Four recent high-speed vehicle pursuits involving the Charleston County Sheriff's Department have highlighted the need for a safer and more restrictive pursuit policy. Of the four pursuits, which all occurred within a three-week time span, all ended in collisions and one resulted in death. Each of the pursuits were precipitated by moving violations such as speeding or reckless driving. When asked to explain the department's policy involving high-speed collisions, Sheriff Al Cannon demurred, indicating great latitude was given to individual sheriff's deputies on when to initiate a high-speed pursuit. Cannon also indicated that his deputies were not trained in PIT (precision immobilization techniques) wherein a pursuing vehicle can force a car to stop by abruptly turning sideways, and that his department's review of the procedures utilized by the officers involved was ongoing.
The National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the United States Justice Department, has stated that a clearly defined pursuit policy by law enforcement personnel achieves several important ends. First, it gives officers a clear understanding of when and how to conduct a pursuit. Second, it helps reduce injury and death. Third, it minimizes municipal liability in accidents that occur during pursuit, and finally, it minimizes municipal liability in accidents that occur during pursuit. Because high-speed pursuits expose municipalities, counties, and states to serious personal injury, extensive property damage, and the potential loss of life, departments are strongly encouraged to adopt policies which reduce those risks as much as possible while still deterring suspects from attempting to flee.
Accordingly, law enforcement agencies such as the Charleston County Sheriff's Department have generally chosen among three prevailing policy models in determining how to direct pursuit of fleeing suspects which include discouraging or severely cautioning against any pursuit except in extreme circumstances; placing certain specified restrictions on officers' judgments and decisions when faced with a pursuit situation; or giving an officer discretion to make all major decisions related to initiation, tactics, and termination. Based on Sheriff Al Cannon's comments in a press conference after the recent pursuits, it's clear his department has chosen the latter.
There are several reasons why giving Charleston County Sheriff's deputies carte blanche to engage in high speed pursuits is an unwise policy, the foremost being that the deputies are not specifically trained in the tactics most likely to safely end these type of pursuits. A 1985 Michigan State University study found that while no pursuit speed, distance, or duration is safe, the use of "ramming" by police increases the capture rate while reducing the overall injury rate. It's this type of PIT maneuver that Cannon admitted his deputies were not trained to perform. Said Cannon: "We're not trained in maneuvers that disable or force the person we're pursuing to lose control. We don't do anything like that."
The United States Supreme Court, in the case of City of Canton v. Harris, ruled that the failure of a department to train officers in a particular duty, where the need for training is obvious and the lack of training is likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, can make a municipality liable. In a separate opinion, the Court also ruled that the use of deadly force (which high-speed pursuits and road blocks have been held to be) to apprehend a fleeing, unarmed suspect, is an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. While municipal liability is something a community would obviously want to avoid, the loss of human life over a minor traffic violation is of much greater concern.
The Supreme Court in Canton wisely commented that "it is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape." The same is undoubtedly true for those who violate traffic ordinances and foolishly try to escape. The Charleston County Sheriff's Department would be wise to take heed and adopt Canton's policies accordingly.
Dwayne Green is an attorney practicing in downtown Charleston. He received a bachelors degree in Politics from Princeton University and his law degree from the University of Iowa. He is the former Assistant Corporate Counsel for the City of Charleston and a past chair of the Charleston Board of Architectural Review.