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

Chases take place more often in the city of St. Louis, despite changes in May 2002 that make the city's pursuit policy nearly identical to the county's rules. Previously, city officers were allowed to chase for misdemeanors. "Our [current] guideline is pretty simple, and it's pretty restrictive: You can pursue when there is the threatened use or use of deadly force," Nocchiero says. The change has dramatically cut the number of chases: Officers averaged 37 pursuits per quarter in the nine quarters before the policy change, with as many as 60 pursuits in a three-month period. Since the change, the city has averaged slightly more than twenty pursuits per quarter, still substantially higher than the county's chase rate. Nocchiero attributes the difference to crime demographics. City cops, he says, target violent criminals more often than their counterparts in the county. "It's apples and oranges," he says.

Though recruits at the county and city police academies are drilled on pursuit policies, they do most of their learning on the job -- even though they're more likely to chase someone than fire a gun. "We teach nothing at the academy about pursuing vehicles," Gregory says. "We don't train on it." One reason, the captain says, is finding a place to practice. "I can sit you in a classroom and say, 'This is what you do; this is what you don't do.' But there comes a time when you've got to get some practical exercise in it. So what do I do? Clear the highways and tell the highway department, 'We're going to be practicing pursuit driving today, and we're going to be chasing a car down the highway at 90 mph?"

Under a model pursuit policy drafted by Alpert's research team, no officer should engage in a pursuit unless he's passed a pursuit-driving course. The Missouri Highway Patrol, which allows troopers to chase for anything from a broken taillight to a murder, puts recruits though such a class at its driving range in Jefferson City, where recruits in helmets and five-point restraint harnesses practice chasing at high speeds. Some local cops wish they had the chance.

Ryan Lee King
Ryan Lee King

"I would like to do it; however, police departments run on limited budgets, and so does the academy," says Captain Henry Mansker of the Hazelwood Police Department. "I have to go with whatever is available at the training facilities that are locally available. Let's just say it's a bad situation."

During the past year, Mansker says, Hazelwood officers have engaged in about four pursuits, with supervisors ordering officers to back off between ten and fifteen other times. Like St. Louis County, Hazelwood has banned chases unless the quarry has used or threatened to use deadly force. The number of patrol cars in a pursuit is limited to two, and other officers can't parallel the route unless they drive the speed limit.

It may sound simple on paper. But a 45-minute chase through Hazelwood and several other cities on St. Patrick's Day shows how circumstances can force potentially deadly decisions that stretch the rules to the breaking point.

The chase began after a robber punched a convenience-store clerk in Overland and snatched $170 from the cash register. Although the robbery didn't involve deadly force, the bandit nearly killed several people as he sped through North St. Louis County at speeds as high as 90 mph, with officers from several departments on his tail.

Berkeley police joined in after the robber struck a car driven by an elderly woman inside their city limits. Captain Frank McCall of the Berkeley Police Department says the accident justified his officers' getting involved. "No offenses had occurred in Berkeley," McCall says. "We had not involved ourselves in it until after she was struck. Now you have a felony -- leaving the scene of an accident with an injury."

Berkeley's pursuit policy lists crimes that justify pursuits, and leaving the scene of an injury accident isn't among them. Besides the accident, McCall says, the pursuit was justified because the robber was suspected in a string of robberies. "In my opinion, to me, it was very dangerous," he says. "It would have been very easy when he hit the lady to say, 'He's going to hit people. Let's stop.' But that would have left him available to do what he had been doing in the past."

The pursuit crossed through Hazelwood, where the fleeing robber struck a motorist while driving northbound in the southbound lanes of Howdershell Road. The chase finally ended near I-270, where the robber was driving the wrong way on McDonnell Boulevard when an oncoming Hazelwood officer struck him. "He [the officer] thought that he would go toward him hoping he would give up, theoretically," Mansker says. "When they got close to each other, one went one way, the other went the same way, and that's when they ran into each other. He was really trying to get to a position where he could block the road, I think, so that this guy had no place to go. They both made a bad judgment, I suspect." The most seriously injured person was the elderly woman who was struck in Berkeley. McCall says she was released from the hospital after one day.

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