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Isn't it time to rethink high-speed pursuits?

The Indianapolis Star
August 9, 2005

The thin blue line is the thick brick wall when it comes to police chases in Marion County.

Most officers and law enforcement leaders vigorously defend the practice. They need it to catch bad guys, they say.

So Central Indiana citizens have been forced to accept high-speed pursuits as a potentially deadly experience that can victimize any of us.

Last week's 110-mph chase on the Northside left two people dead. Leonard D. Moss Jr., 22, the driver, was wanted on drug and traffic warrants when he was stopped for speeding, then took off.

Kelly L. Baker, 19, his innocent passenger, was simply out on a date with a guy she barely knew. Both were killed when Moss hit a utility pole.

The Marion County Sheriff's Department has defended the actions of Cpl. Ronald Shelnutt, who led the pursuit.

But the Leaf/Radford Alliance is here to challenge the police party line -- and this case gives their citizens' group a particularly strong platform.

"Police officers need to be very deliberate and demonstrate very sharp critical thinking skills," said John S. Prince, alliance spokesman, speaking of situations where quick judgments are needed. "They need to inherently be able to distance themselves personally from a situation."

But in police chases, he said, the primal instincts kick in and adrenaline flows. Police chases bring out power and control impulses. Officers who don't know when to back down are most likely to take on a high-speed chase -- and have it go very bad.

The alliance was formed in 2001, the result of personal experiences of a stockbroker and a suspected drug dealer -- John Leaf and Dwione Radford, respectively. Both were victims of excessive police force, said Prince, Leaf's brother-in-law and an assistant professor of English at Ball State University.

Here are Radford and Leaf's stories.

Radford was wanted on a drug warrant in 2000. As Marion County sheriff's deputies attempted to serve papers at his house, he fled in his SUV. En route, he ran into a SWAT team. Radford struck a police car. Police opened fire. Radford and a detective were wounded in the gunplay. All this took place within sight of a bus of school children.

A year later, Leaf was shot and killed in his own home by the same deputy who led last week's police chase.

Partying in Broad Ripple one night, Leaf had too much to drink. He gave his keys to a pal and got a cab -- but when he got home, he didn't have his apartment key, so he broke into his own place. Neighbors called police. Two officers responded, including Shelnutt. Shelnutt entered the apartment and said Leaf lunged at him with a knife.

The Leaf family has a lawsuit pending against the officer. They claim his history of rash decision-making is evident in both Leaf's death and last week's chase.

The Sheriff's Department has defended Shelnutt and called him a "good deputy."

Let the courts decide that. In the meantime, the community should pressure police to revise its pursuit policies -- which bring out the worst instincts.

Ruth Holladay's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. You can reach her at (317) 444-6405 or via e-mail at ruth.holladay@indystar.com

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