One-third of those killed in high speed chases are bystanders

Bystanders account for one-third of those who are killed in high-speed police chases, a USA TODAY review has found.

The deaths have several communities around the nation wrestling with whether to restrict pursuits only to suspects in violent crimes.

About 360 people are killed each year in police chases, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Advocates of more restrictive chase policies say the death numbers are lower than the real toll because no mandatory reporting system exists for deaths in pursuits.

Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina who has studied police pursuits since the 1980s, says the actual number of fatalities is “three or four times higher.”

About 35 percent to 40 percent of all police chases end in crashes, Alpert says. He says the nation’s 17,000 police departments are moving toward tighter chase policies “because chasing someone for a traffic offense or a property offense is not worth the risk of people’s lives and well-being.”

Although police chases are dangerous, police who allow suspects to flee run the risk that offenders will do even greater harm to citizens, says Michael Crivello, president of the Milwaukee Police Association and a city police detective.

“They’re fleeing because they may be wanted for sexual assaults, shootings, homicides,” he says. “There are pursuits that are successfully concluded all the time, but you never hear about those.”

Milwaukee changed its policy on pursuits last month after four people were killed by drivers fleeing police in three separate incidents in a two-month period. Police there now must have probable cause that a violent felony has occurred instead of reasonable suspicion before initiating a chase.

Crivello says the change demoralized officers. “They feel as though they are minimized as professionals” and should be trusted to make the decision whether or not to give chase, he says.

Victim can’t ‘be replaced’

When he was killed by a driver fleeing police last month, Apostle Anthony Taylor had just left the church he had led in the Churchill section of Richmond, Va., for nearly two decades.

Taylor, 44, was a vital cog in the community, working to deter young men from lives of crime, advocating for public education and providing cheap meals for senior citizens, those who knew him say.

“The loss to this community, based on his contributions, will never be replaced,” says Virginia state Delegate Delores McQuinn, a Democrat who lives about two blocks from Taylor’s church and knew him for 18 years. “We lost a humanitarian, a visionary leader, a rising star, not only in the church but in the community.”

Taylor was killed when his pickup truck was hit broadside by a man fleeing police in neighboring Henrico County. Authorities say police chased the man after he sped off when an officer approached him at a checkpoint.

Henrico County‘s pursuit policy is less restrictive than Richmond’s. Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones has called a summit of the region’s police departments for early May to work out procedures for handling police pursuits that cross into other jurisdictions that may have different chase policies.

“Our No. 1 ambition is to make sure we have safety for our people,” Jones says. Henrico police say the officers in the chase followed procedures.

Already, Richmond-area police are making changes, Jones says. “We found out that the radio equipment we were using was not universal,” he says. “Even if we wanted to be in contact, we could not have been. We are changing out equipment.”

“The sad thing is when departments make changes, it’s usually after something bad happens, and the public wakes up and says, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” says John Phillips, head of a group advocating safe police chases, PursuitWatch.org. Phillips’ sister, Sarah, 20, was a bystander killed in a police chase in Orange County, Fla., in 2001.

Trying to save lives

Restrictive chase policies save lives, Alpert says. He reported in a National Institute of Justice research paper that police chases in Miami-Dade County dropped from 279 a year to 51 after the department implemented a more restrictive policy.

“These police chases through our streets are killing innocent people,” says Candy Priano of Chico, Calif., executive director of the non-profit group Voices Insisting on Pursuit Safety. She founded it in 2002 after her daughter, Kristie, 15, was killed as a bystander in a police chase.

Michigan state Rep. Bert Johnson, a Detroit Democrat, is pushing to place restrictions on chases, including when they can occur and the number of police vehicles that can participate. “We see high-speed pursuits as a bullet with four wheels,” says Ron Scott, spokesman for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, which supports the bill.

By contrast, St. Petersburg, Fla., this month loosened its policies to allow police to chase those suspected of “forcible felonies” in addition to “violent felonies,” says Maj. Michael Puetz. “It’s a tweak of the policy to let us go ahead and pursue burglary suspects,” he says. “It’s still a restrictive policy.”

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