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To chase or not to chase? Incident raises questions about police pursuits

 

Sammie Lee Young Jr.

Sammie Lee Young Jr.

 

 

Sarah Fowler

 

A Columbus man was arrested and faces 12 charges after he failed to yield to an officer's blue lights Tuesday afternoon. 

 

Sammie Lee Young Jr., 23, was arrested and charged with five counts of disobeying a traffic control device, reckless driving, failure to yield to blue lights, suspended driver's license, no insurance, possession of a stolen firearm, possession of paraphernalia and disobeying a police officer after he initially ran a stop sign just after 2 p.m. Tuesday. 

 

An officer with the Columbus Police Department was attempting to pull Young over for the stop sign violation at Fourth Avenue and Peach Street when Young began to flee in his Mercury Grand Marquis. According to scanner traffic, the officer advised the situation over his radio. The CPD shift supervisor then told the officer not to chase the suspect.  

 

Young drove his vehicle around a corner where he almost sideswiped a mailman and another police cruiser. The shift supervisor again advised officers not to chase the suspect. Young jumped out of the vehicle and attempted to run but was apprehended at the corner of Third Avenue and 21st Street North. 

 

When asked about the department's policy in chasing suspects who are fleeing in a vehicle, Chief Selvain McQueen said the department is "operating under the same policy implemented by former Chief of Police J.D. Sanders." 

 

McQueen would not provide a copy of the policy saying, "We abide by the Standard Operating Procedure manual which is in effect. This manual and its contents are for law enforcement only and are not for the general public, a fact which you should be able to appreciate as a matter of safety, not only for the citizens but for the officers as well." 

 

When contacted Tuesday evening, Chief Sanders provided a copy of the policy he put in place shortly after he first became chief of the CPD in 2003. 

 

"In 2003, 2004, when I put the policy in place in Columbus it was intended to give the officers and their supervisors clear guidelines on when it was proper or improper to exceed posted speed limits and pursue a driver where the vehicle would not stop. The simplified guidelines were needed to reduce exposure to liability to the City of Columbus and officers, and possible criminal charges against officers who were extremely negligent. 

 

The policy reads: 

 

"After the initial attempt to make a vehicle stop has failed, ask yourself the following questions to determine whether to pursue this vehicle: 

 

■ Are there safer alternatives to apprehending the suspect other than pursuit? If YES, discontinue pursuit. If NO, go on to question 2.  

 

■ Do I have probable cause to believe an occupant of the vehicle has committed or will commit a felony involving violence to a person? If NO, discontinue pursuit. If YES, pursuit may be undertaken as long as risk factors (speed, area, weather, and road conditions, pedestrians, and other traffic, etc.) do not cause risk to public to outweigh the benefit of catching the suspect. Immediately notify supervisor." 

 

Sanders said the policy was then laminated and placed on the sun visors of each police cruiser. He reiterated that a officer in pursuit was to immediately notify their supervisor. 

 

"The checklist is pretty clear but the officer is required to notify a supervisor who provides the final approval for the ending of the pursuit." 

 

He added that during a justified pursuit, officers were permitted to continue the chase outside the city limits as well as help other agencies. 

 

"The policy covered all situations. If the policy is followed and it permits continued pursuit, it makes no difference if it is in city limits or beyond," Sanders said. 

 

Chief McQueen added that despite rumors to the contrary, CPD officers will also assist fellow law enforcement officers from other agencies. 

 

"The Columbus Police Department will assist and has assisted outside agencies in the interests of protecting all citizens," he said. 

 

However, in an event earlier this month involving a Mississippi Highway Patrolman chasing a vehicle through downtown Columbus, officers with the Columbus Police Department were reportedly told to stand down, according to a law enforcement source verified by scanner reports. The trooper initially tried to stop the vehicle for a seat belt violation. While Lowndes County deputies joined in the pursuit, city police officers did not. The suspect, DeVegas Liddell, who was wanted on numerous outstanding felony warrants, was caught by officers with MHP and the sheriff's department. 

 

Sanders said pursuit policies are commonplace in departments to not only protect the citizens but to protect the officers. 

 

"There are cases all across this country of officers being criminally prosecuted in cases of extreme negligence involving pursuits," Sanders said. "Also, the officer can be sued and lose everything they have." 

 

The time of the offense can also affect the option of whether or not to pursue the suspects, Sanders said. 

 

"Officers must take into account the exposure to unnecessary danger to the public. Obviously there are fewer vehicles on the streets and fewer pedestrians at 3 a.m. as opposed to 3 p.m. Other considerations are conditions of roads, wet or frozen or dry, weather, and other factors that would be a factor in the level of danger." 

 

Referring to the policy, Sanders noted that pursuing a suspect who ran a stop sign is vastly different than one involved in a dangerous crime. 

 

"If they robbed a bank or just shot at someone in a drive-by shooting, we're going to chase them until the wheels come off," said Sanders, who is now police chief in Hobbs, N.M. 

 

Another key element in pursuits is the presence of a video camera installed in cruisers, Sanders said. 

 

Currently, the CPD does not have working video cameras installed in the cruisers. Sanders said having video cameras installed in officers' vehicles is the "perfect witness" to how a pursuit unfolds. 

 

"I would not allow an officer to drive a patrol cruiser off the parking lot if the car was not equipped with a perfectly operating video camera," Sanders said. "A video camera is the perfect witness to verify what an officer used as cause for a pursuit and is valuable evidence in the event a pursuit ends badly, and most of them do."

 

Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @FowlerSarah

 

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