Teens' deaths again bring pursuit dilemna to forefront
Seven teens died Monday in North Carolina when one of them crashed the car in which they were joyriding.
A police officer pursued the vehicle after he noted it was weaving in its lane. The unlicensed teen driver fled the patrol car at speeds of 85-100 mph and then crashed, killing all seven, according to Associated Press reports.
The driver of the car was a 15-year-old, and passengers ranged in age from 14 to 18. The news report said the teens had been borrowing cars for joyrides. None had licenses, none wore seat belts.
The tiny town of Troutman, NC, population 1,600, will certainly grieve at the loss of so many of its youngsters who had so much of their lives ahead of them.
But now the blame game will begin. The AP story quoted the father of one of the victims, Domnick Hurtt, 17, as questioning why the officer pursued the vehicle. "They were just out joyriding and a cop pulls them over and we have seven deaths. I lost my only son," Hurtt told reporters.
Hurtt also told the reporter that he tried to get his son to stop joyriding, that the teens had been borrowing cars from people they knew. Later, the owner of the car in which the teens died reported it stolen. Police also said they were investigating one of the teens for his role in a home invasion robbery the previous night.
Despite the fact that the officer who pursued these kids for what he said was erratic driving could not have known immediately that it was a car full of teens he was following, and that he did not see the crash, so he had apparently backed off the chase, he will undoubtedly take much of the blame for the deaths.
The tragic crash is eerily reminiscent of the January, 2001, fatal pursuit in which Jesus Peralta stole a vehicle from Prescott Country Club, ran over a PV police officer in Prescott Valley, and then led officers on a high speed chase into downtown Prescott, where he smashed into a vehicle, killing three young men.
Every time police officers decide to pursue, they must balance the risk of the chase against the risk the escape of the suspects pose to the community.
If Peralta was desperate enough to run over a police officer, what else might he have done had he escaped that night? If a police officer had not pursued an erratic driver in North Carolina, would the unlicensed, unskilled teen driver have caused a worse accident, killing innocent people on the highway?
Police pursuits are coming under more and more scrutiny because of deaths and injuries that have occurred during the chases. It would be easy to blame officers, but there is another side to this delicate balancing act. Any community that has a no-pursuit policy will be a sitting duck for those who want to commit crimes and then escape.
Obviously, police departments must have, and adhere to, stringent pursuit policies. However, each situation requires the judgement of the officer on the spot.
There's no easy answer to the pursuit dilemna, and the officers who made the decisions to pursue in these cases will face as much soul-searching as the families of those who died.