Sunday, August 5, 2007

Hot pursuits and bad endings

High speed police chases. Let's talk about this a minute.

It's certainly a timely subject, because hot pursuit has killed both a chaser and a chasee in Central Virginia so far this year -- a sheriff's deputy in Campbell County, a 21-year-old driving without a license in Bedford.

And the obvious question has to be: Were these pursuits that ultimately turned tragic really necessary in the first place?

For better or worse, vehicular pursuit has become embedded in our culture -- what would an action movie be without at least one car chase? Perhaps because of that, it's something many men (and, increasingly, women) fantasize about.

In real life, though, who are the people most likely to put the pedal to the metal and try to flee the cops?

1. They could be a dangerous criminal, someone on the FBI's Most Wanted List. A rapist, a terrorist, an armed robber. They could be, but it's highly unlikely -- this is a big country, and there aren't enough dangerous criminals on the lam to go around.

2. They could be fleeing from the scene of a crime, like a bank heist. Still unlikely.

3. They could be driving a stolen car. Now, we're getting more into the neighborhood of probability.

4. They could be driving on a suspended license, or unwilling to acquire the extra points that might get their license suspended.

5. They could be drunk.

The last category is the one I find most disturbing.

Let's consider this. You've got a person the police are trying to catch because they feel he is a danger to other motorists. So what sense does it make to then force this person -- whose depth perception, vision and judgement may already be impaired -- to drive at higher and higher speeds?

That's what happened when a drunk driver slammed head-on into a car containing the Barrick family on Waterlick Road a few months back.

My position on this is that I am a fellow traveler on the public highways (the Barrick accident happened on a road I drive every day). Sure, it makes me uncomfortable to think of wasted drivers sharing those highways with me, but the thought of a wasted driver going 100 miles an hour ups the ante considerably.

When you put the worst case scenarios side-by-side, it goes something like this:

If the police let the person go, the worst case scenario is that he or she will escape to drive drunk, or on a suspended license, another day.

If the police instigate a chase, the worst case scenario is that someone dies.

There are exceptions, naturally. The police are almost obligated to pursue a fleeing robber, or a criminal believed to be a public menace. But in the case of the ordinary citizen with a less-than-ordinary driving record, chances are the in-car camera has already snapped a photo of the license plate and videotaped the fleeing car. True, it's not as exciting to go by the person's home or place of work the next day to make the arrest, but it's probably a lot safer. And innocent people don't get hurt.

Based on events such as have happened in Central Virginia this year, localities all over the U.S. have decided that routinely embarking on these 90-mph thrill rides simply isn't worth the risk.
To me, that only makes sense.


Scott Helminoller said...

Mr Laurant,

I don not understand the "media's" idea of police pursuits such as what you have written. How in the world am I as an officer of the law making this person flee. I turn on my lights to make a stop and the suspect doesn't stop. I ask you is that my fault or the person breaking the law by not stopping. Am I making him speed, am I making the roads less safe by trying to get him off the road and hopefully save a life or two including the suspects. Why is it so easy to blame to ones out there trying our best to save some members of our society from themselves. I guess in a perfect world we would not have any pursuits and better yet no police to do the dirty work that most people would not do for all the money in Lynchburg, but we do it for just above to poverty line. Please think things through before you write about them and better yet do a ride along with a local agency and get some kind of idea what goes on. I am not going to say that I will not read anymore of your columns or buy your paper anymore because you can have your owm opinion but please get off this blame the police bandwagon that most media types are on. Thanks for reading my comments.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Helminoller,

I have nothing but admiration for law enforcement officers, and one of my favorite relatives is a police officer in North Carolina.

That said, though, I think that Mr. Laurant made some valid points, and I don't think he shows any disrespect at all to police officers. He's just saying that the risk to the general public when there's a high-speed chase often outweigh the risk of letting a non-violent criminal get away for that moment. And he does note that there are exceptions -- when the police really do need to instigate a chase.

The point that a drunk driver being chased by police at 100mph is much more dangerous than a drunk driver not being chased seems especially hard to argue with.

Of course you are not making anyone speed, flee or otherwise break the law. If someone does those things, though, and it turns into a high-speed chase, sometimes it's safer for the other people on the road if the person is just allowed to get away.

Boiled down, I think all that Mr. Laurant is saying is that sometimes the benefit of a high-speed chase does not outweigh the risk to the other drivers who may not have a chance to get out of the way.

I know yours is often a thankless job, and I do thank you for doing what you do to protect the people of Lynchburg.

Jim Martin said...

I think Mr. Helminoller's is a typical police response; either accept my actions as the selfless, underpaid work of a local hero, or else.
With cops it's always the threat and always the reminder that they are sacrificing so much for so little.
I'm not a media type and I'm here to say that the police are just as wrong as anyone else and where the Barricks are concerned and the Campbell deputy, well, some mistakes were made.
As to the tough, unappreciated job that Mr. Helminoller does all I can say to him is that if you don't like your job, quit. You weren't drafted and no one is begging you to stay.

Anonymous said...

What a hostile comment from Mr. Martin. Police officers do a job that most people wouldn't do for any amount of money. They do risk their lives to protect even people like Mr. Martin who despise them.

Nowhere did Mr. Helminoller say that he doesn't like his job; like most of us, he just doesn't enjoy being criticized for it.

I agree that high-speed chases are sometimes an unnecessary risk to the public, but I have nothing but respect for people who choose to be in law enforcement. It's a tough, dangerous job and our society would quickly disintegrate without them.

Jim Martin said...

All that you say is true, nonetheless, my statements are as well.
The fact that most people don't want to be cops is neither here nor there, he chooses to be one.
For someone who likes his job, he sure can't stand any criticism.
I would say that Mr. Helminroller's response to Mr. Laurant was beyond hostile, even involving threats.
His comments about working at the poverty line are ludicrous.
He threw out the usual attack of the media for blaming the police. A weak position without any facts to support it. I think every time there is even a hint of police wrongdoing the News and Advance comes down on the side of the police.
He should do his job and stop attacking the messenger.

Scott Helmintoller said...

For the record I love me job and what I do. I do not believe I was hostile in any of my comments to Mr Laurant. It is just my opinion just like it is his. So I rubbed you the wrong way Mr Martin but I can tell you I make people mad at my job too and I do not take it personal at all. Mistakes are made at everyones job but when we as law enforcement make a mistake it is front page news.

Bedford Hawk said...

Darrell, I have been out of town on vacation and am just reading your post. I think you have just about summarized this thing and put it into a nutshell. No disrespect intended for our law enforcement officers, but I have been there as a military policeman years ago in the Panama Canal Zone. I can tell you police officers like many of us bikers get a mental rush with the sounds of high rpms, (or with emergency vehicle lights, sirens and all). It just happens. A high speed pursuit definately is exciting. But on the otherhand if the police officer would simply get the license number, if possible, and cease the pursuit,in most cases the fleeing party would probably cut back on the speed, which could save someone's life down the road a bit. I think about it all the time when I am either driving my car with the family as passengers or am on my Harley enjoying the ride. We just don't need multiple vehicles coming at us running wide open on our streets regardless of the reason, with just a few exceptional life-saving situations. Heck, about a year ago I was almost taken out by a fire truck halfway in my lane coming around a curve in Bedford. Yes, I reported it, as much as I like and respect firemen and policemen. These rushes emergency folks get are more plentiful than the public realizes, Yes, I have also been a volunteer fireman, and a rescue squad member, and know about rushes that folks tend to get with the lights and sirens working. It happens more than we know about. I agree with you, Darrell, high speed pursuits in particular need to cease because they are not worth the risk of a fatal accident for anyone, not even the offender's. By the way, you'll never get an active police officer to admit they love the pursuit. Never! (But most do.)