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Published: Wednesday, 6/25/2003

Anguish in Benton Harbor

After a Berrien County, Michigan, sheriff's deputy quit chasing two men going like the wind on high-performance motorcycles, a Benton Township officer took off after a speeding biker, probably one of the same two.

The officer trailed him into Benton Harbor and was either blocks behind, or bumping him, depending on whom you believe, when the biker slammed into a building and died. Compounding the tragedy, two days of rioting followed.

Most of us intuitively expect police to go after lawbreakers. But in Benton Harbor, as in Toledo a few years back, there was righteous concern about people dying while being pursued for something less than a capital crime. Worse yet is when the chase kills innocents, like the 11-year-old boy fatally struck on a Benton Harbor sidewalk nearly three years ago, again in a chase by township police.

Most residents of the southwest Michigan city of 12,000 oppose police chases and Benton Harbor police don't do them. It's the chases from the outside, by township police, that they find especially troubling.

The dead man, Terrance Shurn, 28, may have had a few behavioral problems - no driver's license, illegally operating a motorcycle, a little marijuana in his pocket. But nothing worth dying for.

Both state and federal law permit police to chase beyond jurisdictional lines, but a lack of police communication apparently contributed to the tragic sequence of events. Benton Township officers apparently didn't know the Berrien County deputy had broken off the chase, and Benton Harbor officers didn't know Benton Township's chase was headed their way. Its radio frequency isn't the same as the township's or those of surrounding departments. It takes a phone call to reach them. That's disgraceful in 2003.

Residents said Mr. Shurn's death was the last straw after years of police harassment. Who can say from this distance?

For sure, rebuilding a sense of community in Benton Harbor will require that anger be set aside and both sides agree to talk. Police agencies clearly need a unified communication system and standard chase policies.

High-speed chases are risky business and should only be utilized to head off an immediate and dire threat to public safety.

Toledo faced this problem a few years ago and re-examined its chase policies, looking at more supervisory control and a review of conditions like time, location, traffic, and weather. There are no fail-safe policies, only sincere efforts to do the right thing.

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