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Police chief wants to ease rules on vehicle chases in Charlotte

Some experts are skeptical about more police chases, which can be deadly, but Monroe says criminals need to know they'll be pursued.

By Clay Barbour
cbarbour@charlotteobserver.com

Tired of what he calls “brazen disrespect” for police, Chief Rodney Monroe wants to loosen rules on Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chases.

Too many suspects get away, he says, because current policy allows officers to chase suspects only when a life-threatening felony is involved.

“At some point we have to send a message back to the criminal element that we are going to come after you,” he said.

Monroe couldn't provide statistics or examples of suspects eluding police, but said officers should have more discretion to pursue suspects in various violent crimes and some property crimes.

The move fits Monroe's reputation as a cop's cop, a chief who trusts his officers to make the right decision. But criminal justice experts are skeptical about rolling back restrictions on chases, which can be deadly, particularly in urban areas.

“Charlotte has had not only a good policy, but a good record when it comes to police pursuit,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist and national expert on police pursuits. “I just don't understand why he would tinker with it.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg has a 10-page policy that allows officers to pursue only if they believe the driver or occupant has committed, or is attempting to commit, a life-threatening felony. It's a policy similar to those in large police departments across the country.

A 2004 University of Washington study found that from 1994 to 2002, there were 2,654 fatal crashes resulting from police chases, causing 3,146 deaths. Of those fatalities, more than a third – 1,088 – were innocent bystanders.

“The general thinking for some 25 years has been that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages,” said Paul Friday, a UNC Charlotte criminal justice expert.

Over the last decade, departments across the country have moved toward tightening rules on police chases, largely due to high-profile accidents and large-dollar payouts of public money.

Newark last year paid out $3.6 million in a case involving a bystander paralyzed during a police chase in 2001.

Even Monroe, when he was chief in Richmond in 2007, sought to restrict chases. A high-profile crash the year before in a nearby town sparked scrutiny of police chase policies.

“We are talking millions and millions of dollars,” Vivian Lord, a UNC Charlotte criminologist, said of settlement payments. “I wonder how the police attorneys feel about this discussion.”

To chase or not to chase

Charlotte has one of the most restrictive chase policies in the region. Several area departments allow officers greater freedom to make a judgment call.

Departments – including Salisbury, Gastonia and Monroe – allow officers to chase suspects in cases of property crime and drunken driving.

Gastonia officers are asked to decide whether letting suspects go is more dangerous than chasing them.

Sometimes, says Gastonia Sgt. Jeff Clark, officers engage in chases because they feel disrespected by suspects who run. He cautions his officers not to look at it that way.

“I suggest they ask themselves if chasing this person is worth (the suspect) running a red light and killing your family,” said Sgt. Jeff Clark. “That puts the skids on a lot of pursuits.”

Police chases have led to a handful of crashes in the Charlotte region over the past decade.

Last year, Salisbury police chased a man suspected of drunken driving. The suspect, Carlos Alfonso Guillen Martinez, 33, crashed into a car driven by 20-year-old Leeanna Newman of Salisbury, killing her and her unborn baby.

Two years before that Cabarrus County Sheriff's deputies chased two shoplifters into Charlotte. The men had been spotted using a crowbar to break into a vending machine.

They lost control of their stolen pickup going faster than 80 mph on Sugar Creek Road and slammed into a couple on a motorcycle, severely injuring the driver, Chad Anderson, and killing his passenger.

Anderson said he holds no ill-will toward police. He even supports Monroe's effort to loosen the chase policy.

“Go ahead and chase them,” he said. “You can't just let people break the law and do nothing.”

Giving officers discretion

Monroe said Charlotte's new policy could resemble the one he used in Richmond.

There, officers were allowed greater discretion and could chase suspects in a broader variety of crimes.

Monroe tightened some rules in Richmond, such as limiting the number of squad cars involved in a chase. But he still gave officers leeway.

“He has always been about empowering officers,” said Sgt. Dave Childress, president of the Richmond Coalition of Police.

Monroe has asked an internal committee to examine the policy. But he favors changes that would allow chases in cases of some violent and property crimes.

“Right now, if there is a drive-by shooting and no one gets hit, we can't chase them,” Monroe said. “That needs to change.”

Monroe cautioned that he does not plan to free police to engage in high-speed pursuits over any infraction. And he wants to maintain the chain-of-command approval required for all chases.

But Monroe said criminals now know police aren't likely to chase them.

“They have gotten so brazen that they will give our officers the finger and just keep going,” Monroe said. “We are going to stop that.”

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