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

Quall's decision to chase outside the city limits appears at odds with Bel-Nor's pursuit policy, which states: "Under no circumstances will a fresh pursuit be carried out of the city for anything other than a dangerous felony as defined in this procedure." Inside city limits, officers may chase for any reason, so long as they believe conditions are safe. Bel-Nor Police Chief Matthew Lauer defends Quall's actions, saying he followed the policy.

"Are you aware if you're driving dangerously and causing danger to other people, that's a felony now?" the chief says. Brad Kessler, a defense attorney who has represented motorists who've fled police, says the chief is mistaken: Unless someone is killed or injured, driving erratically or at a high rate of speed is a misdemeanor under state law. "He's out of his fucking mind," Kessler says. "That is not the law." Although it's a felony to flee police, Jeannette Graviss, chief warrant officer in the St. Louis circuit attorney's office, also says dangerous driving is a misdemeanor if no one is hurt.

In any case, Lauer says, Qualls had turned off his lights and siren shortly before the accident. "It got too dangerous," Lauer says. "That's why he didn't continue." Normandy Police Chief John Connolly says he spoke with Lauer after the accident, but he declined to say what he told the chief or to state his opinion on whether the pursuit was justified. "I do have an opinion, but I would rather not publicize that," Connolly says. "That is an internal matter for the Bel-Nor chief and police department to handle themselves." Lauer says the Normandy chief wasn't pleased. "He was unhappy that it happened in his town, but anybody would be," Lauer says. "The only thing he expressed to me is he was sorry it happened and he felt for the family."

Mark Andresen
Mark Andresen

Connolly instituted a strict pursuit policy shortly after he was named chief, banning pursuits unless the fleeing motorist has committed -- or would commit -- a life-threatening crime. The policy also states that no officer will be disciplined, or even criticized, for not engaging in a pursuit. Although no one has complained directly to him, the chief says he believes some officers resent the new rules.

"A typical devil's-advocate policeman will say, 'Oh, they were acting in a dangerous way,' and all that," Connolly says. "Too bad. They might be acting that way because of the fact you're chasing them."

The pursuit policy is considerably more liberal in Bel-Nor, a tiny town of 1,600 where officers may chase for any reason, so long as they remain within city limits. Lauer says he's considering changing the policy to allow pursuits only when violent felonies are involved but insists that the January tragedy played no role in his decision to consider amending the rules.

In St. John, police say they weren't, at least technically, pursuing a stolen Nissan Maxima on December 20 that went airborne and through a brick wall at Overland Church of Christ, landing in the sanctuary and causing an estimated $80,000 in damage. As the Maxima caught air, the pursuing officer, who didn't stop for a flashing red light at Midland and Brown roads, was broadsided by a motorist whose attention was focused on the Maxima that had just blazed through the intersection, headlights turned off.

St. John officer Robert Connell, who was behind the Maxima on Brown Road, didn't know it was stolen. Rather, he flipped on the emergency lights after spotting the car weaving on St. Charles Rock Road shortly before 2 a.m. "He never did actually call out an actual pursuit," says Captain J.R. Morris of the St. John Police Department. "I think he was more attempting to locate the vehicle as opposed to pursuing the vehicle." However, the officer's onboard video camera shows that the officer never lost sight of the Maxima as it sped down Brown Road.

The incident sure looks like a chase, judging from the video, which shows Connell blowing through two stop signs before his car was hit. Thomas Rhine, the motorist who struck Connell, estimated the Nissan's speed at 100 mph. In his report, Connell doesn't say just how fast he was traveling, stating that he followed "at my same regular rate of speed" and slowed down as he approached the intersection where he was hit.

Despite the video and Rhine's statement that the Nissan was traveling at high speed, Morris says an accident reconstructionist reported the Nissan was traveling at 33 mph, just three miles per hour over the limit, when it struck the church and that Connell was driving at 35 mph when he was hit. Morris says he can't explain the finding, given that the video, which began when Connell turned on his emergency lights, reveals both cars covering more than a half-mile in about 30 seconds.

A woman riding in the stolen car was thrown onto the church lawn before the Nissan struck the building, landed upside down in the sanctuary and caught fire with the driver, Trahann Smith, and another passenger trapped inside. "I can't believe somebody didn't get killed," Morris says. Morris, who reviewed the incident, says Connell was within the department's pursuit policy, which allows officers to chase anyone who refuses to stop and allows officers to follow vehicles at a "safe speed" after pursuits are terminated.

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