Too Many Police Chases Harm the Innocent

Commentary by --

Barbara Shelly of the Kansas City Star
June 8, 2007

Kristin Saragusa had nothing to do with Charles Barker. She was a 38-year-old mother of two and a valued physician's assistant. He was a 23-year-old felon with a cocaine conviction on his record, guns in his car and a Kansas Highway Patrol cruiser on his tail.

Their paths collided in Wyandotte County the afternoon of May 20. For Saragusa, a passenger in her boyfriend's car, the impact was fatal.

Clearly, the Highway Patrol had business with Barker. A trooper had clocked him traveling 85 to 90 mph on Interstate 635. The officer saw Barker and a passenger chuck two guns from their car windows.

But it was the chase that drew Saragusa into the equation. Trying to elude the trooper, Barker exited the interstate. When he found the eastbound lanes of Kansas Avenue blocked by traffic, he swung into the westbound lanes and hit Saragusa's boyfriend's car head on.

Saragusa should not have become collateral damage in the war against crime. Everyone will agree on that point.

Where we'll disagree -- sharply -- is on whether police pursuits should be curtailed.

I say yes.

Some years ago, driving on Southwest Boulevard, I watched a car come blazing out of nowhere, a police cruiser right behind, sirens blaring. The car slammed into another vehicle at the intersection. I remember thinking the cops must have been chasing a big-time criminal to create that much havoc when people were driving to work on a weekday morning.

Not necessarily, as it turns out. Research shows that, unless police departments restrict chases, most pursuits begin with traffic violations.

Not all departments report chases and their outcomes, so precise numbers are hard to come by. But experts think as many as 40 percent result in crashes, and someone is injured in about half of those.

Four years ago a bicyclist named Toni Sena was killed on a quiet residential street in Kansas City by a motorist fleeing police. Her friends successfully lobbied the Board of Police Commissioners to change the policy on chases. Kansas City police now engage in pursuits only when there is a "reasonable belief that the suspect presents a clear and immediate danger to the safety of others."

But Kansas City is the exception. Most area police agencies give officers broad discretion on when to initiate a chase.

More often than is acceptable, a pursuit goes horribly wrong. The latest instance here caused the death of Saragusa.

The trooper who initiated the pursuit was in compliance with Kansas Highway Patrol policy, which states that officers "may initiate a vehicular pursuit when the suspect exhibits the intention to avoid apprehension by refusing to stop when properly directed to do so." The policy requires officers to consider safety factors, such as road and weather conditions.

"I think the public does expect us to make some kind of attempt to stop violators of law," said Lt. John Eichkorn, a Highway Patrol spokesman.

To allow violators to flee police, he said, "sends a message to the public that you can just disregard what the police are doing."

Eichkorn is right that a segment of the public would rather accept a risk to innocent motorists and pedestrians than see the bad guys gain the upper hand.

But cities that have restricted police chases haven't witnessed an increase in flights.

"If there is any change, it is very, small," said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina.

He says police should pursue only suspects who have committed a violent felony or seem likely to do so.

Charles Barker* won't be driving anywhere soon. He is in jail on a host of charges, including murder in the death of Saragusa.

Barker was disregarding traffic laws on May 20. As a convicted felon, he was illegally in possession of a firearm. He appeared headed for a confrontation with law enforcement, and he may have been dangerous.

But before the chase began, Barker was not a danger to Kristin Saragusa, riding in her boyfriend's car on a different stretch of road. The pursuit dramatically heightened the risk Barker posed to the public.

If the goal is public safety, then most chases make no sense. The sooner police agencies come to that conclusion, the better.

*Charles Barker was charged with first-degree murder, eluding a police officer, driving on a suspended license, and was held on $250,000 bond. On June 4, 2007, Barker was released after two bonding companies posted his bail. Barker is free and walking today and may pose a threat to the public.