© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: The killing speeds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2010 - The driving habits of the local police have lately become the subject of intense media scrutiny. Given the recent spate of bad news involving cops and cars, this development is understandable.

On Oct. 6, 2009, the patrol car driven by Officer Julius Moore was crushed between a tractor-trailer and a building at the Anheuser-Busch brewery on South Broadway. He was responding to a call for a burglary in progress in the area and died of his injuries nine days later.

On March 19, 2010, a young woman was killed in north St. Louis when her auto was struck broadside by a carjacking suspect who was fleeing the police.

Four days later, Officer David Haynes was killed on South Kingshighway when his patrol car was "T-boned" by two vehicles at an intersection. He was pursuing a First Degree Burglary suspect who was later apprehended without incident.

Then, on April 16, former Illinois State Trooper Matt Mitchell pled guilty to two counts each of reckless homicide and aggravated reckless driving from an accident in which he killed two young sisters who were driving home after posing for a family portrait. Mitchell reportedly was responding to an accident that had already been cleared while talking on his cell phone, e-mailing for directions and driving 126 mph when he lost control of his police car. He received 30 months probation for his crimes.

The issues raised by these tragic incidents are complex.

Should criminals who flee be allowed to escape justice?

Won't such a policy result in more reckless driving as lawbreakers learn that taking flight reliably gains them freedom?

At what point does protecting the public become a public nuisance?

How fast do you want the police to drive when an armed intruder is breaking into your house?

Because these difficult questions merit serious discussion, let's dispense with the obvious case first.

Ex-Trooper Mitchell, who might charitably be described as an idiot, seems to have demonstrated a common hazard of law enforcement -- namely, its tendency to attract certain members of the comic-book set who misconstrue an obligation to the public as license to play cops and robbers on the public's dime.

He'd been involved in two prior on-duty wrecks during his six-year career, including one that resulted in a $1.7 million verdict. Guys like this are sometimes called "cowboy cops" but that characterization is truly unfair -- to cowboys.

The other cases all involve city cops, and they don't lend themselves to such facile appraisal. In each, officers were responding to complaints of serious felonies and were clearly attempting to exercise their lawful authority, albeit with tragic results.

Several years ago, the city police sought to reduce car chases. Toward that end, policy was changed to allow vehicular pursuits only when the suspect was a violent offender who posed an immediate threat to the community. This effectively eliminated a prime source of pursuits: stolen autos.

Carjackers were still fair game because they typically robbed victims of their cars at gun point and thus qualified as violent offenders, but routine auto thieves were now exempt. Unfortunately, in an apparent attempt to enhance its kinder and gentler public persona, the department announced this policy revision in a news release. Amid a general downturn in the crime rate, the incidence of auto theft subsequently skyrocketed. Imagine that...

It simply doesn't work when the cops announce they won't chase people who run from them. In fact, doing so provides the crook with a no-fault alternative to arrest, thus actually increasing the frequency of reckless driving. Who's going to worry about traffic charges when you're looking at prison time?

While critics complain with some justification that cops are under-trained in high speed driving techniques, criminals get no formal instruction whatsoever -- and they're the lead half of every chase.

One thing the legislature can do to help remedy the situation is to pass a vehicular pursuit law modeled on the existing Armed Criminal Action statute. This bill would do for the illegal use of cars what ACA did for illegal use of weapons -- making it an additional felony violation with a mandated minimum sentence.

Another unintended consequence of the new policy was the so-called "phantom pursuit." If a cop gives chase under questionable circumstances -- initially, he often doesn't know just why a subject is fleeing the scene -- he won't announce the pursuit over the police radio, thus keeping his supervisors ignorant of what he's doing. Regrettably, his fellow officers, who otherwise would assist, are also left in the dark. Engaged in an unauthorized pursuit, he also may not activate his siren, thereby increasing the hazard to other motorists.

Much has been made of the fact that neither Officer Moore nor Haynes was wearing a seat belt at the time of their respective accidents. Though seat belt usage is clearly advisable, the realities of police work often make it impractical. For one thing, the belt fastens just where a right-handed officer wears his sidearm. This makes it awkward to apply and release.

For another, the belt is intended to secure one to the car, making it difficult to escape the vehicle quickly to pursue a suspect on foot or, more important, to evade incoming gunfire. After examining the wreckage of the police cars involved in these incidents, it's difficult to see how a seat belt could have mitigated either officer's injuries, although that's hardly an argument against wearing one.

It's perhaps not coincidental that both of the slain officers were rookies. Speaking from experience, I was easily involved in more high-speed chases during my first three years on the force than I was in the following 18 combined.

At some point you realize that a teenage delinquent on a joyride can be as deadly as Dillinger and that, no matter how urgent the radio call, you can't render much assistance if you die trying to answer it.

A car traveling at 100 mph covers approximately 146.7 feet per second. It will thus traverse the length of a football field in about 2.04 seconds. Under certain circumstances, such speeds on a public roadway may be justified. One would presume those circumstances to be rare.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.