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High-speed loophole 

How you can escape the police

All we heard was the terrible high-pitched screeching of the tires as the SUV came tearing around the corner.

We didn't see it until it was bearing down on us because it was nighttime, the car was dark and the SUV's driver had left the lights off. My husband and I both dove for the side of the road, and the car missed us by a few feet. Moments later, the police officer the driver was fleeing from turned the corner at a slower rate of speed, his quarry already long gone.

My street is one of the few in my downtown neighborhood that isn't on the grid system. Because it dead ends, it sometimes trips up auto thieves who occasionally tear through the neighborhood at speeds exceeding 90 miles an hour in an attempt to outrun the police, who they know aren't allowed to pursue them above the speed limit. (In one case I watched a drunken auto thief puke all over the officer who arrested him.)

Most of the time though, these lunatics manage to elude the police because that's what the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police pursuit driving policy mandates: "Once it has been determined that the driver of a vehicle is refusing to yield," the policy states, "the officer will immediately deactivate blue lights and siren and cease attempts to pursue the violator when the reason for the vehicle stop is other than a felony dangerous to life."

In February, Mint Hill police chased a man in a stolen car through Charlotte who eventually collided with Roxane Javid, pushing her mini van into the path of a city bus. Javid wound up with a black eye and a neck injury. In the aftermath, The Charlotte Observer's editorial board, which has repeatedly praised CMPD's immediate surrender policy, joined others in calling for the Mint Hill police to change their policy.

But I'm not convinced that Charlotte's policy isn't killing people and neither are most cops I know. What no one is considering is how this policy is interpreted by the perps, whom officers say are highly familiar with it.

In fact, repeat offenders are so familiar with it that when they confuse state highway troopers, who are allowed to pursue them, with CMPD officers, they regularly tell the troopers who catch them in chases that they are going to "get in trouble" for chasing them.

They're right. Over the last decade, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers have been fired for violating the department's chase policy while trying to catch a speeding suspect. Police say that the bad guys have figured out that all they have to do to activate CMPD's anti-chase policy is to take off at a high rate of speed. If they are merely driving a stolen car and don't plow into anything in the process, they're rewarded by getting off scot-free.

The policy arguably cost Bob Daughtridge, a 48-year-old father of two, his life in 2002. William Thomas Young, 47, had just robbed a business and had a stolen cash register in his car when he peeled away from police at a high rate of speed and collided with Daughtridge. The police didn't know about the cash register when they drove in Young's direction on Monroe Road, intending to pull him over because he didn't have a license plate. The officer didn't have a chance to put on his lights or siren and didn't chase Young before he plowed into Daughtridge.

Though the department hasn't studied it, officers I spoke to for this piece believe that suspects attempt to elude them more now than they did before the department changed its policy in 1995. Several agreed with one officer's assessment that the policy may also have contributed to Charlotte's auto theft problem. Officers say it is far more difficult to arrest and prosecute people for auto theft if you can't catch them actually driving or taking off in the car. Sure, they leave finger prints, but they can claim later they just sat in it and didn't know it was stolen.

The department's own statistics may support that theory. The first big surge in auto theft in Charlotte -- a 16 percent increase -- was recorded the year after the tougher pursuit driving policy took effect.

And though none of the officers I spoke to would criticize the pursuit driving policy on the record, the buzz around the department is that it probably contributed to the death of Bruce Edward Lawrence, 55, and the serious injury of his daughter, Cassandra Marie Lawrence, 20, in a late-night head-on collision last week.

Pineville Police set up a road block in an effort to stop Demario Keonta Perry, 20, who was driving the wrong way at about 70 mph on Interstate 485 on Sunday. But Perry merely drove around them on the shoulder and kept going for several miles before he collided with the Lawrences.

Because offenders like Perry, who had been arrested before on other crime and driving-related charges, don't usually distinguish between officers of the various police departments, he probably knew, as other suspects who have blown by road blocks do, that Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers couldn't pursue him if he went around them and jacked up his speed.

That's exactly what Perry did, and the Lawrence family paid a terrible price for it.

Tune in to Tara Servatius' new radio show on NewsTalk 1110 AM starting June 4 at 9 p.m.

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