Crime & Courts

SBI investigating trooper collision that led to youth’s death

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State investigators say they are probing a hot pursuit Tuesday night through Union County in which a state trooper intentionally collided with a fleeing van, leading to a wreck that killed one juvenile and hospitalized three others.

The Department of Public Safety said the unnamed trooper attempted what is known as a “precision immobilization technique,” or PIT, after the driver of the Dodge minivan refused to pull over for the trooper, who tried to stop the van speeding on U.S. 74. The maneuver involves an intentional collision by the trooper with the fleeing car, designed to lift its back wheels off the pavement and, in theory, causing the vehicle to spin-out.

Troopers say the van left the highway after the collision near the Anson County line. Patty McQuillan, a State Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman, said the van flipped several times. Three of the juveniles were ejected. One, a girl, died at the scene. It was not immediately known how fast the van and the trooper were driving during the chase.

“The loss of life that occurred is tragic for everyone involved,” Col. Glenn McNeill, commander of the State Highway Patrol said in the DPS statement.

McQuillan said the names of the juveniles would not be released. Troopers say the three injured youths were taken to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte. No other information was available Wednesday afternoon.

According to McQuillan, SBI agents are interviewing the trooper and other witnesses. The agency asks for anyone traveling through the Marshville and Polkton area between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. to contact the agency at 704-454-5264.

Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina expert on high-risk police techniques and a frequent critic of hot pursuits, says PIT maneuvers can be highly effective when done at safe speeds.

But Alpert says minivans are lighter, top-heavy and normally have small tires. When struck, they are far more likely to flip, he said.

“A PIT, under the right conditions, it’s like a scalpel, a very good procedure,” Alpert said. “If it’s done recklessly, it can be a disaster.”

Jeff Lockaby, a former longtime trainer for the Greenville County (S.C.) Sheriff’s Office, bluntly questioned the trooper’s tactics.

“Speeding shouldn’t carry the death penalty,” he said.

He acknowledged that PITs, while “fairly established,” still carry risks.

Those risks require law enforcements officers – “legally, morally, ethically” – to repeatedly question themselves: “Is this necessary? Are my actions reasonable under these circumstances?

“The necessity to apprehend the subject must outweigh the dangers to everyone – the innocent public, the officers involved and the suspects ... If the necessity doesn’t outweigh those risks, then it’s time to stop the pursuit.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS