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JP Grace: High-speed crime solving or recklessness?

Dec. 10, 2012 @ 10:40 PM

Heading home early on last Thursday mid-afternoon, with my dog Cooper riding shotgun, I was suddenly startled by sirens, flashing blue lights and a trio of Huntington police cruisers bearing down on my location on 8th Street approaching the intersection with 6th Avenue. Naturally I pulled toward the curb and braked.

"Whew!" I breathed as they roared by. "Something bad's going down."

I was about to roll forward again when -- What in the dickins? -- more HPD cars came barreling down 6th Avenue heading west, at high speeds. I braked again.

It felt like Huntington was under a terrorist attack, as I heard still more police vehicles screaming around other downtown streets. I was relieved to make it out to North Boulevard and head east along Ritter Park, my usual route home, taking me out Washington to the extension of Hal Greer boulevard and thence out to I-64.

Looking in my rear view mirror on North Boulevard I spied two more HPD cruisers. They were traveling at a normal speed. Not a problem, surely these guys were simply on routine patrol.

But no, the two cruisers suddenly switched on their blue lights and sirens and powered past me heading I-now-had-no-idea where.

Clearly some dramatic crime had occurred and a dozen or more police vehicles were combing the city for the suspects. What? A bank robbery? An open-air homicide? Had someone been kidnapped?

None of the above, apparently, as the next morning's newspaper report made clear. All of this rushing around downtown Huntington and the outskirts of downtown by HPD and Cabell County sheriff's cars at speeds that probably exceeded 60 mph -- with sometimes two or three police cruisers in a file -- had to do with tracking down a fellow suspected of stealing spare tires off vehicles.

Spare tires? Could that, in anyone's wildest imagination, justify putting so many officers and innocent motorists and pedestrians at risk of death or maiming?

In my book the answer is a resounding "No!"

The research on this issue is telling. One 1998 study showed that 314 people had died nationwide that year due to high-speed chases. That number included two pursuing officers, 198 fleeing suspects and 114 innocent bystanders.

Another study estimates that one of every 100 high-speed police chases results in a fatality.

Not all police departments have firm guidelines as to when officers should initiate a high-speed chase. One of the better guidelines I came across, however, indicates that such a chase should be undertaken only when a forcible felony has been committed: homicide, kidnapping, armed robbery or something else where fleeing suspects may be considered "armed and dangerous."

Otherwise, the risks to life and limb of officers and the public are simply too great. Tracking down and cuffing a spare-tire thief does not make the grade.

John Patrick Grace formerly reported for The Associated Press from Chicago, served as an editor on the AP Foreign Desk in New York, and later as a correspondent based in Rome. He is now a book editor and publisher based in Huntington and teaches the Life Writing Class.

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