Deadly Weapons

A discombobulated drug addict jumps in an unattended SUV in West Jackson and takes off. Police track the vehicle and then take off in hot pursuit when the criminal flees. Pedestrians and other drivers rush to get out of the way. Driving at dangerous speeds, the SUV hits cars along the side of the road and plows into an embankment, as the police gain on him and eventually apprehend the car thief. The car is totaled.

Thus is often the logic, or illogic, behind high-speed police chases across the U.S. Worse, though, many of them end up tragically, with innocent bystanders seriously injured or killed—and often because the police are chasing a stolen vehicle or even teenage joy-riders, rather than a known dangerous criminal.

Nationwide, more than 3,000 people have died in the past decade as a result of police chases, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2000 alone, more than 300 people died as a result of deadly chases. Here in Mississippi, at least 34 people have died since 2000 as a result of police chases, the pursued are often criminals not suspected of violent crimes.

Often they are being pursued for misdemeanors. Cousins Robin McCoy, 18, and Dana Lee, 14, died in Richland, Miss., in 2001, after police started pursuing a man in Florence who was driving a stolen car at 115 mph with a suspended driver's license. The suspected criminal walked away without injury, as often happens in these cases. Police officers are often injured or killed as well.

And that police overreaction is not changing in Mississippi, yet. Two House bills to regulate police chases died earlier this month in committee. Ironically, the only related bill still alive would increase the penalties on the criminal instigating the police chase, but do nothing to stop the police themselves from making dangerous decisions. But the fight to end police chases has just begun.

Citizens, civil liberties groups, and even law enforcement officers around the U.S. are demanding that police chases and pursuits be halted or, at least, greatly reduced. Currently, Mississippi law does not require that incidents of police chases be reported to a central agency. And in a state where police pursuits are commonplace, police officers here receive no pursuit training, and are not limited to felony pursuits.

That's not uncommon. After a 2-week-old lost his arm, Los Angeles Police Department approved a policy that prohibits police from initiating car chases when the suspect is only suspected of a misdemeanor.

Larry and Linda McCoy, the parents of the late Robin McCoy, are now pushing the state Legislature to require that police agencies provide training for officers on how to handle police chases. They founded an advocacy group Victims of Police Pursuit, based here in Jackson, to lobby for stricter chase regulation and to monitor the rates of police pursuits in Mississippi.

The McCoys believe that, first of all, there should be training for officers in the case of a pursuit. Secondly, there should be a generalized state policy on police pursuits. Third, the McCoys do believe there should be stiffer penalties for criminals fleeing the policy, but not as the sole regulation. The police themselves must be accountable for their actions, the couple says. "A police car is deadlier than a weapon," Linda McCoy said.


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