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Are high-speed chases worth the costs?

COLUMBIA (AP) At least 1 in 10 S.C. high-speed police pursuits in the past decade has resulted in a crash with an innocent bystander, often causing injury or death,  according to a review of media reports by The State newspaper.

Each of those chases were initiated over traffic violations or other nonviolent crimes, raising alarms by affected families and national law enforcement experts that say the pursuits are not worth the risk to the public.

The exact number of affected bystanders is not known because no state agency or organization collects data on high-speed pursuits among all S.C. law enforcement.

But a review of data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ranks South Carolina in the top 10 nationally for deaths as a result of police pursuits per capita.

When the suspects running from the police are considered, the rate of injury or death spikes to one of every three pursuits in the past decade, according to The State newspaper’s analysis.

“You could, literally, be driving down the road, minding your own business, and be killed in a police pursuit,” said Tulsa, Oklahoma, Police Maj. Travis Yates, who runs SAFETAC, a national pursuit-training academy. “That’s a real danger to citizens, and no one is even talking about it.”

Today, there is a national push among law enforcement to initiate high-speed chases only when a driver is suspected of a violent crime such as murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery and aggravated assault.

Despite that, S.C. law enforcement shows no sign of slowing down:

  • Three teens were killed in Irmo in May after fleeing police and crashing a stolen car.
  • A 30-year-old Columbia man was killed earlier in June in Irmo after fleeing a checkpoint.
  • A 29-year-old West Columbia man was shot by deputies in March after leading them on a pursuit and initiating an hourslong standoff on I-26. It started because he matched the description of a suspect running from a disabled car with a bag in his hand.

Some S.C. sheriffs say the suspects are the ones who initiate the high-speed chase, not their deputies. They defend the pursuits, saying it’s impossible to tell what a person has done, or is about to do, when running from the police.

“They’re running for a reason and that’s because they’ve done something wrong, and our job is to arrest those who break the law,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. “We’re preventing other crimes. There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever.”

But experts say police should make decisions based only on what they know at the time, not assumptions. In addition, that kind of mindset doesn’t take into account the risk police chases pose to others on the road.

“I’ve seen the cost. I’ve spoken with parents who have lost their innocent kids in police pursuits,” Yates said. “If all we know at the time is that it’s a minor offense or a traffic offense, is that really worth someone being severely injured or dying?”

People who run from the police do so for a reason, but that reason is usually shortsighted, said Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor who studies high-speed pursuits and has helped departments write their policies.

“The myth is there’s a dead body in the trunk or that these are bad, violent criminals and, for the most part, they’re not. A lot of them are car thieves,” he said.

Some say GPS tracking technology has limited the need for some high-speed pursuits. Law enforcement agencies around the country are using equipment from StarChase, a Virginia Beach-based company, to tag the cars of fleeing suspects. Officers can launch the GPS tag from the front bumper of their patrol car, or using a handheld launcher.

Alpert said it’s more than 90 percent effective at apprehending suspects without causing a collision, but he hasn’t heard of any S.C. agency using this technology, mainly because of the cost.

The money needed to defend lawsuits following high-speed chases doesn’t come out of the budget of law enforcement agencies, but money for that technology does, he said.

One of the few S.C. lawmakers with police experience said he knows the hazards of such pursuits first-hand and would like to see some change.

“A high-speed chase is one of the most dangerous things you can do,” said state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens. “It’s not worth taking someone’s life just to chase a speeder.”

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