Chases, vehicle collisions cost Harnett County hundreds of thousands of dollars

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BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Friday, March 17, 2023
Chases and vehicle crashes rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars
The Harnett County Sheriff's Office has incurred at least $800,000 worth of liability claims related to auto accidents over the last decade, documents reveal.

For decades, Jerry Rivas said he had watched law enforcement cars speed by him.

"No lights, no siren, no reason," the Sanford resident said.

He claims he even called the Harnett County Sheriff's Office about one incident just hours before a deputy's pursuit killed two people on March 3.

"This is not the first time. This is this happens repeatedly," Rivas said. "I have called repeatedly on the Sheriff's department as well as North Carolina Highway Patrol and it does absolutely no good. It seems like they drive more reckless every year."

Harnett County deputy K. Letarte was in a pursuit when he crashed into Finch. 65, and Patricia Finch, 64, of East Gulf Lake, Minnesota, earlier this month.

The ABC11 I-Team found this is far from the only police pursuit in Harnett County that has resulted in injuries and damages.

The I-Team obtained liability claims from the county that detail more than a hundred vehicle accidents involving deputies between 2012 and 2022.

The incidents range from hitting deer and raccoons to backing into other cars, hitting walls, and running off ditches.

A more serious incident detailed was when a deputy hit a school bus in October 2022 leading to more than $7,000 worth of damage.

Rivas said he was in the area when the bus accident happened.

"It's a bus. It's 11 feet wide. It's 12 feet tall, It's bright yellow. It's a bus. How in the world do you rear-end that?" he questioned.

In 2016, a deputy collided with a bike rider and a settlement agreement revealed the county agreed to pay out $27,000.

In total, the documents reveal the department has incurred at least $800,000 worth of liability claims related to auto accidents over the last decade.

Not all the physical and personal injuries caused by deputies' cars stemmed from police chases.

The I-Team identified at least 16 accidents that cited "high-speed chase", "pursuit" or "PIT maneuver" between 2014 and 2021. County documents show the agency incurred more than $102,000 from the chase-related accidents.

"There's no reason for it. It's senseless and look at the reason the officer was driving in excess of 100 miles an hour because somebody had a fictitious tag and they were speeding. Really? It wasn't a murder. It wasn't a bank robbery," Rivas said.

The Harnett County Sheriff's Office did not return the I-Team's request for comment related to the liabilities.

Eddie Caldwell, the executive vice president and general counsel of the North Carolina Sheriff's Association, said agencies often pay these claims through an insurance company but that doesn't mean taxpayers are immune to the damage.

"All money that flows through county government ultimately comes from the taxpayers' money. There's money to pay the insurance premiums or money made to pay the claims," Caldwell said.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported North Carolina had 16 fatal crashes connected with police pursuits in 2020; the highest since 1995 and a 78% increase from the previous years.

Caldwell argued these pursuits still have purpose despite the risks.

"If law enforcement officers did not pursue criminals, who were folks who were engaged in criminal activity, there'd be a huge cost to the community and more victims of crime and more deaths due to drug dealer activities," he said. "There's huge cost of criminal activity that is incurred by all of us whether it's financial, or emotional, psychological."

He said that even when an officer appears to be pursuing a suspect for a minor infraction, there is often a bigger concern behind it.

"They've got drugs in the car, guns in the car, and human trafficking victims in the car. And so what might initially appear to be a minor violation, in the grand scheme of things, it may actually be something worse," Caldwell said. "Folks who are driving that typically just have a headlight out or an expired tag, don't flee."

He explained deputies do have to balance the risk and benefits before beginning the pursuit.

"Each individual pursuit is a fact-specific situation, always evaluating the violation that person is being pursued for, the person's driving habits, the surroundings that the officer is encountering. So it's all those things going through an officer's mind all at the same time," Caldwell said.

RELATED | Police pursuit policies under scrutiny after deadly Harnett County crash involving deputy

Rivas said he would like to see law enforcement officers had to get their own liability insurance and face charges when accidents happen to increase accountability, He would also like the county to create a civilian office of police review to create more community oversight. But, in the meantime, Rivas said he doesn't feel safe on the roads.

"I have five grandchildren that live not two miles from here and there's a four-way stop right there in front of their house. And you can watch highway patrolman and Harnett County Sheriff's deputies running that stop sign all the time," he said. "It scares me the way some of these officers act."

The North Carolina State Highway Patrol said its investigation into the fatal accident on March 3 should be completed soon.

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A chase that began in Johnston County and ended in Harnett County damaged three North Carolina State Highway Patrol vehicles.