2 investigates: Local police pursuit policies

When it comes to high-speed pursuits, law enforcement have very strict policies on when to pursue and when to back off.  

DULUTH, Ga — But after a Gwinnett County chase nearly killed an innocent woman, Channel 2 Action News began investigating pursuit policies at local law enforcement agencies.

During a patrol in July of 2012, a City of Duluth police officer was alerted to a Nissan Maxima with a possible stolen tag. Dashcam footage shows that the officer tries to pull the Nissan over on Pleasant Hill Road but the driver makes a U-turn and increases speed.

The police officer begins to pursue.  The chase covers nearly seven miles as the two vehicle run red lights, speed through construction areas and come dangerously close to other cars, at times nearing a hundred miles an hour.

“They’re going to continue to run until something happens -- either their car is immobilized or they crash,” security consultant Roy Taylor said.

Taylor is a 30-year law enforcement veteran and has written pursuit policies for other departments. Channel 2 Action News asked him to analyze the video of the pursuit.

At separate points in the video you see the officer fire two GPS tracking darts at the fleeing car.  They are the newest technology intended to end dangerous chases by allowing police to pull away and track a suspect by GPS. Both darts bounce off the Nissan.

“Obviously, the officer realized by deploying those devices that the chase wasn't going to stop,” Taylor said.

Eventually, the driver crossed over into oncoming traffic on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and for three miles, dodged cars before eventually crashing head-on into an SUV.  In the SUV was single-mother Dawn Smith and her dog, Cupid.

Both vehicles caught fire. The driver of the Nissan was killed. Smith was pinned under her steering wheel with multiple broken bones. On the video, she can be heard screaming wanting to know why the Nissan was driving on the wrong side of the road.

“I remember trying to push myself up and my body didn’t go anywhere,” Smith said. “I was just fearing that I was going to die and burn in the car.”

The Duluth Police Department’s chase police states pursuits are permitted to apprehend a dangerous criminal or prevent a dangerous crime.

It also states that a pursuit must stop if the danger to the public outweighs the need to apprehend a suspect.  But then the language gets confusing when it states: “Pursuits are permitted when a violator refuses to stop and yield to an officer’s lights/sirens and crates an immediate danger to the public.”

“It’s contradicting itself by the beginning saying, ‘Use good judgment,’ but then the last line is, ‘If the bad guy is driving erratically, go ahead and chase him anyway,” Taylor said.

Smith filed a lawsuit against the city of Duluth, claiming the policy is flawed and the chase violated national, state and local laws.

“Most police departments allow a pursuit only if it’s a major crime. By major crime, I'm talking rape or murder or if there's an immediate threat to the public.  Here, there was no threat to the public. Not until the police started chasing him,” Smith's attorney, Michael Werner said.

Smith nearly lost her leg in the collision and is facing years of physical therapy. She hopes a policy change will keep other drivers safe.

“All that I’ve been through, you know, was unnecessary. It was an out-of-control chase,” Smith said.

The Duluth Police Department did not want to go on camera because of the lawsuit, but the department’s attorney said it will defend the case and that the pursuit was justified.

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