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

Paramedic Timothy Wersching says King asked why no one was helping the man in the red car. "Because you're the only patient we have," Wersching's partner answered. It didn't sink in -- King again asked why no one was helping the other guy. A paramedic leaned close and repeated: "You are the only patient. The other person is dead."

"I killed him?" King exclaimed, according to Wersching's court testimony. "I can't believe it. It should have been me. I can't believe I've done this."

It would have been a miracle if Harrison had survived. Paramedic David Pitts testified that the Oldsmobile was so crushed that it appeared Harrison was sitting in the passenger seat when the car was viewed from the passenger side and that he was in the driver's seat when the viewer stood on the driver's side. Pitts said he couldn't see below Harrison's chest, nor could he squeeze his hand inside the car below window level to examine Harrison. John Rader, Harrison's roommate, had trouble recognizing the Oldsmobile when police asked him to take a look. "I really couldn't identify it too well, it was so smashed up," Rader recalled. "But I did see the dealer sticker on it, and that was where he bought the car."

Mark Andresen
Mark Andresen

Unfortunately for King, a state law took effect just four days before the accident that allows prosecutors to file second-degree murder charges in cases in which someone dies as a result of scofflaws' fleeing police. King is believed to be the first person charged under the new statute. His murder trial is set for July.

Noting that Lewis had slowed down and turned off his lights and siren before the collision, Valerie Held, King's attorney, says the new law shouldn't apply to her client. "That's one of my arguments: This did not occur during a pursuit," she says. "Certainly it's not a felony murder."

Although officers in St. Peters aren't supposed to chase for anything other than a dangerous felony, Sergeant Dave Kuppler, a spokesman for the St. Peters police, says Lewis followed policy. "Once he started to actively resist the police officer's attempts to pull him over -- he sped up and took off -- that's when he [Lewis] was called off by his supervisor," Kuppler says. As in Berkeley, most pursuits that are canceled in St. Peters are stopped by supervisors, Kuppler says. "It is difficult when you're in that situation for yourself to pull back from it," he says. "You want to get the bad guy. You want to make sure that the person who is committing the crime is held accountable for his actions, so it's very difficult to let somebody go, basically get away with what they did."

St. Peters and several other agencies allow officers to follow the suspected route of fleeing motorists after the pursuit has officially ended, so long as they obey traffic laws. That can be risky, according to Alpert's research team, which found that fleeing motorists won't slow down until they have traveled slightly more than two blocks in an urban setting without hearing lights and sirens and between two and two-and-a-half miles on a highway or interstate. Under a model pursuit policy developed by Alpert and his colleagues, officers should return to regular patrol duties once a pursuit has been terminated. "Officers will not follow the suspect but will stop and turn around," the model policy states. "Thus, the suspect will believe he or she is safe, and will slow down, removing the risk to the public."

Nocchiero, the St. Louis police captain, defends the city's policy allowing officers to follow the suspected route after a pursuit has ended. He notes that Alpert's team interviewed lawbreaking motorists to determine when they would have slowed down. "I'm not sure the respondents are the kind that would give me an honest opinion," the St. Louis captain says. "They're fleeing felons. I guess I've been in the business too long. If you're chasing me and I've just committed an armed robbery and I'm in the city, here's when I'll stop: when I can get rid of the car I'm in or hide. All these felons know I can communicate with 100 other police cars on the streets."

St. Peters isn't the only city where someone has died as a result of a pursuit that began over a traffic violation.

With eight fatalities in five accidents, St. Louis has had the most deaths. All occurred while officers were chasing for relatively serious crimes, including carjackings, robberies and auto thefts. In contrast, at least three people have been killed in suburban areas when police chased for reasons of traffic violations.

On January 15, Eddie Robinson, 69, lost his life when he left an Amoco station on Natural Bridge Road, pulling into the path of a Chrysler New Yorker piloted by a fifteen-year-old boy who was fleeing Bel-Nor officer John Qualls.

The chase began at 9:45 a.m., when Qualls spotted the Chrysler -- later found to have been stolen -- on Natural Bridge Road, cruising at 50 mph in a 30-mph zone. The boy sped up to approximately 65 mph after Qualls turned on his emergency lights. Qualls says he twice tried to tell a dispatcher that he was going to stop the pursuit but got no response. After leaving the city limits and entering Normandy, Qualls saw the Chrysler swerving into the center turn lane as it continued gaining speed. As he was preparing to turn around and return to Bel-Nor, Qualls says, he saw the Chrysler T-bone Robinson's car at the driver's door. The pursuit lasted for about a mile, according to police reports. Just what charges the boy is facing isn't a matter of public record, but a source inside the juvenile-court system says he hasn't been charged with murder.

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