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Let?s toughen flight penalties

June 30, 2000
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Let?s toughen flight penalties

Sixteen-year-old Josh Brockington, a Ralston High School junior, was killed outright last month when his car was struck and demolished by a pickup truck. His friend Daniel Sasich, 16, a sophomore, was critically injured as well. I speak on behalf of all law enforcement professionals when I extend heartfelt condolences to the Brockington and Sasich families. Our collective thoughts and prayers are with you. The truck that hit Josh and Daniel was being driven by a man leading Nebraska state troopers on a high-speed chase through Sarpy County. The Nebraska State Patrol had been alerted by Lincoln authorities that Andrew Wright, 21, of Lincoln, was in possession of a firearm, had threatened to hurt himself and vowed to kill any police officer who stopped him. Quite the dilemma. Had officers failed to act on the information they’d received, the usual suspects would be howling about law enforcement’s neglect of a person at large with suicidal and, possibly, homicidal tendencies, especially so if Wright made good on his threats of self-destruction or worse. On the contrary, during a good faith attempt to take Wright off the street – thereby neutralizing a suspected threat to society – the worst possible scenario unfolded; an innocent person was killed and another gravely injured. This is a situation Omaha Police Department officers have faced on multiple occasions. The epitome of a catch-22. Damned if we do; damned if we don’t. So what’s the answer? Suspend all pursuits? No, we know that’s not the answer, having lived through a blanket no-pursuit policy under the James Skinner regime. The City of Omaha and State of Nebraska are both self-insured governmental entities and have deep, deep pockets. So the strict liability provisions of state law regarding police legal responsibility in the aftermath of pursuits gone bad guarantees survivors’ ability to collect damages in the wake of death or injury resulting from such pursuits. The problem with the whole notion of strict liability lies in the fact that it displaces ultimate accountability from the person fleeing to that of the agency trying to apprehend him. This, regardless of whether or not officers in the chase acted appropriately and within departmental policy and state law governing pursuit. Nebraska lawmakers must take action. First, strict liability language in state law needs to be amended to allow for an aggrieved party or family to collect damages from the person doing the fleeing, not the governmental body attempting to take a dangerous person off the street. It would still be entirely appropriate to hold the respective city, county or state body accountable for damages in cases in which pursuing officers acted in a negligent manner. Next, lawmakers must put some teeth in the penalties for flight to avoid. These changes in law, especially the proposed enhancement of flight penalties, would go far to reduce the number of police chases and the tragedies that can sometimes occur as a result. Every senator, chief and sheriff ought to be actively involved in this fight. If they choose not to act, the blood of Josh Brockington and other victims, past and future, is on their hands.

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