Policed Err On Side Of Caution For Chases
By Susan Nolan
Hampton Union, Tuesday, January 6, 2004
HAMPTON - A high-speed chase that ended in the deaths of seven North Carolina teenagers last week probably would not have happened in New Hampshire, according to local law enforcement officials.
Sgt. Scott Carr, assistant commander of New Hampshire State Police Troop A in Epping, said a major criterion for state police in deciding whether to enter into a high-speed chase when a driver refuses to pull over is whether there are passengers in the vehicle.
"The guy sitting in the passenger seat doesn't have the opportunity to be able to pull the car over and come to a stop," said Carr. "The state police rarely pursue vehicles with passengers."
The police chase in North Carolina took place early in the morning of Dec. 29.
The officer began chasing a 2001 Dodge Intrepid after he reported seeing it weave in its lane on U.S. Highway 21. The chase ended when the car - which was alleged to have been stolen - hit an embankment, flipped over and landed in a creek.
The North Carolina Highway Patrol said none of the victims had driver's licenses nor was wearing a seat belt. At the time of the accident, the car had a spare tire on the right rear and was traveling between 80 and 100 mph.
Troutman, N.C., Police Chief Eric Henderson said Monday that Officer Keith Bills followed proper policy during the short chase and will take a couple of days off before returning to duty.
"He's upset. We're all upset. Naturally, it's very upsetting when you lose a life," said Henderson.
The teenagers, all friends, ranged in age from 13 to 18.
Sgt. Carr would not comment on the specifics of the North Carolina incident.
"I don't know the exact circumstance," he said.
However, he confirmed that in New Hampshire, the circumstances necessary for a trooper to engage in a high-speed chase of a vehicle with passengers would have to be extremely serious. Carr used as an example a situation in which a suspected murderer who had just left the scene of a homicide was behind the wheel.
State police would not give chase to a vehicle carrying several passengers simply for a motor-vehicle violation, Carr said. In fact, statistics show that those who fail to stop for police are seldom pulled over for major crimes, he said.
"Most of these guys are running from minor violations," said Carr. "Is it worth it to hurt yourself or somebody else because they have an uninspected vehicle?"
In fact, if a person fails to pull over when summoned and the officer has the license plate number and can identify the driver, he won't even consider pursuit, the Troop A assistant commander said.
"There's no need to pursue," said Carr. "We can always get him later."
Acknowledging that there are many considerations involved in pursuits, Carr said state police try to err on the side of caution.
A state trooper must have approval from his supervisor before pursuing a vehicle, he said. The reason for attempting to stop the person in the first place is also important.
"The supervisor may say, 'You know what? Discontinue that pursuit,'" said Carr. "We don't want to put people in jeopardy."
Carr, who has been a supervisor for four years, said he has called off more pursuits than he has allowed.
"I've called off many pursuits. I've allowed only one or two to continue," he said.
However, he admitted the decision whether to engage in a pursuit is a difficult one.
"A lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking goes on with police chases," said Carr.
The most difficult decision comes in considering whether to pursue a vehicle driven by a suspected drunken driver, Carr said. Those are no-win situations, he added.
If police engage in pursuit and someone is hurt, they are criticized. If police don't pursue and a drunken driver later hurts someone in an accident, they are criticized, he said.
"The Monday-morning quarterbacking starts when somebody gets hurt," he said. "We like to think that we're pretty conservative when it comes to pursuit.
"Our intention is to enforce the law," he said. "We don't want to put anybody's life at risk."
Lt. Richard Sawyer of the Hampton Police Department said his department's policies on pursuit are similar those of the state police. Hampton police also rarely pursue a vehicle with passengers, he said.
Hampton police take into consideration the reason the officer decided to stop the vehicle in the first place, he said, and Sawyer agreed with Carr that many times incidents begin with a minor traffic violation.
"It could be somebody that never got a ticket before (and doesn't want to get one now)," said Sawyer. "It could be that silly."
Sawyer, too, as a supervisor, has the authority to halt a chase.
"If I do not believe the officer has just cause to be in pursuit, I call it off," he said.
Both Sawyer and Carr said supervisors are immediately brought in on the decision-making process and must give permission for a chase.
While they hesitated to critique their fellow officers in North Carolina, both New Hampshire law officers had concerns about the circumstances.
"I try not to criticize what other police do until I know all the circumstances," said Sawyer.
Carr, however, when asked if he would pursue a car full of teenagers driving erratically, said, "As a supervisor, I would call that pursuit off.
"We like to think that we use good judgment in the decisions to pursue or not to pursue," he said.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation said Monday's crash was the deadliest in the state since 10 high school students died in a wreck in 1997.
Troutman is about 35 miles north of Charlotte.
--Information reported by The Associated Press is included in this article.