Some law enforcement reconsider chase policies in light of innocent bystanders being injured, killed

Samantha Kummerer Image
BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Thursday, June 1, 2023
Hundreds of bystanders killed, injured by police chases in NC
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found between 1982 and 2020, 390 people in North Carolina died in crashes involving police chases.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- It's hard for Demi Simmons to drive in North Durham and not think about the damage police pursuits can cause.

"I pass the stop where it happened every day; it's a reminder constantly," Simmons said. "I got my friends who wonder why I stop sometimes. I slow down just because it's scary."

Her childhood friend Brooke Maynard was killed in August 2018 when a car fleeing a Durham police officer hit and killed her.

"I was mad," Simmons said remembering how she felt when she found out about how Maynard died. "It could have been avoided."

Simmons said Maynard, a mother and Durham County detention officer, left behind a big hole in the hearts of those who loved her. It's a hole, Simmons wants law enforcement to help prevent from happening to other families.

"Something should be done. It doesn't need to happen anymore," Simmons said. "You're only putting other people's lives in danger, trying to catch this one person."

Simmons isn't the only one grieving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found between 1982 and 2020, 390 people in North Carolina died in crashes involving police pursuits.

SEE ALSO | Durham County deputy involved in crash, leaving a driver hospitalized and their dog dead

A publicly sourced national database, Fatal Encounters, further tracks the factors involved in these crashes. Since 2000, an ABC11 analysis of the data found around 25% of the victims were not the ones fleeing from the police.

Locally, these chases have killed an 86-year-old woman on her way from the grocery store, a 14-year-old coming home from a community outreach program, a former mayor and a college intern and most recently, a couple visiting from Minnesota.

"These agencies are always there to protect and serve. So, are we protecting or are we killing? " Simmons questioned.

Hendersonville Police Chief Blair Myhand said the risks involved in these chases are not lost on law enforcement.

"One minor mistake is likely to be catastrophic for you or for someone else," he said. "This is probably one of the most complex issues that an officer has to deal with on an individual basis. Thankfully, it doesn't happen frequently."

SEE ALSO | Driver charged after high-speed chase, crash in Johnston County

A 20-year-old driver is facing numerous charges after leading police on a chase that reached 120-130 mph.

He said officers have to weigh a variety of factors from the offense to the traffic conditions to offenders' behavior to even the weather.

"We never wanted someone to lose their life in our attempt to catch a criminal, even the worst criminal, because you're going to catch them tomorrow, right? You know, there's always another day to get somebody," Myhand said.

This is part of why Myhand said he made his department's policy more restrictive.

"Nonviolent misdemeanors, traffic offenses are not worth us pursuing somebody and compared to the risk of someone else getting hurt in that process," Myhand said.

A review of these factors that spark a chase is growing in importance as fatalities increase nationwide.

Nationally, fatalities from these pursuits reached a high in 2020 with 455 people killed, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This was up 43% from 2010 and nearly 100 more than in 2019.

In some parts of the country, research has shown that restrictive policies can make a difference.

Two years ago, lawmakers in Washington State passed a law that banned officers from initiating chases for low-level crimes and required probable cause before chasing offenders for violent offenses.

This came after researchers like Martina Morris, a retired University of Washington professor, found around half of the fatalities in the state connected with police pursuits involved innocent bystanders.

"We are arguing that if you're going to launch a 4,000-pound grenade down the street, you should have probable cause because the risks involved are too high," Morris explained. She said it is hard for lawmakers and agencies to find the balance of risk and benefit of chases because there is a limit of good data.

SEE ALSO | Chases, vehicle collisions cost Harnett County 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.

Morris's research found in the year-and-a-half after the restrictive statewide policy, the number of fatalities decreased by 75%.

"I think the restrictive policies pretty clearly reduce the pursuits and reduce the risk. It's pretty simple," Morris said.

Despite Morris' work, Washington lawmakers loosened the pursuit policy this year.

In North Carolina, there are no statewide laws that set pursuit policies, instead, it is left up to each individual agency.

Myhand also serves as the president of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police. He said he doesn't think a blanket state policy would work in North Carolina because each community is different.

"I think more chiefs are leaning to more restrictive policies, you know, so a lot of the agencies are accredited through the League of Municipalities here in North Carolina. And there is a risk reduction accreditation process that they have that provides best practices when it comes to pursuits," Myhand said.

Data from the Wake County Sheriff's Office revealed an average of two out of three chases have been started over a traffic violation over the last six years. Only around 20% of the chases conducted since 2017 were initiated over an arrest. The number of chases over the last two years has decreased with deputies conducting 23 police pursuits last year versus 53 in 2020.

Raleigh police officers have conducted 55 chases between 2019-2022 and 74% of them the department determined complied with policy. Just over a fourth of the pursuits resulted in a crash. A deeper analysis of the 2022 chases found 60% involved only the suspect getting injured and none cited a third-party getting hurt.

The state's top traffic agency, the North Carolina State Highway Patrol (SHP), has seen a dramatic increase in chases. Last year, the North Carolina Highway Patrol engaged in more than 1,000 pursuits, a 132% increase from 2019.

Three out of every four chases started when the driver failed to stop at what SHP calls an unknown risk stop. Sixty-seven percent of the initial violations were related to speeds 15 miles per hour above the speed limit. Consistently, speeding 15 miles per hour more than the limit and failure to stop for an unknown risk stop is the top reason behind initiating a chase from troopers between 2018-2023.

The North Carolina State Highway Patrol declined an on-camera interview but said in a statement, "As an agency, there have been no policy or procedural changes on our part attributed to a rise in the number of pursuits in the preceding years. The decision to not comply with a traffic stop and an attempt to flee falls on the driver of the violator vehicle themselves."

SEE ALSO | Slow ride: Stolen tractor leads Boone police on a chase after hitting several vehicles

In an unusual police chase, officers in Boone were in hot pursuit of a stolen tractor.

The agency went on to say that most people try to flee because they have active warrants, are impaired, have illegal drugs or weapons in their possession or just committed a crime.

"The decision to continue a pursuit after it has been initiated is not taken lightly by the involved member(s) or by the monitoring supervisor(s)," that agency stated. "The safety of the public, the involved member and the violator are all taken into consideration when a pursuit is initiated and during the continued pursuit."

While most police chases do not lead to fatalities, Myhand said it's still vital for all agencies to be reviewing the outcomes of chases and their policies.

"Not all law enforcement executives are going to agree with me or even the public will, but again, I don't want someone to die at the hands of some fleeing criminal because they were being chased by the police. I don't want to have to deal with that," he said.

And while the Durham man who police were pursuing in the crash that led to Maynard's death pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, Simmons said it doesn't reverse the damage done.

"She deserved to live a lot longer," Simmons said. "We can't bring her back. So, ya, it didn't help me. I still don't have my friend and her daughter still doesn't have her mom."