BELMONT -- A year after a high-speed police chase ended with the death of its former mayor and the daughter of a long-time council member, Belmont has tightened its police pursuit policy to direct officers to chase only in the event of a suspected felony or dangerous crime.
But Police Chief Charlie Franklin told a Public Safety Committee on Monday night that chases still will depend largely on officers “split-second” judgment based on the “totality of the circumstances.”
The changes did not satisfy Ellen Deitz Tucker, whose sister Donna Deitz died in the crash.
“I’m not confident officers are getting adequate training that allows them to make good decisions in the moment,” Tucker said Monday night.
Former Belmont Mayor Kevin Loftin and his friend, Dietz, were driving home from Ash Wednesday services last Feb. 22when a black Acura SUV driven by Lester Norman, Jr. ran a red light at Park Street and U.S. 74, hitting them broadside at 80 mph.
Norman was on federal probation and later said he ran from a Belmont police checkpoint on the entrance ramp to Interstate 85 because he didn’t want to go back to prison.
Belmont police charged Norman with trying to run down Officer Kevin Wingate at the traffic stop and said the officers did nothing wrong in chasing him up I-85 northbound and onto Exit 27.
Chief Franklin told the Public Safety Committee that police are “between a rock and a hard place” and would be second-guessed whether they chased suspects or broke off the chase.
Council member Charlie Flowers, himself a former Belmont Police Chief, backed up Franklin.
“The police department's not on trial here,” he said to the public audience, with Donna Deitz’ sister and brother in the front row. “Our policy is not on trial here. We're trying to do the best we can.”
Franklin said he had reviewed police pursuit policies at law enforcement agencies in Gaston County but also at selected cities, including Charlotte, Milwaukee and Orlando.
Franklin asked council members to review the policy and give him written feedback by Friday. The Chief said he expected to put the new chase policy into effect starting March 1.
Tucker said her family would continue to press the city of Belmont for a detailed public review of the pursuit that ended with her sister’s death. She questioned the need to put the new policy into effect in just a few weeks.
The policy is not a law or even a rule and contains no provisions for disciplinary action in the event that Belmont officers do not abide by it.