Cops' tough calls on high-speed chases

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Staff Writer
Copyright 2007 Newsday

High-speed police chases have posed public-safety questions and led to stricter penalties for those who force law enforcement to pursue them.

Once a chase is under way, police have to constantly make judgement calls on whether it should continue, especially if other motorists or pedestrians are at risk, said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

In Thursday's incident, police said they chased Richard Mair because he sped away when they attempted to question him during a suspected drug deal. Police smelled alcohol coming from the car Mair was driving and later saw a bottle of liquor on the floor while it was being towed, First Squad Det. Sgt. Kevin Naylor said.

A warrant was being sought Friday to recover the bottle and determine how much liquor was inside, he said.

Mair's reckless driving and swerving through lanes reinforced police assertion that he was intoxicated, Naylor said.

Chasing a drunken suspect is a no-win situation for police, O'Donnell said.

"They're damned if they do, damned if they don't," he said. "It's risky to pursue him and risky to let him drive off."

Suffolk police declined to detail their policy on pursuits, saying that divulging that information would give criminals an upper hand.

In a statement, Commissioner Richard Dormer said the officers followed department guidelines.

"While we are always mindful of the fact that there are public safety issues associated with pursuits, we also do not want to send out a message that all one has to do in order to avoid being apprehended by police officers is to flee and officers will not follow," Dormer said.

Naylor said witnesses told police Mair was driving about 90 to 100 mph, but that an accident reconstruction will determine a more accurate speed.

Mair had a significant head start, Naylor said.

"He was so far ahead of the cop cars, there was a good chance the cops were going to lose him," he said.

O'Donnell said police will need to prove that they had probable cause to believe drugs were being sold before the pursuit.

Naylor said the man with Mair at the time, Erick Colon, 26, of Holbrook, made statements saying that they were there together to buy drugs. Police are testing evidence found at the scene that appears to be marijuana.

Colon was charged with obstructing governmental administration because he struggled with officers after running from them. Colon was released on $60 bail and could not be reached Friday. 

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