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Published: Monday, 12/31/2012


High-speed lessons

Police officers straddle a fine line between the roles of protector and aggressor when they decide, often in an instant, to engage in a high-speed chase of a criminal suspect. Law enforcement agencies in northwest Ohio should strive to learn what they can from a recent police chase in Cleveland.

That pursuit ended with 137 shots fired and the bodies of two suspects riddled with bullets. The suspects were shot 23 and 24 times, respectively. They were pursued by as many as 30 patrol cars from at least four different agencies, and were shot at by 13 officers.

There was a suspicion — but ultimately no hard evidence — that the driver, who had a criminal record that included convictions for receiving stolen property and robbery, was armed. His passenger had prior convictions for drug-related charges and attempted abduction.

A state inquiry will review allegations of racial motivation — both suspects were African-American — and excessive force. The incident raises renewed questions about when officers should back off, especially when a chase places bystanders at risk. Bystanders account for 42 percent of deaths in high-speed chases.

An FBI report says most pursuits stem from a traffic violation or some other minor offense. On average, one person dies every day from a police pursuit.

“The need to ‘win’ and make that arrest can be influenced by the adrenaline rush felt by the officer who also must recognize that the fleeing suspect will have the same experience,” the FBI report stated.

Like many other law enforcement agencies, the Toledo Police Department gives its officers a fair amount of leeway. It states that officers should weigh the importance of making an arrest against the danger of pursuing a suspect.

The Cleveland incident may provide an impetus for local police departments to review their policies for high-speed chases, as well as for drawing weapons.

Last year, a Washington Township man died in a head-on crash with a police cruiser chasing a robbery suspect who was driving the wrong way on I-75. Several other people — including two police officers with broken bones — were injured because of the pursuit.

The suspect was shot dead after he stopped and wielded an unknown weapon.

Three Toledo police officers, three Ohio Highway Patrol troopers, and an FBI agent collectively fired 40 to 50 rounds. The weapon turned out to be a pellet gun.

High-speed chases can have unintended consequences. It is incumbent on police, who are often thrust into no-win situations, to keep a cool head and use their best judgment.

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