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High-speed police chases are deadly in St. Louis. NAACP leaders are calling for change

A stock image of a police car with lights on.
(via Flickr/davidsonscott15)
The U.S. Justice Department will act as a mediator between St. Louis-area police departments and local NAACP branches.

Seven innocent bystanders died between April 22 and May 9 of this year as a result of high-speed vehicle pursuits by police in the St. Louis region.

As a response, both the St. Louis and St. Louis County NAACP chapters are taking action. St. Louis City President Adolphus Pruitt and St. Louis County President John Bowman recently met with police chiefs from both departments to discuss their vehicle pursuit policies.

Pruitt told St. Louis on the Air that the departments have similar approaches to vehicle pursuits, with two significant differences: “In the city, every police officer, on a monthly basis, does an electronic survey to test their knowledge of the pursuit policy. If they don't pass it, they have to keep taking it until they pass.”

Adolphus Pruitt
Avery Lea Rogers
“Those things that we deem to be a minor offense should not result in a police chase,” Adolphus Pruitt said. “We want to narrow [the] window in which they can justify doing the chase.”

In the county, however, officers are given just one opportunity to learn the department’s pursuit policy, and that’s only during their initial training. “After that,” Pruitt noted, “the only time [they’re] getting any additional training on the policy is when the policy changes.”

The NAACP presidents are calling for policy changes in both departments. They want assurance that department management systems have the ability to track and make sure that officers adhere to policies.

There’s also the issue of accountability for officers who fail to follow them. The NAACP leaders have asked the region’s police departments to clarify how they use surveys and test results to track officer performance, and whether that data is being used to address officers who repeatedly fail their policy tests. “We haven't gotten an answer yet to that question,” Pruitt said.

They also want to raise the threshold for a vehicle pursuit. “Those things that we deem to be a minor offense should not result in a police chase,” Pruitt said. “We want to narrow [the] window in which they can justify doing the chase.”

Studies conducted in 1969 and 1970 under management of the U.S. Department of Transportation found that police car chases stem from traffic violations — rather than violent crimes — in more than 90% of cases. They also found that “the majority of pursuit-related fatalities are incurred by the fleeing driver, passengers or uninvolved bystanders.”

Pruitt said he’s heard from the family members of those who were injured or killed by such crashes.

“The stuff we hear is horrific,” Pruitt said. “Those who do survive, some of them, their lives are ruined. Their lives are over. … And in some cases we’re losing very good police officers. … In 2021, we lost a very good officer out there.”

The city and county police departments are still using spike strips to stop cars from fleeing, but there are other, more advanced technologies that could be used instead, Pruitt said. For example, the St. Ann Police Department uses GPS darts. With this technology, officers can shoot a fleeing car with a dart that holds a GPS tracker. The officers can then use this signal to track the vehicle.

Pruitt also mentioned Digital Siren, which is used by police departments in Mobile, Alabama. With the Digital Siren app, once officers begin a vehicle pursuit, they can press a button that will then send out a cautionary alert to every phone within a mile radius. “It's technology like that,” Pruitt added, “that we want the department[s] to incorporate. Those are some of the things we will be asking for.”

This type of technology cost money, but Pruitt thinks it’s worth the expense.

“If [departments] measure the amount of money and dollars they use in fighting lawsuits, or losing lawsuits, and balance it out against the cost of using some of these technologies to avoid some of that liability, I would think that they will make the right decision and move up to that technology.”

In the weeks to come, the Justice Department will act as a mediator between the local NAACP branches and the city and county police departments.

In a meeting of the three groups on Thursday, Pruitt said they came up with six specific areas that would be a part of a mediation agreement. He is optimistic that the Justice Department will present recommendations by the end of the month.

“We were very enlightened with the way that the Justice Department responded to the issues that we brought up,” he said. “They felt that we didn't put anything on the table that was not realistic — that the departments could not adopt and do.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Miya Norfleet and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Avery is the Production Assistant for "St. Louis On The Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.