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

Smith was on probation for unlawful use of a weapon and is in jail pending sentencing on a probation-revocation charge. On May 29, he was charged with resisting arrest and driving while intoxicated.

In Bel-Nor, Chief Lauer says motorists who run from cops should automatically go to prison. "Instant time," he says. "I think it should be an instant two years, just like when you refuse a breath test on a DWI, you lose your license." Morris agrees that punishment should be swift and sure. "I think prosecutors and judges need to send a message out to the people who do this," the captain says. "If you're going to run from the police, there's going to be some severe consequences."

Running from police is a felony in Missouri, but the law isn't always used. A spokesman for St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch did not return a call, but in the city of St. Louis, Graviss says, the circuit attorney's office doesn't charge motorists who flee if no one is hurt and no other charges are involved.

Mark Andresen
Mark Andresen

"If it's a case where the person drives fast, gets away and doesn't really commit any major traffic violations and doesn't put children and other vehicles in danger, then we usually won't charge unless we've charged an underlying offense as well," Graviss says. She cites a hypothetical example of a robbery victim who refuses to press charges. "While the charge that they were pursuing the person for was an extremely serious charge, we don't have a case pending on the robbery and a jury would wonder what's going on," she says. More typically, decisions to forgo prosecution involve fleeing motorists with outstanding warrants. "There's a very good chance that a judge would say, 'Well, you can get into the fact that the person had a warrant out for their arrest, but you can't talk about what it's for,'" she says.

Lawmakers in some states are trying to put the brakes on pursuits.

After thirteen people died in Mississippi during police pursuits in 2002, lawmakers in that state considered but did not pass a bill to establish a statewide pursuit policy and mandate pursuit training for police. But Mississippi legislators did approve a compromise measure that establishes a state commission on police pursuits that includes cops, prosecutors and citizens, including people injured in pursuits and relatives of people who were injured or died. In New Mexico, the Legislature this spring unanimously passed a bill requiring sixteen hours of pursuit training for police recruits.

Despite the danger, police still chase someone nearly every day somewhere in Missouri, where departments are free to set their own rules.

On May 20, a St. Charles County sheriff's deputy chased a shoplifter more than ten miles into Chesterfield. The passenger had stolen four suits worth $1,610 from the Mid Rivers Mall in St. Peters, and the driver, who was also charged with stealing, was wanted for several warrants. Craig McGuire, spokesman for the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department, says speeds exceeded 100 mph on I-70 after the chase began at the First Capitol Drive interchange. The deputy chased even though store security had the shoplifter on videotape and employees had written down the license-plate number of the car, which was owned by the getaway driver. McGuire downplays any risk and says deputies are trained to stay at least a quarter-mile behind a fleeing driver.

"We simply kept it in view," McGuire says. "We tried, more or less, to make it a controlled pursuit. Obviously we're not going to chase someone very hard that only did a stealing, whereas we're going to chase someone pretty hard who shot somebody at the casino."

But Alpert says police shouldn't be chasing thieves.

"One of the things we tell these cops in training sessions is, one, how do you get them to stop if they don't want to stop other than a deadly-force application," he says. "Number two, we personalize it: How would you feel if your wife or your kids were killed in a crash by one of your colleagues who was chasing someone for a stolen car or a stolen TV?"

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