When should police chase suspects fleeing in vehicles?

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Expert weighs in on pursuits

GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – National data shows more than 300 people die each year in police chases.

In July, two people in the Upstate were killed after pursuits involving troopers with the South Carolina Highway Patrol.

“It felt like a bomb went off, an explosion,” said Shirley Neimeyer, whose daughter was killed after a suspect allegedly fled a checkpoint and crashed into Neimeyer’s home.

“The house shook,” she recalled.

The suspect fleeing a license checkpoint hit Neimeyer’s house in Seneca on July 1. The car landed on her daughter Vanessa’s bed, killing her.

“The only grandchild my parents have,” Neimeyer said. “And my only daughter.”

Neimeyer said her daughter had worked in film and was a big fan of Harry Potter.

“She was always joyful. She had a wry sense of humor, and she would make jokes,” Neimeyer said. “She would just get so excited about different things.”

Exactly one week after the crash that killed Vanessa Neimeyer, a trooper pursued another car on I-85 in Greenville for going 56 miles per hour in a 40 mph zone, according to the incident report. The chase ended in a crash, when the car trying to flee a trooper ran off an exit ramp onto Augusta Road, hit a concrete wall, and went down an embankment. The passenger, Michael Mansell, died at the scene, according to the coroner.

Mansell’s family has hired an attorney. They couldn’t speak to us because of the case.

Neimeyer said she dosen’t think her daughter nor Mansell should have died because of chases over traffic violations.

“I think it’s unnecessary,” she said. “I think it’s too dangerous. I think there should be some changes made regarding car chases.”

According to the S.C. Highway Patrol’s policy, “a pursuit is justified only when the necessity of the apprehension of a suspect outweighs the risks created by the pursuit.”

“I would not consider fleeing for a traffic violation to be worth the risk of a pursuit,” said Seth Stoughton, who is a former police officer and a current professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who studies policing and policing regulation. “I wouldn’t consider fleeing from a check point to be worth the risks of a pursuit.”

He said chases over traffic violations aren’t uncommon.

“Most agencies across the country, certainly a significant percentage of them, still allow officers to pursue for any reason at all,” Stoughton said.

“Suspects often make the choice to flee because of crimes separate from the traffic violation, which is why there is no such thing as a ‘routine traffic stop,'” said Capt. Kelley Hughes, who is the spokesperson for Highway Patrol’s parent agency, the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. “What may have begun as a simple traffic stop may later reveal an armed robbery or murder suspect.”

Stoughton said that assumption isn’t supported by evidence.

“The problem with that particular assumption is that we know, from a couple of empirical studies why most people run,” he said. “Most people run because they’re young and making a stupid decision. Most people who are arrested after a pursuit aren’t charged with serious crimes, other than related to the pursuit itself.”

Stoughton also said that police pursuits don’t discourage people from fleeing.

“[Police pursuits] almost never turn up serious criminals, and most people who are fleeing would slow down and drive with normal traffic if officers terminated the pursuit,” he said.

He said evidence shows that drivers being chased slow down to normal speeds within about 90 seconds of a chase ending, while chases born out till the end can have devastating consequences.

“A couple of big studies put together found that about a third of police pursuits end in property damage, injury or death,” he said.

But what about when drivers pose a harm to others? Both drivers in the crashes that killed Neimeyer and Mansell were charged with DUI. Stoughton told 7News that deciding whether to pursue drivers suspected of DUI can be a lose-lose situation.

“The likelihood of someone crashing at a higher speed  because we’re chasing them is fairly high. The likelihood of someone crashing at a lower speed if not chasing them is, well, lower,” he said. “So would crashing and killing someone be bad either way? Of course it would. But it’s not an equal risk. One risk is higher than the other. So as far as policing and the mission of public safety maybe we should be thinking about mitigating that risk and not letting them get away entirely, but going and getting a warrant and catching them later.”

He said chases are a powerful weapon in law enforcement’s arsenal that should be used only when the threat to public safety outweighs the risk of a chase. The most common line put up in agencies around the country is only chasing drivers suspected of violent felonies. Stoughton said chases are like dynamite: they should be used sometimes, but only when necessary. Neimeyer agrees.

“I know that…they’re trying to do their job. I understand that,” she said. “Especially if it’s a non-violent, if they don’t think there’s a big danger at that point, I think that they shouldn’t.”

Hughes said the troopers pursuing the car that hit Neimeyer’s house were determined to be following policy.

The trooper in the other case was fired for making false statements and did not follow policy because he didn’t report the chase to a supervisor, who would have made the call on whether to keep chasing.

7News’ analysis showed the South Carolina Insurance Reserve Fund has paid out more than $100,000 to the parent agency of Highway Patrol for police chases over the past five years.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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