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Cutting Out the Chase

Tragic accidents involving innocent motorists have forced some law enforcement agencies to modify their pursuit policies.

April 01, 2003  |  by John L. Bellah

If you want to know all the arguments for and against police pursuits, all you have to do is look at a recent case that culminated in a fatal accident on Georgia 54 just outside of Atlanta.

Last July, 37-year-old Loraine McCrary of Jonesboro was involved in a minor traffic mishap in the small central Georgia town of Luthersville. When the local police arrived and ran her license and registration, McCrary fired up her Ford Explorer with her kids inside and ran.

The subsequent 22-mile chase crossed three counties and ended in Peachtree City when McCrary's SUV slammed into a minivan driven by Chuck Vicha. Vicha, 44, was one of four innocent Atlanta-area motorists to die last year in accidents resulting from police chases. And his case is one of the reasons why Georgia agencies are modifying their pursuit policies.

At the time of the tragedy, the public and the press crucified Luthersville Police for endangering the public by chasing a woman at speeds of up to 120 mph just because of a minor traffic incident. However, it was later discovered that McCrary had a reason to rabbit. She was legally drunk, blowing .14; she had a history of passing bad paper, and Luthersville officers pulled 30 fraudulently obtained credit cards from her wrecked Explorer. McCrary, who was partially paralyzed in the accident, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Despite the successful prosecution of McCrary, the Luthersville chase was an unmitigated disaster for all involved. Vicha was killed, McCrary and her children were injured, and the tragedy will forever haunt the officers involved. It's little wonder that after such devastating accidents many police departments nationwide and in Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand are deciding that many car chases just aren't worth the risks.

Grist for the Media Mill

As in the Luthersville case, when police pursuits go bad, the press swarms. So, spurred by the media, the public tends to blame the police every time a pursuit ends unsuccessfully.

Yes, and in a few cases, the police involved are guilty of recklessness and negligence and a just plain lack of common sense. But the real culprit is the rabbit. The motorist has the legal obligation to yield and stop when lawfully signaled by a police officer. The driver who fails to stop and elects to flee is the one responsible for placing his or her life in danger, placing the officers' lives in danger, and is a menace to the civilian population.

Ironically, the same media that pillories the police for chasing suspects has glamorized police pursuits.

Movies such as: "The French Connection," "Vanishing Point," "Bullitt," and, of course, both versions of "Gone in 60 Seconds" reinforce to the public how "cool" pursuits are. Unfortunately, the public doesn't realize that what they are watching in such films is a culmination of carefully orchestrated stunts, trick photography, and special effects.

Most people know that movies are make believe, but reality television shows such as "Cops," "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol," and others have made real-life pursuits attractive.

Even local TV news teams have gotten into the act pre-empting regular television programming whenever an exciting pursuit occurs with "live" coverage. An example of this occurred during O.J. Simpson's famous "low-speed pursuit." People like watching chases so much that there is even a subscription service that immediately notifies the subscriber by telephone or pager when the next live pursuit is broadcast on TV.

Such increased media attention has not done much to curtail pursuits. It's actually fanned the flames, as sick individuals seek their "15 minutes of fame" by trying to outrun the police. This is evidenced by the suspects who contemptuously flaunt the law by brandishing weapons, drinking alcohol, flashing gang symbols-as well as other hand gestures-and waving and smirking at the TV cameras while they drive.

Who Runs

Other than for fame and glory and to impress the "homies," there's another reason why people run from the police. They have nothing to lose and they believe that it's their only chance. Several states have enacted three-strike laws that "reward" repeat offenders with long-even life-prison terms when caught; thus they have another incentive to flee.

Also, as with most crimes involving motor vehicles, drug and alcohol abuse is certainly a factor in police pursuits. Anyone who has any appreciable amount of time in law enforcement knows how alcohol and drugs affect judgment and motor skills. Unfortunately, many pursuits involve impaired drivers running at high speed. Statistics also reflect that almost half of the fatal traffic collisions resulting from police chases involve alcohol and/or drug use.

Juvenile offenders are also big factors in car chases. They get a kick out of joy rides, and they love to hang it on the edge, mistakenly believing that they are immortal and invulnerable. Also, juveniles know that they won't have to do any serious time for any offense short of murder so they can thumb their noses at traffic laws. And finally, juveniles involved in police pursuits are likely to be juiced on alcohol or high on drugs.

Catching Big Fish

The Luthersville case is evidence of the dangers of car chases and the benefits. When someone runs from the police, they probably have a good reason beyond fear of a speeding ticket or whatever infraction originally attracted the attention of law enforcement officers. Any officer nationwide can tell you that terrorist bomber Timothy McVeigh was apprehended because of a minor traffic infraction.

McVeigh didn't run. But under today's climate of discouraging pursuits over traffic offenses, McVeigh could possibly have escaped if he'd decided to rabbit.

Telling criminals that they can get away if they run because law enforcement officers can't chase them won't be good for anybody. To arbitrarily ban all vehicle pursuits will quickly send a message that it is OK to run.

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