Judgment at high speed

The trouble with high-speed police pursuits is biology. Adrenaline plus (nearly always) testosterone, and behavior can mimic road rage. Judgment blurs.

As The Herald’s Rikki King reports, a high-speed chase that left a suspected drunk driver dead Monday marked the third fatal pursuit in Snohomish County since May. Are these situational responses statistically significant?

Emergency vehicles are exempted from traffic laws as long as life and property aren’t at risk. It’s OK to lead-foot a red light to ferry a cardiac patient to the hospital or for cops to pursue a bank robber (otherwise the crook handbook would simply advise, “Go 10 mph over the speed limit.”) But how fast is too fast?

Monday’s crash is under investigation. The victim, Eric John Breum, 55, of Skykomish, had seven DUI convictions and was declared “a danger to the public” in King County court records. The pursuit unfolded on the Northwest’s highway of death, U.S. 2. More than 60 people have been killed on U.S. 2 since 1999.

One of the most heart-rending cases is the May 12 pursuit by Bothell police of a convicted felon through downtown Everett. The suspect rammed the car of Rachael Kamin, a Providence Hospital nurse, killing her.

On May 24, a driver attempted to outrun Lynnwood cops and crashed into a van driven by 72-year old Jerry Bennett, who died. Bennett’s estate filed a claim against the city of Lynnwood for $1.2 million.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office pursuit policy reads, “At no time shall speed reach a point where it adversely affects the driver’s control of the vehicle and/or the driver’s ability to see and respond to other drivers thereby endangering life and/or property.” Officers have latitude, but the onus is on them, that judgment supplants biology.

Around the Pacific Northwest, law enforcement policies are as sensible as they are subjective. “When a deputy engages in a pursuit, he/she must weigh the risk of personal and public safety against the benefit of immediate apprehension of the offender,” the sheriff’s policy reads.

The kicker is to come up with a cost-benefit analysis in an adrenaline haze. Officers are required to end pursuits whenever the risks outweigh the danger to the public if the bad guy is not immediately nabbed. The Everett Police Department, which rewrote its policies in 2004 to err on the side of non-pursuit, emphasizes intervention protocols such as “stop sticks” and roadblocks. It also won’t censure officers who make the call to end a chase.

As departments revisit their policies, best practices again will be underlined. Harmonizing law enforcement standards with human nature and the public interest: It’s a Utopian-sounding, but indispensable mission.

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