Despite the cost, local cops can't resist deadly pursuits

"It's a human enterprise," Nocchiero says. "One of the things we've found is that, although we've made mistakes, every policeman was trying to do the right thing."

Talk to cops who've been around a decade or two, and you'll hear plenty of war stories about the days when police chased anyone who fled and running out of gas was the only reason to stop. Captain Ken Gregory, director of the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy, has one straight from a Blues Brothers movie.

Mark Andresen
Terrye Martin
Terrye Martin

The chase began on a Saturday about ten years ago when an off-duty officer got into a scuffle with a shoplifter outside a west St. Louis County mall. After wrestling for the officer's gun, the thief jumped into a Jeep and the race was on.

Gregory was merging onto I-270. "Man, I looked west and all you could see was red lights and headlights," he recalls. "By the time they passed me, there must have been 25 police cars behind this guy in this Jeep. He was just tooling along at 65 or 70 mph, but he wasn't stopping."

Gregory and other officers joined in over several miles until three-dozen-or-so cops were following the Jeep. Then someone arranged for a tractor-trailer to block I-70 near Lambert Airport. The truck left one lane open, and the Jeep took it. "I wish you would have seen the slamming of brakes of 30 to 40 police cars trying to avoid colliding, rear-ending each other," the captain recalls with a slight chuckle. Eventually the thief was arrested in East St. Louis with the help of a police helicopter.

Today, such tactics are forbidden by St. Louis County police and several other local departments, which discourage roadblocks, limit pursuers to two cars at any given time and ban chases except when the crime threatens lives and there's no alternative. "What were we thinking?" Gregory says. "I'm sure a lot of chiefs have looked back on those days and said, 'What were we thinking?' There's just very little positive about pursuit driving, more negatives than anything."

Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina and one of the nation's leading experts on pursuits, says cops shouldn't chase unless a violent felony is involved, and that's rarely the case when someone runs. "There are two big myths about this whole pursuit issue," Alpert says. "One of them is that if police departments don't chase, then everyone's going to run. That's not true. The other myth is that people run because there's a dead body in every trunk. That's not true. People who flee are just being really stupid. The reason they're running really doesn't make a lot of sense."

In a 2000 study funded by the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, Alpert's research team examined 144 chases and found that driving a stolen car -- cited by 32 percent of drivers who were caught -- was the most common reason for fleeing police. Twenty-eight percent of fleeing motorists ran because they were driving with suspended licenses and 22 percent fled because they were driving while intoxicated. In Missouri, statistics compiled by the Highway Patrol show that between 70 and 81 percent of patrol pursuits between 1996 and 2001 were a result of traffic violations and fewer than 15 percent involved felonies. In 2001, 39 percent of fleeing drivers who were caught told troopers they were trying to avoid being arrested for driving while intoxicated.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that about 40 percent of chases end in accidents, with 20 percent resulting in injuries and 1 percent causing deaths. Between 1986 and 2001, the most recent year for which statistics are available, an average of 323 people across the nation died each year during police pursuits, according to NHTSA.

David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, can't explain why pursuits have resulted in so many deaths in the metropolitan area during the past two years. A former officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, Klinger says cops remain divided over when chases are justified, despite a nationwide trend toward limiting pursuits. "Some say you will not pursue at all no matter what; some say that you're only allowed to pursue when you have probable cause to believe it's a felony suspect," Klinger says. "The people who say, 'Never pursue,' I think, are not thinking clearly. The question is, how serious a crime are we going to start chasing at? That's where I think the legitimate debate is."

In St. Louis County, officers cannot pursue unless a suspect has committed or attempted to commit a felony with the use or threat of deadly force and there is a "substantial risk" that the quarry will cause death or serious injury if he isn't immediately caught. The policy also requires the department to keep track of chases on a quarterly basis. There aren't very many. During the past two years, county officers have reported engaging in no more than three pursuits during any three-month period. Traffic stops during each of those quarters numbered between 15,000 and 16,900, according to county police records, and there were no serious injuries or deaths in pursuit-related accidents. The quarterly reports show chases were terminated for relatively serious crimes, such as an incident in March in which a man suspected of drug violations rammed a department car and drove toward an officer, and trivial matters, including an incident two years ago in which someone in North St. Louis County drove an all-terrain vehicle without headlights on Patterson Road at 15 mph and refused to pull over.

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