Police rethink the merits of the high-speed chase

(ST. LOUIS) -- A study from the national highway traffic safety administration estimates that 40 percent of all police pursuits result in an accident, and 20 percent in injuries. About 1 percent end with someone getting killed. Across the nation, and in departments here, police are rethinking the merits of getting involved in a chase.

From action movies to "reality" TV, high-speed pursuits are portrayed as the essence of exciting police work -- and riveting entertainment.

Whether it's Gene Hackman pounding the horn and burning rubber in the "The French Connection," or helicopter video of a stolen car spinning out at a busy intersection on the evening news, running from the law has become a spectator spectacular.

Recently, a KSDK (Channel 5) chopper kept viewers enthralled with play-by-play descriptions of a dramatic chase that included several near-accidents. It is a nearly-daily staple of Los Angeles TV news but still uncommon here.

Hot pursuits may be thrilling for outsiders to watch. But according to the Missouri Highway Patrol, insiders dread them.

"Truthfully, they are terrifying things," said Sgt. Terry St. Clair, who participated in his fair share before spending most of his time as a highway patrol spokesman and not a patrolman. "The public may think it's fun for us, like a 'Smoky & the Bandit' movie, but high-speed chases scare the living daylights out of police."

With good reason. Pursuits threaten police, motorists not connected with those pursuits and suspects.

Four people have died as a result of police pursuits in the metro area this year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 314 fatalities nationwide involving pursuits in 1998, the most recent statistics available. Two of the dead were police officers and 198 were occupants of the vehicles they were chasing. The others were 100 motorists and 14 pedestrians not connected to the chases.

The highway agency estimates that 40 percent of all police pursuits result in an accident, and 20 percent in injuries. About one percent end with someone getting killed.

There was a time when conventional police wisdom held that good officers always get their suspect -- no matter how fast or far they have to travel.

Study changes attitudes

That outlook changed dramatically following a study conducted by the National Institute of Justice in 1997.

Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and an expert in the field, wrote the report. He addressed the dilemma of whether the benefits of potential arrests after a hot pursuit outweighed the risk to police and the public.

Alpert also learned that most departments didn't have formal pursuit policies and didn't train officers when and how to pursue.

"Most police officers would not consider shooting into a crowd, but many officers will pursue a car at high-speed through a crowded neighborhood or thick traffic," said Alpert. "When you consider that in many cases police don't even show up to take reports on some types of burglaries or certain other crimes, why in the world would they chase someone for a misdemeanor violation?"

Alpert found a common attitude linked to chases that went beyond a desire simply to enforce every traffic law.

The violation many police were concerned with wasn't one found in legal statutes. It's a violation that Alpert calls "contempt of cop."

"People who run are challenging authority. Police turn it around to a matter of 'You're not going to beat me. I'm the cop. You're the bad guy. And I'm going to get you.' Police need to know that a point of pride could end up seriously injuring innocent bystanders," he said.

Alpert's report instigated nationwide overhauls in how police handle chases. Since then, most agencies have adopted policies that restrict pursuits to cases involving violent felons who must be apprehended for the public's safety.

Some departments, including the Michigan State Police and the Baltimore Police Department, have adopted no-pursuit policies.

The policies are now widespread throughout the metro area. Most are similar, including those used by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police, Illinois State Police, Missouri Highway Patrol, major county departments and municipalities.

The General Policy section of the St. Louis police rules says:

"An officer may initiate a vehicle pursuit only when all three of the following conditions apply:

A. The suspect knowingly refused to stop his vehicle after being directed by the officer.

B. Officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect committed, or had attempted to commit a felony violation.

C. The officer reasonably believes that the pursuit can be successfully conducted without an unreasonable risk of danger to persons or property."

The policy goes on to indicate that, in deciding whether to pursue, an officer must consider factors such as the seriousness of the offense and the need to respond to a threat or act that poses an immediate and future danger to other people.

Then there is what may be called the driving-manual portion of the policy. It addresses conditions under which police may safely conduct a pursuit. It includes the need to consider factors such as the speed of the suspect's vehicle, traffic and road conditions, pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the layout of the chase area (such as narrow streets, school zones, business district) and visibility.

Police are told not to chase anyone whose identity is known and who can be apprehended in the future, nor are they ever to conduct a chase that does not involve a felony.

Due to the wildly varied situations police face daily, such policies are inherently vague -- especially concerning what an officer "reasonably believes."

Where commanders take such policies seriously, Alpert said, pursuits and the collateral damage and injuries have dropped precipitously.

Alpert noted that pursuits dropped to about 50 from more than 400 in Miami one year after that city's department adopted a chase policy.

But what remained constant were the injury, accident and fatality rates within those 50 chases.

Policy of no policy, chases are dangerous.

"You don't want to advocate taking guns away from the police and you don't want to take away the option of pursuits either," Alpert said. "But cops need to recognize that pursuits are deadlier than guns because they are used more often."

Police naturally learn to trust their instincts. Policies, on the other hand, tend to put a crimp in instincts.

How does an officer know, for instance, whether a suspect who just ran a red light at a busy intersection isn't also a violent felon? Perhaps the driver just pistol-whipped a clerk in a robbery or has a kidnap victim in his trunk.

It's a frustrating dilemma for officers like St. Clair.

"My understanding of the situation is that we try to do it the way the public wants," St. Clair said. "If a guy runs and we don't chase him and we find out later he had murdered someone, we take heat for that.

"And if we are not going to chase anyone for anything, does that send the wrong kind of message? Does that tell the person, 'Hey! I don't have to worry. I drive away fast and the police don't follow me.'

"And if you back off the chase and then find the car in the owner's driveway the next day, he tells you, 'Well, somebody stole it and I found it abandoned.'"

St. Clair noted that there are numerous occasions when owners file false reports after chases. Unfortunately, he said, those and other violations related to high-speed pursuits are not always vigorously prosecuted. The reasons are obvious. They can be tough cases to win and the penalties don't always seems to justify the trouble.

On the other hand, police departments are regularly slapped with costly lawsuits from injured civilians and suspects alike.

St. Clair would like to see a greater burden of the liability put on suspects who drive dangerously with no regard for innocent lives. Often, a long, high-speed pursuit may only result in a string of misdemeanor traffic violations for the offender. Harsher penalties are in order, St. Clair believes.

"I'm talking about a making running a felony violation," St. Clair said.

To be effective such penalties would need to be applied even when chases end about as well as could be expected, such as the recent case of Howard D. Hart, 33, of Effingham, Ill.

Hart became the surprise guest star on KSDK -- in the local network sweeps period, no less -- when he led police on a chase the afternoon of Nov. 2.

Shortly after 2 p.m. that day, the Missouri Highway Patrol was notified that a sport utility vehicle had been stolen from a service station at Interstate 70 and Lake Saint Louis Boulevard.

A highway patrol trooper saw the vehicle traveling east on I-70 near the Cave Springs exit.

The trooper chased Hart, whose identity wasn't known to police at that time, following him into St. Louis County, where officers from other jurisdictions joined in.

The highway patrol broke off the chase when the SUV crossed the city limits. By that time, a KSDK chopper was directly overhead, beaming video to home viewers.

Somewhere along the line, dispatchers radioed reports of shots fired from the vehicle, giving police more motivation to chase. (Afterward, authorities said they could not confirm that any shots had been fired, though officers involved in the chase said they had heard the radio report. Hart was not charged with any offenses related to firearms.)

Hart swerved in and out of heavy traffic as he sped through downtown on I-70 and onto the southbound lanes of Interstate 55. At the Gasconade Street exit, a motorist in another car attempted to get out of Hart's way and in the process collided with a pursuing city patrol cruiser. The police car was totaled but there were no injuries in the chase.

City police broke off the chase when Hart sped into south St. Louis County.

The highway patrol picked up Hart's trail again and stayed with him until the SUV ran out of gas on I-55 in Jefferson County, less than two miles north of the Ste. Genevieve County line.

As troopers approached the SUV, which had stopped on the shoulder, Hart locked the doors. Officers broke out the front passenger windows and pulled the suspect out of the vehicle.

St. Clair said he believed his department adhered to policy because officers kept a safe distance and followed in traffic that officers considered to be fairly light.

Adella Jones, spokeswoman for the St. Louis Police department, said city police also followed at a safe distance, trying only to keep the vehicle in sight.

The city police helicopter crew was not on duty at the time, though they are always on call. With the television chopper already following the pursuit and relaying information to police, St. Louis Police Chief Ron Henderson decided not give his sky crews the order to scramble.

"The chief hates chases. He's always hated chases," Jones said. "That was his strongest rationale for equipping the force with a chopper in the first place."

Jones said that the cost of the helicopter is more than justified by its potential to save lives as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil suits from crashes during pursuits.

She cited a recent chase as a prime example of the vital role of police helicopters.

St. Louis Police Officer Bryce Cameron, a chopper pilot, was standing by at the downtown hangar when he heard a report at about 4 p.m. Aug. 29 that a homicide suspect was speeding north on Grand Boulevard with police in pursuit.

Within two minutes, Cameron was airborne. He picked up the chase on westbound Highway 40 (Interstate 64), just west of Grand.

Once Cameron had the suspect in sight, Henderson, monitoring the pursuit by radio, ordered the chase vehicles to back off. Cameron followed the suspect as he exited the highway at McCausland Avenue and abandoned the vehicle in a residential neighborhood.

The helicopter pilot radioed the patrol cruisers, who had continued following at a safe distance; they arrested the suspect, Johnny White, 22, as he jogged down a street in Dogtown.

"That was a case where a high-speed pursuit would have met the parameters of our policy, considering that (White) was a murder suspect," Jones said. "But thanks to the helicopter, we didn't need to chase him at dangerous speeds."

(iSyndicate; St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Nov. 19, 2000) Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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