jordan is gone.
“He gave me Aubree, so every day I strive, and I fight, and I make myself get up and go to work. And if I’m off (work) that day, I’m with her all day. I still want to make him proud," she said. “It’s been almost three years and I’m just now allowing myself the time to stop and grieve."
Howard's mother, Melinda, said she will never be the same.
“You look at things differently. You’re not as happy as you used to be because you’re missing a part of you. A piece of your heart is gone, and that hole stays there.”
It's like a scab, she said. It heals with time, but there will always be family milestones — birthdays, holidays and childhood events — that rip the scab off and start the process over again. And that never ends.
“People try to tell you that you’ll get over it. You don’t. It’s not something you can get over. You learn to cope with it and you learn to live with it. But your life is just different," she said.
"I know a lot of people would agree with (police) chases, and I would say, 'If you lose a child, you would change your mind.' But I hope no one has to go through this. I wouldn't wish this on anyone."
Experts agree that law enforcement should not initiate high-speed chases over stolen vehicles. It’s a property crime, and it isn’t even considered serious.
“There are reasons to put the public at risk,” Alpert said. “The more heinous a crime, the more justification the cops have to chase and put us at risk. But for minor offenses, it becomes more of a risk than necessary.”
On the other hand, people in stolen cars are often on their way to commit, or have already committed, violent offenses, said Lott, the Richland County sheriff.
“We’re seeing major crimes being committed by people in stolen vehicles. Our (reports of) stolen vehicles have increased and they’re using them to commit shootings, robberies and burglaries,” Lott said. “The odds are very high that we prevent a lot of crimes by catching people who are in stolen vehicles and people who fail to stop.”
Several other S.C. sheriffs agreed.
But GPS tracking technology has limited the need for some high-speed pursuits. Law enforcement agencies around the country are using equipment from StarChase, a Virgina Beach-based company, to tag the cars of fleeing suspects. Officers can launch the GPS tag from the front bumper of their patrol car, or using a handheld launcher.
Alpert said it's more than 90 percent effective at apprehending suspects without causing a collision, but he hasn't heard of any S.C. agency using this technology, mainly because of the cost.
The money needed to defend lawsuits following high-speed chases doesn't come out of the budget of law enforcement agencies, but money for that technology does, he said.
One of the few S.C. lawmakers with police experience said he knows the hazards of such pursuits first-hand and would like to see some change.
“A high-speed chase is one of the most dangerous things you can do,” said state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens. “It’s not worth taking someone’s life just to chase a speeder.”
About 30 years ago, Pitts was on routine patrol for the Greenville Police Department when three guys pulled out in front of him at a high rate of speed. He had no way of knowing they had just robbed the nearby Bi-Lo, he said.
“I knew something was wrong, so I got behind them, hit the blue lights” and they took off, Pitts said.
During the pursuit, Pitts learned they were likely responsible for the Bi-Lo robbery, while reaching speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. When the fleeing suspects swerved into oncoming traffic, Pitts decided to terminate the pursuit on his own.
“They had not hurt anyone in the robbery that I knew of," Pitts said. “And although they were dangerous felons, I was sure that if I kept chasing them they were going to kill somebody.”
Pitts said he would like to see statewide mandates that restrict high-speed chases to only those suspected of violent offenses, as well as a requirement that all S.C. law enforcement agencies report chases to the state.
“I think (all high-speed chases) should be reported. I think the data should be collected and analyzed,” he said. “That helps all areas of law enforcement on strategic planning.”
Minnesota, which has a mandatory reporting requirement, ranks 47th in the nation for the number of deaths as a result of police pursuit, according to The State newspaper's analysis of national data.
For the past 30 years, Minnesota law enforcement has been required to report all high-speed pursuits to the state’s Department of Public Safety, including the reason for the pursuit as well as other details such as injuries, deaths or property damage.
The act of reporting all high-speed chases to the state forces agencies to really think about it and develop policies that lead to safer police practices, said Paul Schnell, police chief of Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, a Twin Cities suburb of about 35,000 people.
“There is a desire among agencies to catch these people and hold them accountable. But we really have to ask the question, ‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?’” Schnell said. “When you’re talking about people’s lives, as well as their safety and well-being, it’s not worth it.”
Cody Dulaney: 803-771-8313, @dulaneycd