Dorothy Wright was on her way to church Sunday morning with her two grandchildren, but fate intervened. The driver of a stolen SUV who was trying to escape a police pursuit smashed into Wright’s car at an intersection in southwest Atlanta.
Wright and her two grandchildren, ages 12 and 6, were killed. The suspect escaped on foot.
Three days earlier, an elderly couple returning home from a birthday dinner in Gwinnett County were killed in another high-speed chase. A car that police had pulled over in Johns Creek for a possible equipment violation took off instead. Two minutes later, the fleeing car crashed into a car containing Elzbieta Gurtler-Krawczynska and her husband, Kryzysztof Krawczynski. Two suspects — a father and son from Tennessee — are now in custody and charged with crimes including vehicular homicide and assorted drug-trafficking charges.
Five innocent people killed in a span of a few days, and for no good reason.
I’m not trying to bash law enforcement. I have no doubt that the officers involved in the two tragedies are distraught at how things turned out, and there’s no indication yet that the chases violated department policies, although investigations naturally continue. And I certainly understand how police officers intent on catching bad guys can be reluctant to break off the chase and just let them go.
But in the calm light of day, when we can think it through without the cloud of adrenaline and testosterone, we do have to ask ourselves: Is the recovery of an SUV, for example, worth putting the lives of innocent people at risk? The chase that ended in the death of a grandmother and two children had begun in College Park and covered at least a dozen miles on a Sunday morning; disaster could have happened at any point along that route. Even in the Gwinnett County case, where the two suspects are charged with serious drug-related crimes, does their apprehension justify the risks taken to do so?
I doubt the victims’ family and friends would say yes.
Unfortunately, we don’t have comprehensive national data on police chases, for the same reason that we don’t have such information on police-involved shootings: No one until now has made it a priority to collect it. But the numbers that we do have are troubling:
— Since 1979, more than 5,000 innocent bystanders or passengers and 139 police officers have been killed in chases; 6,300 fleeing drivers have also died, according to a report by USA Today. The actual numbers are probably higher, but again, reporting of such data is largely informal and piecemeal.
— According to another study, this one looking at data from 1994-2002, more than 3,100 people were killed in high-speed chases in that eight-year span. Of that number, more than a third — 1,088 — were people not in the fleeing vehicle, meaning that they had no involvement whatsoever. More than 100 of those killed were pedestrians or bicyclists. Just 39 percent of the suspect drivers had a valid driver’s license.
— In that same study, more than 47 percent of fleeing drivers were drug- or alcohol-impaired. (The driver in last week’s Gwinnett tragedy, for example, was charged with DUI). You could argue that such numbers justify police pursuit, because those drivers need to be taken off the road. On the other hand, do you really want impaired individuals at the wheel in a high-speed pursuit situation?
— More than 90 percent of high-speed chases are initiated for non-violent crimes. The best data indicate that almost half begin with a traffic violation. In most of those cases involving non-violent crime, pursuit created a risk of death or serious injury that did not exist prior to the chase.
— Once initiated, some 25 percent to 40 percent of chases end when the suspect crashes into something. As we’ve seen, that “something” can be a pedestrian, a biker, a parked car, a tree or retaining wall or a grandmother on her way to church with her grandchildren.
Inevitably, police-pursuit policies come down to a balancing test. We know — and now have five fresh reminders –that high-speed pursuits put innocent people at risk of death or serious injury. That knowledge must be balanced against the knowledge that if violators know they won’t be pursued, they might become emboldened.
I get that. And in cases involving violent crime or danger to human life, high-speed pursuit should remain an option. But in cases of property crime and traffic violations, the scales swing heavily against it. What we stand to lose is much greater than what we stand to gain.