By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
On parole for a tampering charge, Martin didn't want to go to prison.
"I didn't see the police behind me at first," says Martin in a telephone interview from South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Missouri. "They were about a block back. I just hit the gas and was hoping to get away, for real. The police behind me hit the gas. It was to the floor -- I wasn't easing up on anything."
Martin turned off Kingshighway onto side streets but couldn't shake the cops. He says he'd never been chased by police, and this wasn't what he was expecting.
"I knew they were chasing me, but it wasn't like what you see on TV, with sirens and all," Martin says. "It was quiet. All I saw was in the rearview mirror. I was trying to stay calm and just get away."
After driving a few blocks through a residential area, Martin says, he got back on Kingshighway, driving as fast as he could. Luck stayed with him for six blocks, until he reached Cote Brilliante Avenue, where he ran a red light and plowed broadside into a Toyota Camry driven by Tyrica Fowler, whose three sons were also aboard. An accident-reconstruction team determined that Martin had been traveling at nearly 58 mph.
Six-year-old Derion Brooks, one of Fowler's boys, died after he was thrown from the car and landed headfirst against a tree. Tyrice Dobbins, two years old, suffered minor injuries. Nine-year-old Eric Brooks was comatose for several weeks and still hasn't fully recovered, according to his mother's attorney. And Martin, who's serving 25 years for murder, robbery, armed criminal action and assault, is sorry now.
"After they apprehended me, they took me back to the scene in the paddy wagon and informed me someone was dead," he recalls. "I couldn't do anything but hold my head down and think about what happened."
The tragedy on August 10, 2001, marked the beginning of a rash of deaths and serious injuries in the metropolitan area that have resulted when motorists have fled from police. Since then, at least seventeen people in the St. Louis region have died as a result of motorists' fleeing police, a death rate well above the national norm and the average in Missouri, where an average of seven people are killed each year during police pursuits.
The city of St. Louis has seen the most pursuit-related deaths. In the five fatal accidents that have claimed eight lives in the city since Brooks died, police were chasing for relatively serious crimes, including robbery, carjackings and auto theft. The tragedies have forced the department to tighten its pursuit policy, which until last year allowed officers to chase for virtually any reason. Now, city cops are allowed to chase only when the quarry has used or threatened to use deadly force to commit a felony.
It's a different story in the suburbs, where at least three people have died in chases that began with traffic infractions. With 65 police departments patrolling streets in St. Louis County, policies vary widely. Municipalities with strict pursuit policies adjoin cities that allow pursuits for virtually any reason. And that can be a recipe for disaster as cops stoked on adrenaline chase people who won't stop for anything.
In each of the fatal accidents, police in the city and in the suburbs insist they did nothing wrong. Not everyone agrees. In the case of Brooks' death, a jury may decide the truth.
Fowler has sued the St. Louis police, claiming her son would be alive today if police had turned on lights and sirens to alert her of oncoming danger. The officer behind Martin, however, reported activating his lights and siren, a claim backed by two witnesses, including Robinson's sister, who was riding in the Buick. Fowler also claims that officers, contrary to state law and department policy, did not slow down or stop at controlled intersections.
The department was initially reluctant to admit there was even a chase. Immediately after the accident, Police Chief Joseph Mokwa told the media that police weren't pursuing the Buick. "This did not constitute a chase," the chief told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Rather, department officials said, police were simply following the Buick and trying to keep it in sight.
That's not what city lawyers say in response to Fowler's lawsuit, filed a few months after her son died. In two motions to dismiss filed in January and March, deputy city counselor Ed Hanlon says the same thing: Martin and Robinson "were attempting to avoid apprehension by officers of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department who were then engaged in a high-speed pursuit of the vehicle."
Mokwa referred questions about city pursuits to Captain Paul Nocchiero, who declined to discuss specific cases, including the accident that killed Derion Brooks. But Nocchiero acknowledges that police don't always make the right decisions.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
Hazelwood's pursuit policy forbids risky tactics such as ramming or bumping vehicles. Rolling roadblocks in which patrol cars surround a fleeing vehicle are also banned. Other kinds of roadblocks must be authorized by a supervisor, and roadblocks must be set up in such a way as to give the fleeing motorist a chance to safely stop. Despite those restrictions, Mansker says, the officer's actions were within the city's pursuit policy. "So far as I can tell, yes," the captain says when asked whether the Hazelwood officer adhered to the policy when his vehicle struck the fleeing car.
Pursuit policies in place at most departments state that officers must weigh the importance of capturing a fleeing motorist against the risk to public safety. Policies typically require officers to immediately notify supervisors of pursuits, and either the officer or his supervisor can end the chase. McCall chuckles when asked how often a supervisor makes the call. "The reason I'm laughing is that the average officer doesn't want to stop," the captain says. "The majority, if not all, of our pursuits are terminated by supervisors."
With more than five dozen police departments in St. Louis County, some with fewer than ten officers protecting cities of fewer than 2,000 people, figuring out whether to join a pursuit that crosses city lines can be difficult. Officers must consult with counterparts from other agencies to determine whether a chase is worth the risk. What's allowed under one city's pursuit policy may be prohibited in neighboring municipalities. McCall wishes his officers had known more before getting involved in a September chase that started in Kinloch.
According to St. Louis County Police records, Sergeant Walter Wilson of the Kinloch Police Department says Jason Grier of Bridgeton twice pulled away when he tried to stop him because he had been parked in an area known for drug trafficking at 3:40 a.m. Wilson drew his gun the second time Grier stopped. The sergeant was reaching into the Honda Accord to pull the keys from the ignition when the Grier again took off. Wilson told county investigators that the car door bumped his right hand and his gun accidentally discharged as Grier, wounded in his left elbow, sped away. Wilson jumped back in his patrol car and chased Grier 25 miles with the help of officers from Berkeley, Edmundson and Maryland Heights.
"I figured I had to chase him since I shot him," Wilson told a county detective. Wilson and officers from Edmundson and Berkeley nearly corralled the Honda in a residential cul-de-sac in Maryland Heights, but Grier escaped after driving over lawns while Wilson squeezed off three more shots. Wilson claimed Grier was trying to run over him, but a county detective reported that the bullets penetrated the driver's side of the Honda and that tire tracks on lawns contradicted the sergeant's story. Berkeley Corporal Dan Polino also told the detective that Grier never drove toward police. The corporal said he believed Wilson was just angry because Grier wouldn't stop.
The chase ended less than a mile later, after Maryland Heights police put out spikes that flattened the tires of both the Honda and Wilson's patrol car. Grier told the county detective that he first fled from Wilson because a man who'd jumped into his car uninvited at a gas station had a knife to his throat. The passenger bailed out of the car early on, Grier claimed, but detectives couldn't confirm whether another person was in the Honda, nor could they find the gas station. Asked why he didn't stop for all the officers who joined in the chase, Grier had a simple answer: "I just got shot by the police. Why would I stop?"
Grier and Wilson are both listed as victims and suspects in the county police report, Grier for failing to stop when pursued and Wilson for first-degree assault. Both said they were willing to press charges. Neither was charged with a crime, although Wilson, who had previously worked as a cop in Wellston, Riverview, Pine Lawn and Hillsdale, is no longer with the Kinloch Police Department. However, Wilson's state peace officer's license that allows him to be a cop in Missouri remains in good standing. Twelve days after the fiasco, St. Louis County police took over police duties in Kinloch, citing the chase and other incidents of poor police work. Although county officers receive 911 calls and patrol the city, Kinloch Police Chief Ernest Meriwether says his officers also remain on the streets. "We're a full-service department," Meriwether says.
Meriwether says Wilson was laid off and that the pursuit played no role in his departure from the department. Meriwether wouldn't answer questions about the chase, and he denied a written request for Wilson's report made under the state open-records law, insisting that no such report exists. The county police report, however, states that Wilson did prepare a report for his own department that was at odds with the version of events he provided to a county detective.
Officers who joined the September chase say they got involved after hearing radio dispatches, according to the county police report. In Maryland Heights, a dispatcher said a suspect was refusing to stop for a Kinloch officer and that shots had been fired. An Edmundson officer said he believed a county officer had been dragged by a vehicle and that shots were fired. A Berkeley officer says he heard a dispatcher put out an "officer in need of aid" call as a result of shots' being fired at a Kinloch officer.
McCall says a supervisor ordered a Berkeley officer to back off after about fifteen minutes. "It was longer than we would have liked," McCall says. "They did a lot of driving while the supervisor was trying to piece information together."
Pursuit policies in several suburban departments are more liberal than those in place in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Instead of limiting pursuits to felonies, some departments leave it up to the officer and his supervisor to decide whether it's OK to chase someone for a broken taillight. And that's the worst kind of pursuit policy, Alpert says.
"There's no town that's good to chase crooks," Alpert says. "The worst policy is one that is very vague and amorphous and basically says, 'Use your best judgment.' Those are the ones where people get in trouble all the time."
Fueled by beer and fear of arrest, Ryan Lee King acted the fool last Labor Day weekend.
St. Peters police officer Todd Lewis had just pulled a U-turn and flipped on his emergency lights. King was driving with his high beams on, and when someone does that at 11 p.m. on a holiday weekend and doesn't notice a cop flashing his headlights, it's a safe bet they'll get pulled over. Lewis' hunch was on the mark. King had been drinking -- he later admitted downing fifteen beers that Sunday. He also had a warrant for his arrest on forgery charges.
When Lewis' lights went on, King pulled into a Denny's restaurant near the Cave Springs interchange on I-70, but he didn't stop. Hoping to prevent a crowd from gathering in the parking lot, Lewis turned off his emergency lights as he followed King behind the Denny's and into a gas station. This traffic stop looked routine as King nearly brought his pickup truck to a halt. Lewis once more turned on his emergency lights.
That's when King punched it.
"He had it to the floor, as far as I could tell," Lewis told a judge at a preliminary hearing in October. While Lewis radioed his dispatcher, King ignored stop lights and stop signs as he made three turns in the space of a half-mile, first bearing right onto Cave Springs Road, then left onto Mexico Road, then right onto a frontage road on the south side of I-70. He was traveling between 65 and 70 mph on roads with limits of 35 mph, Lewis estimated. Lined with restaurants, gas stations and strip malls, the intersections are some of the busiest in the city. Other motorists feared for their lives.
Antoinette Eckman was stopped at a red light on Cave Springs Road, ready to get on the interstate, when she saw King barreling toward her. She was taking her four-year-old son to the emergency room for breathing difficulties when she realized she might not make it to the hospital under her own power.
"I didn't know if he was going to go straight, I didn't know if he was going to turn, but I could tell he was not stopping for the police," she said. "And all of a sudden he turned and I was sitting at the stoplight and he turned in the side lane beside me. I didn't know if he was going to run into me or not. I was very scared. So when he turned and actually made the corner, I took off through the red light because I thought maybe he was going to ... hit me. I just wanted to get out of there."
As King made his final turn onto the frontage road, he crossed the border between St. Peters and St. Charles. Lewis was talking to his sergeant, who ordered him to terminate the pursuit -- under department policy, officers are not supposed to chase outside the city limits unless the suspect is wanted for a dangerous felony. Officers are also prohibited from pursuing motorists for traffic infractions or negligent driving. "If any doubt exists, a high-speed pursuit shall not be conducted," the policy says.
Lewis followed King after shutting off his lights and siren. He says he tailed the pickup at a safe speed and distance so that he could radio King's location to St. Charles police, even though the St. Charles Police Department prohibits pursuits for traffic offenses and other misdemeanors. With Lewis still behind him, King didn't slow down. He was outdistancing cars on the interstate as he sped down the frontage road, crossing the double-yellow center line as he shot past two vehicles near a miniature-golf course. "It was flying past highway traffic," recalled Matthew James Foster, who was playing golf with friends.
David Harrison, who lived in the Sandalwood Creek apartments next to the minigolf course, picked the wrong time to venture onto the frontage road.
An accident reconstructionist determined that King was going 73 mph -- nearly 30 mph over the 45 mph limit -- when he saw Harrison's red Oldsmobile and hit the brakes. He got it down to 69 mph before striking the driver's side of Harrison's car. Lewis had flipped on his emergency lights approximately 1.3 miles before the accident, and the officer estimated that he turned them off between three-tenths and four-tenths of a mile before King hit Harrison. As the first officer on the scene, Lewis handcuffed King, who was trying to run despite a broken foot.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
"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?"