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Lethal weapon; when thousands die in high-speed police chases, who do we really need protecting from?

It was Saturday night in a suburb of Los Angeles, and 19-year-old Doug Gray found himself with serious time on his hands. He had taken his date to the drive-in, but there was a lengthy wait until the movie began. So he did what many a doltish 19-year-old has done to impress a girl. He began doing doughnuts with his car.

Before long, a passing LAPD squad car spied Gray's vehicular gymnastics and turned into the drive-in to stop him. Panicked, Gray took off. And so did the LAPD. Neglecting to turn on their lights and siren, the officers followed Gray out of the lot and onto the crowded streets, caroming after the teenager.

Like Gray, 36-year-old Susan Tartakoff also planned to spend her Saturday night with a movie. She had picked up a few of her husband's favorites at the local video store and begun the short drive back home. She wouldn't get there for five months.

As Tartakoff proceeded through an intersection, Gray rammed into her at 90 miles per hour. Today, Tartakoff spends most of her time in rehab-"practicing standing, crawling, and other things," she says. She's paralyzed from the waist down.

This March, Americans were outraged to see the videotape of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King-an episode that began with a simple speeding violation. King was permanently injured, and four officers now face the possibility of lengthy prison sentences. The Tartakoff and King cases, six years apart, may seem at first to have nothing in common. But only at first. Rodney King and Susan Tartakoff are both casualties of a time-honored police tradition: the high-speed chase.

According to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), two of every five high-speed police chases in the U.S. end in property damage. One in four ends in injury. And far, far too many end in death: An average of 287 people died as a result of police pursuit every year during the eighties. Mind you, most of the bad guys being pursued aren't rapacious, gun-toting thugs. The vast majority of high-speed chases begin with a minor traffic violation and escalate into emotion-filled, fuel-injected duels.

To the officers chasing two Augusta, Georgia, teenagers down country roads last year, it didn't seem to matter that the kids' crime was swiping $9.21 worth of gas. They had to be caught and punished-or killed, which is what happened first. Of course, those teenagers did break the law. The 68year-old Augusta man who was hit and killed after a high-speed pursuit the same weekend didn't. He was just standing on the comer.

Standing on the corner-that's exactly what pregnant Regina Morton was doing when she got hit and thrown by a car being chased across Chicago's South Side. Her 54-year-old neighbor Hugh Santee, on the other hand, was a more challenging target: He was trying to cross the street. Santee died after being hit twice, first by a speeding Cadillac and then by the Chicago police. Washington's6- Reginald Baker was also taking a stroll when a stolen Nissan Pathfinder plowed into him last month, D.C. police cars fast behind him. The Nissan kept going, the police kept chasing. Minutes later, just as the police gave up and flipped off their sirens, the Nissan barrelled into seven-year-old James Gripper and his aunt. Both were thrown and killed.

Nor is the casualty count of American police chases restricted to suspects and innocent bystanders. An American police officer is more likely to die from a chase than from a bullet. But at 100 miles an hour, statistics don't make much of an impression on the average American cop.

When a criminal throws down the gauntlet, asking a cop not to chase flies in the face of police culture, not to mention society's romantic expectations. Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood never stop to ponder the consequences of chasing. Although the philosopher Seneca wisely mused that "hesitation is the best cure for anger," Smokey always went after the Bandit. Perhaps that's why, despite the astounding frequency of police crashes, American police departments are remarkably indifferent to the casualties they leave in their wake. Few departments even keep records of the resulting human and property cost. Most don't teach their officers how to cope with the stress of high-speed chases. And only a few renegade departments have begun to amend a decades-old policy of catch-at-any-cost. For the rest of the police departments across America, the chase is always on, regardless of whether the pursued has a broken taillight or a corpse hanging out of his trunk.

To the average U.S. police officer, real life looks a lot less volatile than a Lethal Weapon sequel. According to Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor and author of the book Police Pursuit Driving, 99 times out of 100, drivers pull over when an officer flashes his lights. But when it comes to the one who doesn't, the emotions that kick in can make even a veteran officer forget the basics of Policing 101.

Cruisin' for a bruisin'

Bruce Cabral spent 23 years as a New York cop before becoming director of driving instruction at Georgia's police academy. "For weeks, you're driving 45 or 50 miles per hour, going to calls," he says. "Then, suddenly, you're driving 100 miles per hour. Your knees are shaking, and your hands are shaking-not because you're scared but because you're all pumped up." And to make matters worse, you've got tunnel vision. "The faster you drive," Cabral says, " the less you see."

And the more stressed you get, it seems, the less you think. "I was pursuing a shot-fired call, heading down Benning Road onto 8th Street NE," recalls Gary Hankins, head of D.C.'s Fraternal Order of Police. "The adrenaline was pumping, and I was scared. Oncoming cars weren't avoiding me at all, even though I was in a marked car. And then I realized what had happened. A fuse had blown in the car. I was speeding along, but my emergency lights weren't working."

A dangerous oversight like that doesn't mean Hankins is a lousy cop. It's just evidence that he's human. During times of fear, almost everybody exhibits what psychologists and physiologists have dubbed the flight or fight" instinct. The body, when confronted by the stress of fear, produces two chemicals, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which combine to produce a hyped-up sensation. "That adrenaline is saying that at any moment you might be killed and your kids won't have a father or your kids won't have a mother," explains Theodore Blau of the Manatee County, Florida, sheriff's department. "Who knows what's in that car-a dead body, 10 kilos of cocaine, an atomic device?" And if you crash, well, good Lord: a lost suspect, a departmental investigation, a lawsuit, a ruined career. Pop goes the adrenaline again. Yet what happens to all those Rodney Kings and Susan Tartakoffs can't be explained as a solely physiological phenomenon. When someone tries to run, as Alpert observes, he commits a very serious crime-contempt of cop." As a result, the police culture may play a more important role in what happens next than mere chemical reactions. Refusing to stop shows a lack of respect that can't be allowed to go unchallenged-even when the initial offense is a traffic violation and the resulting chase means risking lives.

Miami officer Louie Fernandez has been a narcotics cop for years. He remembers one chase particularly well. After watching a cocaine deal go down, he followed the dealer's car slowly down the street. When both cars arrived at an intersection, Fernandez flipped on his police lights and moved to make an arrest. The other car went flying through the red light and down the street. Despite the traffic passing right in front of him, Fernandez floored it, too. "If they make it," he explains, "you have to."

To Fernandez, the decision to fly through the intersection wasn't exactly a choice. It was instinct. It's what policemen do. And that's the way police logic usually works-or doesn't work-on the road. Fernandez's high-speed chase came to an end when the dealer smashed into two other cars and three people were injured, including a two-year-old girl who was riding in the car with the dealer.

Road kills

Almost every police officer has an anecdote like Fernandez's: a hot pursuit that ended in a heap. But the prevalence of crashes, and even the number of officer deaths behind the wheel, have barely made a dent on American officer training. Police recruits get steeped in the technical skills of managing a car at high speeds, but when it comes to making smart decisions in a high-stress situation, cops are on their own.

To Manatee County officer Theodore Blau, who is also a police psychologist, teaching driving skills is useless without the second part of the equation: helping cops learn how to think when the adrenaline begins to pump. Which is why, in his sheriff's department, prospective officers are given psychological evaluations designed to weed out poor high-stress performers. Then, during training, officers go through role-playing simulations that they can fall back on when confronted with real-life chases.

If such touchy-feely training doesn't seem very coplike, well, it isn't. Most cops in U.S. police departments are simply expected to cope at 100 miles an hour. And when they don't-when they mow down a pedestrian or run into a house-those incidents are seen as isolated flukes, not part of a nationwide trend, since urban police departments don't keep records on the subject. When asked for information about the property or human costs of police chases in their cities, police spokesmen all across the country had the same, terse response.

"There's nothing I can tell you about that," says the spokesman for the Atlanta department.

"We don't have anything on that-nothing," says the spokesman in St. Louis.

"I don't know. I really can't help you," says one of New York City's finest.

"We don't keep that information," says a spokesman for the D.C. police.

And no wonder. Last winter alone, at least six D.C. cops crashed during high-speed chases. The unofficial casualty count: one dead 35-year-old woman, one seriously injured pedestrian, five scraped-up teenaged car thieves, five injured officers, three smashed black and-whites, and at least one mangled tree. Pay as you slay

Insouciance about chases may be common in police departments across the country, but in the nineties, it's also going to be expensive, thanks to a new Supreme Court decision that holds cities liable for the lives that get between the cops and robbers.

Traditionally, sovereign-immunity statutes kept cities from paying large awards to the casualties of high-speed chases. But in 1989's Canton v. Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled municipalities could be held liable for injuries if plaintiffs could prove that the city employees involved were inadequately trained. The family of a Detroit automotive worker killed on his way to work by fleeing cars won $1 million from the city of Detroit and several other jurisdictions. After similar judgments in Texas, Virginia, and elsewhere, local governments and their insurance carriers have begun to take a long, hard look at how officers are trained for the chase.

Some departments are picking up on Manatee's stress-training courses-perhaps the easiest way to improve the odds for innocent bystanders. But even smarter are the few departments now asking not just how to chase, but whether the carnage is worth it in the first place.

After several Rodney King-style reports, an embarrassed Dallas, Texas, began reining in its lawmen during the eighties. Today, unless the suspected crime is homicide or armed robbery, only three cars can be involved: the primary pursuit vehicle, one backup, and-a critical new safeguard-a trailing car occupied by a supervising sergeant. This supervisor, somewhat detached from the emotions of the chase, evaluates the situation-the weather, the visibility, the traffic, the presence of pedestrians-and decides when to stop a hot pursuit.

While that might be a sensible first step for the nation's departments, a smarter approach has been working for a decade in Baltimore. Acting on the philosophy that handling a police car, like handling a gun, requires a serious degree of caution, officers there completely rewrote their traditional policy of chase-at-all-costs. "It is better to allow a criminal to temporarily escape apprehension," they decided, "than to jeopardize the safety of citizens and the officer in a high-speed pursuit."

How does that play out on the streets? When a suspect flees by car, officers won't pursue unless failing to do so will result in "grave injury or death." Mind you, that doesn't mean the Baltimore force simply lets its bad guys get away; it means it's been relying on ingenuity over high velocity. Nowadays, the officers track fleeing subjects by radio, or from helicopters safely above the fray.

Of course, the high-speed chase is not likely to disappear from American police culture altogether-nor should it. What criminal is going to stop if he knows that he can run away with impunity? Besides, sometimes the bad guy does get caught. A few days before Rodney King's notorious assault, there was a high-speed chase in Georgia. Steven Anthony Mobley, a suspect in a string of armed robberies in Atlanta's northeastern suburbs, sped off when police tried to apprehend him for questioning. When officers caught up with Mobley after a 40-mile chase, they found evidence linking him to the execution-style slaying of a 24-year-old college student during the robbery of a Domino's Pizza stand a month earlier.

As the Mobley case suggests, some folks are worth chasing: dangerous criminals fleeing after serious crimes. As for the traffic violators and the otherwise unarmed and undangerous, police departments should just record their license numbers and let them go-for the moment. After all, the job of a policeman is not to match a criminal feat for feat-to think, as Fernandez puts it, if they make it, you have to, too. Rather, it's to be smarter. It's to make the critical distinctions about what's worth going after and what's not.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of today's police departments aren't willing to make any distinctions at all-even when the folly of that practice is tragically apparent. A few months ago, three-year-old Dominique Spears was killed while playing on the quiet street where she lived. She never heard the L.A. police officers speeding toward her; in their zeal to catch their prey, they'd forgotten their sirens and lights.

Surely the LAPD learns something from mistakes like this one. Surely somebody's paying attention?

"We don't keep records on that police-chase stuff," snaps an LAPD spokesman. "You'll have to try somewhere else."
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Author:Shumate, Richard
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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