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Archive for Monday, August 8, 2011

Tougher state laws haven’t reduced number of police chases

August 8, 2011

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— New policies on police chases and a tougher state law have done little to reduce the number of Kansas drivers who flee from police and cause accidents, according to a newspaper report.

Fleeing drivers are causing accidents more than four times a week on Kansas roads, The Wichita Eagle reports. The Kansas Department of Transportation said five people died in police-pursuit crashes in 2009, slightly above the average for the decade.

Over the past decade, many Kansas police departments have changed their policies on high-speed chases, and a 2005 law made it possible to charge someone who killed someone while running from police with first-degree murder. Despite those changes, most Kansas law enforcement officials say the chases will continue because the current law does not impose tough enough consequences.

Under current Kansas law, drivers who flee from police under normal circumstances are guilty of misdemeanors on their first and second convictions. A first offense can be a felony if a driver fails to stop at a road block, drives around tire-deflating devices, is involved in an accident, engages in reckless driving, or commits five or more moving violations during the chase. A third conviction for eluding an officer is a felony.

Pratt County Sheriff Vernon Chinn said he would like to see the crime of eluding a police officer elevated at least to the level of the crime of driving under the influence of alcohol. But he said that's unlikely as long as the state's jails are full.

"I just personally think the penalty is not high enough, and that's why you're not seeing a significant decrease in police chases," he said. "The bottom line is the law we have encourages people to run."

Transportation Department records show that from 2000 through 2009 38 people died during police chases in Kansas. That included 26 drivers who were fleeing from police and seven who were passengers in vehicles that were being pursued. Five of the victims were not involved in the chase that led to their deaths.

Wichita Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz said his department rewrote its chase policy after a July 6, 1999, accident killed a couple from Independence. The driver was eventually convicted of second-degree murder because she ran a red light and caused the crash.

Because pursuing officers had the tag number of the car, Stolz said, they could have found the driver later.

Under the old policy, officers could chase a suspect who committed a traffic infraction or a misdemeanor crime even if the officers knew the driver. With the new policy, if officers identify a suspect they're chasing through a tag number or other means, they are routinely asked to call off the pursuit and make an arrest later. Any pursuit can be called off if it poses a moderate or high risk to public safety.

Phil Journey, a Kansas senator when the law imposing a first-degree murder charge was passed, is now a district court judge who has presided at felony trials where drivers are accused of eluding police. He said most drivers who run from police have a suspended driver's license and know they'll go to jail if they get caught.

He said police chases could be reduced if it were easier for people with suspended licenses to find ways to drive legally.

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