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CHP needs to pursue new policy
By Bill McEwen
The Fresno Bee

January 20, 2004 -- A good cop would never fire a gun into a crowd while pursuing a criminal because the odds of hurting a bystander are too great.

Why then does law enforcement allow officers to chase traffic offenders and stolen-car suspects at high speeds on busy streets?

With 3,000 deaths attributed to police pursuits over the past 10 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, ordinary citizens and right-minded police chiefs are asking that question.

Those willing to look beyond the myth that you invite more crime by breaking off the chase have arrived at the same answer: High-speed pursuits are dangerous to everyone, including police officers, and should be used only to nab violent felons.

Police in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami and Seattle, to name a few, have ordered their officers to stop chasing traffic offenders and minor-crime suspects.

Among the holdouts is the California Highway Patrol, which clings to the cowboy mentality that high-speed pursuits are good police work and often take hard-core felons off the street.

That's the defense the CHP used for its pursuit of a speeder in a chain of events that culminated in the death of Adam McKinnis, 22, at a Fresno intersection this month.

McKinnis, his wife and his 15-month-old son were driving to church when a car driven by the alleged speeder, Christopher Williams, crashed into their car.

Studies of police pursuits show that more than half of the people fleeing police do so for minor traffic violations and 40% of chases result in crashes.

"The myth is that there's a dead body in every trunk, but for the most part, these are just people making really bad decisions," Geoffrey P. Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor, says of drivers who refuse to pull over when the siren sounds.

"When you compare the risk of the chase and the ruined lives of a family versus the crime involved, it's not worth it."

Alpert has helped write pursuit policies for agencies throughout the country. He says helicopters are superior to cars in arresting fleeing suspects.

"Studies of helicopters in Miami and Baltimore show they are 90% effective with no injuries and minimal resistance," Alpert says.

The CHP also is in denial about another myth of high-speed chases -- they won't have another chance to catch lawbreakers. Truth is, with good police work, the CHP can find them another day. Other agencies do, because they train officers to think that way.

The big question, in the face of overwhelming evidence documenting the foolishness of chasing traffic scofflaws: Why does the CHP continue to needlessly risk lives?

Just a theory, but I believe the CHP is isolated from the community it serves. When a chase by a city cop goes bad, the local police chief feels the heat -- from families of victims, the mayor and the chief's next-door neighbors. When a CHP chase results in death and injury to innocents, the top brass is protected by bureaucracy.

That's why it's imperative for local legislators to question the CHP pursuit policy and demand that the agency do better.

"In many ways, the CHP is a very good department," Alpert says. "But they need to rethink their policy and some of their training. They are behind the times."

The columnist can be reached at bmcewen@fresnobee.com or 441-663

Copyrighted article reprinted with permission.  

 

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