NBC 12 Investigates: High speed chase policies around the country - NBC12.com - Richmond, VA News

High speed chase policies around the country

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By Rachel DePompa - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – There's still no word on when local leaders will sit down to discuss changing police pursuit policies. It's been more than a month since a Richmond pastor was killed in Church Hill. Tonight, the Mayor's office tells us no date has been set for a regional summit on police pursuits.

The loudest debate is whether chasing a suspect is even worth it. We investigate what other cities are doing to keep residents, police and even the suspects safe.

Innocent bystanders account for one third of those who are killed in high speed police pursuits. Communities around the country struggle with this issue daily. Some cities restrict chases. Others like Baltimore, Maryland, outright ban them.

Weaving in and out of traffic, reaching speeds of 100 miles an hour, video of a police pursuit in Petersburg looks more like a video game. And the 55-minute pursuit through five localities ended in a crash. There were three young children in a van that fled police -- they were not seriously injured.

One month later, Pastor Anthony Taylor wasn't as fortunate. He was struck and killed by a fleeing suspect in the narrow, neighborhood streets of Church Hill. In 2006, Colonial Heights Lt. Jamie Sears was off duty, driving home from the gym when he was struck by a Chesterfield police officer chasing a suspect.

A two minute search through our video archives found more than 40 police chases that ended in crashes throughout the region in the past two years. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 360 people a year die in high speed police pursuits.

Geoffrey Alpert tells us, "It's an interesting phenomenon when a high profile and popular person is kind of caught in the middle and becomes a victim in a pursuit."

Alpert is a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and is the country's leading expert on police chases. He's written policies for departments and he trained thousands of officers.

He says there are two myths with chases. One, that if police don't chase, everyone's going to run.

Two, "People who flee the police have a dead body in their trunk. In other words everyone who flees is a serious criminal, and we know that's not true. Most are young people making very, very stupid mistakes," he said.

He says New Jersey has a uniform state policy in place. Orlando, Florida, only allows chases of violent offenders. And then there's Baltimore, Maryland; a city on the water, priding itself on baseball, history and tradition. Baltimore's policy is one of the toughest in the nation. Officers are forbidden to chase and are never allowed to exceed the posted speed limit by more than 10 miles an hour.

The streets are narrow and congested, so in the early 90's police commissioner Tom Frazier enacted the ban.

"The police commissioner basically said unless it's an extreme emergency like some murder or a terrorist attack. We're not going to raise the risk to the public... by chasing at high speeds down our streets," said Alpert.

The department says suspects who flee don't get away. They are watched from above by helicopter. Police set up barricades and stop the suspect further down the road in areas deemed safe.

Baltimore's police commissioner says he knows our Chief Bryan Norwood and he denied our request for an interview. But, according to Baltimore's policy, it's better to allow a criminal to temporarily escape rather than jeopardize the safety of citizens and officers.

Richmond police average 100 high speed chases a year. Statewide, Virginia State Police chase 350 suspects.

"It's going to take the chiefs and it's going to take the politicians to take a stance on this and statewide policy would be a good first start," said Alpert.

And even some in Richmond say it may be time to take a closer look at the more restrictive policies.

"Let's look at how Baltimore did it," said Richmond Delegate Delores McQuinn. "You know, you've got New York. I heard that they don't allow that. So, let's look at some of these places and say, 'Ok. How do we model what they are doing and what they're doing is it successful? And if it is successful than could it work here?'"

NBC12 asked a Baltimore police officer if suspects ever get away? He said, "No. We just get them down the road where it's safe."

Delegate Delores McQuinn plans to introduce legislation to study the idea of a state wide police chase policy in January.

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