Videotaped police chase sparks pursuit debate in SC
No one was hurt, but the high-speed pursuit by Charleston County Sheriff's sparked discussion and policy review
By Andrew Knapp
The Post and Courier
CHARLESTON, S.C. — A 25-mile trail of lights, sirens, screeching tires, near-collisions is coming to an end.
Deputy Delmer Powell chases a black pickup truck down a rural two-lane road. He's leading the pursuit of the reckless driver.
Powell doesn't know why the man won't stop. Does he have a gun? Drugs? Does he have a body in the truck bed?
Someone's voice squawks over the deputy's radio: "Speeds are 90 mph. ... I'm taking the lead."
A Dodge Charger passes Powell's Ford Crown Victoria. Its driver, who had traveled 40 miles at more than 130 mph to get there, will later explain in a report that the suspect's pickup truck was pulling away from other police so he took the lead because his Charger had the power to keep up.
Seconds later, deputies on the roadside shoot the pickup's tires. It veers off Steed Creek Road and stops.
In a hurry to join the other deputy trying to subdue the driver, Powell steps out of his car.
More screeching tires. Powell looks down the road, catches a glimpse of something and jumps back inside his cruiser. A sheriff's SUV broadsides his car. Dust floats into the air.
No one was hurt, but for the Charleston County Sheriff's Office it was as close as deputies came to disaster during the high-speed pursuit Jan. 30 involving Sheriff Al Cannon and more than a dozen deputies, according to video taken from six cruisers.
The 31-year-old pickup driver, who hadn't held a valid license in years, was arrested. Beyond Cannon's admission that he slapped the driver after he was handcuffed and that a dog was allowed to gnaw on him, no one was seriously injured.
Historically, police pursuits often have ended in tragedy. Agencies have developed policies to prevent deaths, many of which call on law enforcers to determine whether the payoffs of a chase outweigh the risks.
On average, one American dies each day as the result of a chase, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That death toll leads critics to question whether policies fly out the window in the adrenaline rush of a chase. Supporters of police pursuits, however, say the issue should be handled on a chase-by-chase basis.
"Deputies are forced to make split-second decisions in dynamic, even dangerous, situations," John Blackmon, president of the Tri-County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, said in an email to The Post and Courier. "Their actions can be easily reviewed with a microscope after the fact by untrained, and sometimes biased, non-participants.
"If mistakes were made, the agency will deal with it and make sure any identified problems do not happen again."
Policies on pursuit procedures vary, but they strike some common chords.
All call for officers to determine whether the pursuit itself creates a greater risk to the public than if the suspect were allowed to get away. All have restrictions against unmarked vehicles. All prohibit officers from driving as recklessly as the fleeing suspect.
Cannon, who started chasing the pickup last month when it veered into his lane and nearly struck his personal vehicle, was elected in 1988 and has handled his share of controversies when it comes to vehicle pursuits. Some have resulted in adjustments to the agency's policies.
In September 2004, a 16-year-old was killed when the car she was riding in crashed while fleeing from a deputy at 90 mph.
A Mount Pleasant man died in April 2003 when his car struck a tree after he led deputies on a chase.
Geoff Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina, said officers sometimes focus only on stopping the vehicle, not on doing so in a safe manner.
"One of the big issues is making sure the police officer doesn't make it personal," Alpert said. "Most of us pull over when we're signaled to stop. The few times someone doesn't pull over, it can get personal for the officer."
Cannon has testified in chase trials as an expert witness. He criticized Alpert's opinion for not accounting for the unique circumstances of the situation in which officers find themselves.
In Beaufort County, Cannon served as an expert witness in the lawsuit of a teenage motorcyclist who was racing in August 2007 when a deputy started chasing him. The pursuit ended when the cruiser struck the teenager's motorcycle. The teen suffered a serious leg injury.
An attorney for the teen later contended that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the deputy used potentially deadly force against him. But a court ruled against him last month.
In a deposition in the Beaufort case, Cannon discussed policies regarding vehicle pursuits. Himself a lawyer, Cannon said that attorneys' opinions often are taken as the "gospel" when it comes to drafting policies but that they're too "cautious."
"The safe thing to do is put in a policy saying we are not going to chase," Cannon said, according to a transcript of the deposition. "Just because you have something in writing ... if your folks are doing something else, it's what they are doing that is your policy."
In the Jan. 30 chase, Cannon argued that he had the maturity and expertise to continue chasing the pickup after it exceeded 120 mph. Though its driver was not wanted on felony charges and checks of his license plate didn't cause alarm, the sheriff said his reckless driving presented more of a danger to the motoring public than the deputies chasing him.
Sheriff's officials said deputies undergo pursuit training every year, but they would not comment further on last month's chase, because it's being reviewed by the State Law Enforcement Division.
But Alpert, who has studied police pursuits for 30 years and has authored FBI studies about the topic, questioned Lt. Ransom Williams' driving to join the chase. His unmarked car, apparently barred from pursuits under the sheriff's regulations, was clocked at 133 mph.
"That's way too fast ... unless it's some terrorist attack," Alpert said. "If it's a traffic offense, it usually doesn't justify putting the public at risk."
Cameron Brown knows well that a single misstep can ruin a career in law enforcement.
Brown was fired from his job as a Charleston County deputy for "unbecoming conduct" after he found his wife with another man, he said.
But it was what his roommate at the police academy did during an April 2008 pursuit that caught headlines.
Christopher Lanoue was one of several deputies restraining a 17-year-old who had fled at 100 mph and crashed into a wall near the Citadel Mall in West Ashley. As the teen was being handcuffed, a video shows Lanoue kneeing and kicking him in the head.
Lanoue was fired soon after the incident and now runs a power-washing business. The teen didn't suffer any long-lasting injuries.
"To be honest with you, I did the same thing when I was there," Brown, now a law student in Florida, said. "I was beating up suspects in parking lots. It happened. Problem is, (Lanoue) was on camera."
Video in the Jan. 30 chase shows a deputy punching the suspect, Timothy Shawn McManus, who had gotten out of his pickup. After a K-9 deputy enters the picture, a dog bites McManus' arm for about 23 seconds.
Acting out of anger, Cannon later slapped McManus as he sat in a patrol car.
McManus' attorney, David Johnson of Charleston, would not comment on his client's motive for leading deputies on the chase. Johnson would say only that his client was considering suing the Sheriff's Office.
"We do feel his civil liberties were violated," Johnson said.
The sheriff's supporters said deputies were warranted in their efforts to stop McManus' pickup and then use a police dog to help subdue him. They also said McManus' history of run-ins with police should be considered: He has had multiple encounters with the Mount Pleasant Police Department in the past year.
"What is clear is that McManus was a habitual threat to the general public, and none of the criminal actions taken against him thus far have hampered his ability to threaten the community," said Sandy Senn, a Charleston attorney representing the Sheriff's Office. "He was going to hurt somebody sooner or later, plain and simple."
Highlights from local agency's pursuit policies:
Charleston County Sheriff's Office
•No use of firearms on moving vehicle "except as ultimate measure of self-defense or the defense of another when the suspect is using deadly force by any means."
•Unmarked vehicles can't initiate or participate unless failing to act creates an unreasonable risk of serious injury or property damage.
Berkeley County Sheriff's Office
•Use cruisers with most prominent markings.
•Limit the use of firearms against a moving vehicle, only use in the case of "ultimate measure" of self-defense or defense of others.
Dorchester County Sheriff's Office
•No unmarked vehicles; 360-degree flashing lights needed.
•All aspects of a pursuit will be reviewed.
Mount Pleasant Police Department
•Strictly regulates pursuits because they "present a danger to the lives of the public, officers and suspects involved."
•Terminating a pursuit "may be the most rational means of preserving the lives and property of both the public and the officers and the suspects."
Charleston Police Department
•Can pursue vehicles if strict guidelines are met, "but only with due regard for the safety of other persons."
•Strictly prohibits unmarked cars.
•Only pursue suspects wanted for violent crimes or could potentially use a firearm or explosive device in a crime.
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