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Police pressured to call off chase

By Valerie Alvord 
Special for USA TODAY
January 5, 2003Linda and Larry McCoy run their grass-roots crusade with a single telephone in the corner of an office in Jackson, Miss. They check their messages each day, bracing for new stories about innocent bystanders killed during police chases of fleeing drivers.

More than 3,000 people died in crashes during police pursuits in the past decade, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says. In 2001, 365 people died, including 140 who weren't in a police car or a vehicle being chased. Robin McCoy, 18, an honor student at Jackson State University, was one of them.

Her parents have become activists, urging politicians to finance more training for police and to adopt laws that restrict the circumstances under which police can launch high-speed chases.

"We are not anti-police," says Larry McCoy, 50, who operates a nursing agency in Jackson and in his spare time promotes Victims of Police Pursuit, the organization he and his wife founded. "We are not asking that they ban all police chases. What we're asking, among other things, is that police officers receive adequate training."

The McCoys are not alone. Across the nation, support is building among civil libertarians, law enforcement experts and many police officers to eliminate most chases — those that start when motorists flee over minor traffic infractions. More than half of all police chases are triggered by such incidents, federal statistics show, and 40% of chases result in crashes.

The casualties among innocent people put cities and their police departments at risk of liability lawsuits. Cities in New Mexico, Oregon and Nevada have settled such lawsuits out of court for $1 million or more because "the sympathies of juries are with the victim," says David Lesh, an Oregon attorney and law enforcement consultant.

Some states, including California, have laws shielding police from such liability. Lesh says that could change in the aftermath of incidents such as two recent cases in Los Angeles. A 4-year-old girl was killed during a chase in June. And a baby boy lost an arm during a pursuit last month when his parents' SUV was broadsided by a fleeing car.

"It doesn't take too many of those tragic stories to make people feel that immunity laws are just too one-sided," Lesh says.

Activity to scale back police chases is moving on several fronts:

* In California, Mississippi, New Jersey and Texas, victims' families have set up groups to lobby for changes in state and federal laws.

* Police and sheriff's departments in communities including Baltimore; Austin; Salt Lake City; Peachtree City, Ga.; North Miami Beach; and Orange County, Calif., are adopting policies that ban or curtail chases and make greater use of techniques to identify and stop motorists without chasing them.

* In Las Vegas, the nation's fastest-growing major city, Bill Young will consider tougher rules when he becomes head of the Metropolitan Police Department today.

* The most dramatic change could come in Los Angeles, where aerial coverage of police chases is often beamed nationwide by cable TV networks. The city's police commission, at the urging of new Chief William Bratton, is expected to consider strict rules on chases Tuesday.

"He's looking for a way to strike a balance, where we don't put people at risk by police pursuits and we also don't put them at risk by allowing dangerous criminals to get away," Deputy Police Chief George Gascon says.

The department's research showed that Los Angeles has the highest number of chases among 17 cities surveyed. In 2001, Los Angeles had 781 chases, 283 collisions, 139 collisions involving injuries and six deaths.

In neighboring Orange County, which has a more restrictive pursuit policy and a population of 2.8 million, about 1 million fewer than Los Angeles, there were eight pursuits, one collision and no injuries.

Research "debunks the myth" that most suspects chased by police are serious criminals, says Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. "Most are deadbeats making stupid decisions to avoid being caught for not having a license or some offense that would be very minor compared to what happens when they initiate a pursuit."

Some experts say reining in police who are accustomed to giving chase any time a driver flees can be difficult.

"I was a young policeman in Savannah, Ga., where we chased everything we saw. But we have to stop that," says Jim Murray, police chief in Peachtree City, a suburb of Atlanta. The city has restrictive chase policies, but a pursuit last year that began in an adjacent community sped through Peachtree City and ended in a collision that killed an innocent motorist, Norman Charles Vicha, 41.

Vicha's mother, Alice, often pores over police videotapes of the chase, pointing out the things that went wrong. "If (police) had known the right maneuvers, they could have stopped it," she says.

Murray has also seen the tapes. "The pursuit went through a local shopping center at 60 miles per hour with little kids and shoppers diving out of the way," he says. "At some point, common sense has to take over."

Murray's letters calling on the governor of Georgia and President Bush to do something about deadly chases netted him international publicity, a few nasty letters from colleagues and appreciative phone calls from victims and victims' relatives.

Murray says more police are using technology, not chases, to stop fleeing cars. Strips of nails laid across highways flatten tires. Helicopters safely track vehicles from the air. And devices are being developed to disable cars electronically.

Murray is a hero to Candy Priano of Chico, Calif. Her daughter Kristie, 15, a high school track and basketball star, honor student and animal-rescue volunteer, was killed last year when a teenager being pursued by police smashed into the family's car. Priano is lobbying for a law that would create one chase policy for all police jurisdictions in California.

Another friend of the movement is Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., whose mother was killed when a suspect under pursuit slammed into her car in 1986. He says police in his mother's hometown of Bismarck, N.D., were chasing a pickup truck driver who refused to stop after fishtailing on snowy streets.

"I can understand that police would pursue if there were a bank robbery and guns were blazing," Dorgan says. "But this was just absurd."

Dorgan says he pushes for legislation at every opportunity, and won $1 million a year for training police for pursuits.

Bill Berger, past president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, says the organization recommends chasing only as a last resort. He predicts that police departments across the country eventually will adopt restrictive policies because of the danger to bystanders and the fear of lawsuits.

A restrictive policy might have saved the lives of Rodney and Wendy Stokes of Apopka, Fla. The newlyweds, 24 and 21 respectively, were killed in South Carolina in 1996 during a chase after a driver fled a traffic check. "Two innocent people," says Roger Stokes, Rodney's father. "It didn't have to happen."


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