Crime & Public Safety

These Lowcountry police agencies are rethinking when to chase suspects

A driver led Beaufort and Jasper County police officers on a high-speed chase July 31 after he stole a minivan parked at a Palmetto Dunes home on Hilton Head Island.

During the chase down U.S. 278 near Sun City, speeds reached 100 miles per hour. The suspect's car struck another vehicle from behind, injuring the female driver and damaging her vehicle. The suspect also sideswiped another car before he escaped on foot.

He was later arrested at his Hilton Head home. The woman whose vehicle was struck was treated for minor injuries at the scene and released by emergency personnel.

High-speed chases across South Carolina are leading to property damage, injury and even death of innocent bystanders.

At least 1 in 10 S.C. high-speed police pursuits in the past decade has resulted in a crash with an innocent bystander, often causing injury or death, according to a review of media reports by The State newspaper in Columbia.

The state ranks among the top 10 in the nation for people killed as a result of police pursuits per capita, according to The State newspaper's analysis of data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. On average, one person has died every month in the past 10 years, according to records from 2006 to 2016, the most recent data available.

Police initiated each of those chases over traffic violations or other nonviolent crimes, raising alarms by affected families and national law enforcement experts that say some pursuits are not worth the risk to the public.

“You could, literally, be driving down the road, minding your own business, and be killed in a police pursuit,” said Tulsa,Oklahoma, Police Maj. Travis Yates, who runs SAFETAC, a national pursuit-training academy. “That’s a real danger to citizens, and no one is even talking about it.”

Today, there is a national push among law enforcement to initiate high-speed chases only when a driver is suspected of a violent crime — such as murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery or aggravated assault.

But in South Carolina, many police agency policies on when to give chase are unclear and subjective.

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The number of chases initiated over stolen cars is troubling, say national experts.

“The myth is there’s a dead body in the trunk or that these are bad, violent criminals and, for the most part, they’re not," said Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor who studies high-speed pursuits and has helped departments write their policies. "A lot of them are car thieves."

“There are reasons to put the public at risk,” Alpert continued. “The more heinous a crime, the more justification the cops have to chase and put us at risk. But for minor offenses, it becomes more of a risk than necessary.”

Hardeeville Police Chief Sam Woodward said Friday that the department rewrote its chase policy for insurance purposes earlier this year.

Now, officers are able to chase only those suspected of violent felonies or those who are driving recklessly and are a danger to the public because of it. Prior to the change, officers had leeway in pursuing anyone suspected of a crime, Woodward said.

The Bluffton Police Department is also rethinking its chase policy after a dangerous pursuit in November.

Officers chased a silver Mercedes and a black Infinity, whose drivers were suspected of a series of car break-ins, at speeds of more than 120 miles per hour for 10 minutes and 13 miles — almost to the foot of the Talmadge Memorial Bridge.

They chased the cars through Beaufort and Jasper counties, out of their jurisdiction, and lost track of both the Mercedes and Infinity. The driver of a third stolen car was later arrested in Savannah after he crashed in the city. He was charged with five counts of breaking and entering into vehicles and one count of car theft.

"We think that (chases) should be limited," said interim Police Chief Donald "Scott" Chandler on Tuesday.

Chandler said one of the reasons his department is considering the chase as a "learning moment" is officers were put in danger. His officers have undergone training in response to the chase.

Under its current policy, Bluffton officers must assess the weather, visibility and traffic conditions when deciding to chase suspects. They must also weigh whether the nature of the suspected crime and the need to maintain peace and order justifies the risk to themselves and the public.

If the suspected offense is not a violent felony, officers must use even more discretion when starting a pursuit.

Breaking and entering into cars, like the suspects of the Nov. 25 chase were suspected of, is not a violent felony.

However, the policy gives officers latitude when it comes to stolen vehicles or reckless driving.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said his office uses discretion when initiating any kind of pursuit. He could not remember any deaths in recent years caused by a high-speed chase in Beaufort County.

"We are not a pursuit-happy agency," he said Monday. "What I mean by that is we are very, very careful and we evaluate every time an officer comes on the radio and initiates a pursuit. (Each time) there's a variety of questions that the officer has to respond to and the supervisor may call (the chase) off."

According to its policy, the Sheriff's Office takes into consideration the road, weather and environmental conditions, the population density, the seriousness of the offense and the involvement of a juvenile prior to participating in a chase.

"Because of the amount of traffic, you need to discourage any pursuits, because accidents will occur, people will get hurt and if it's not a serious enough offense, we aren't going to pursue," he said.

Tanner said if the violation is minor or not violent and the driver can be identified by their license plate, the department will take that information and put out a warrant for the driver's arrest at a later date.