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Despite fewer people on the roads, law enforcement chases went up in 2020

Published: Jul. 15, 2021 at 7:00 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 15, 2021 at 7:27 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Several Tri-County law enforcement agencies recorded their highest number of chases in 2020 despite fewer drivers being on the road because of the pandemic, according to traffic and chase data for the last five years.

In Charleston County, deputies were involved in 141 vehicle pursuits last year. According to the data, that number is 18% higher than the year before. The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office’s Annual Pursuit Report did not list how many traffic stops were conducted in 2020.

The Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office conducted fewer traffic stops in 2020 than in 2019, but documents show Berkeley County deputies were involved in 89 vehicle pursuits in 2020, which is 30 percent higher than the year before.

In Dorchester County, deputies were involved in 25 vehicle chases in 2020. That number is up from the 17 chases in 2019 and five chases performed in 2018.

“We are in the business of law enforcement and that’s what the people pay us to do,” Berkeley County Sheriff Duane Lewis says. “We don’t sit behind a tree and wait for somebody to call us. We’re out here in the neighborhoods and subdivisions and the communities looking for people that break the law. And that’s what we do and sometimes things happen and people decide to flee. We don’t make that choice for them.”

Lewis could not explain why the overall number of chases went up, but says it’s higher than he would like.

“I wish we had zero chases,” Lewis says. “I wish we could operate in a society where we didn’t have to chase people.”

Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina, says pursuits are unsafe.

“These chases are so dangerous that good heads of departments, I don’t care if they’re local, if their county, they’re state… they should be protecting the public, and the way you protect the public is to limit your chases to very serious crimes,” Alpert said.

Deputies say most of their pursuits start as a traffic violation, however Alpert says that irresponsible.

“Chasing for minor violations is neither appropriate nor really it does not comport with good police practices,” Alpert said.

Lewis says there are safety factors that are taken into account with every pursuit: weather conditions, speed of the offender, traffic conditions, the crime the person has committed, etc.

“A supervisor can cancel that pursuit if during that procedure it becomes unsafe, if the conditions or the traffic or weather or any factor whatsoever that could cause danger to the public – then we would end that pursuit,” Lewis says. “We do that a lot and have done that.”

Of the 2020 chases by the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, 54 pursuits involved top speeds more than 75 miles per hour. Of those, 20 were in excess of 100 mph and one hit 131 mph ending in one person dying.

“In some situations that might not be too fast,” Lewis explains. “But I don’t like that. I don’t know how you can control your factors when you’re driving 100 plus miles an hour.”

Lewis says once a chase happens, it is immediately reviewed by a superior, including himself. It also goes to the Office of Professional Responsibilities which reviews the audio/radio communications and the videos from the in-car camera and body camera. That review board will make recommendations whether there was a policy violation. Lewis says there have been policy violations in the last several years and he has fired people because of it.

“Looking at our policy, I think we are strict,” Lewis says. “We have to be for public safety. Sometimes it’s just we have to do what we have to do.”

“You have to look at where these pursuits took place to determine if the speeds are excessive or not,” Alpert said. “But at 100 miles an hour, you’re putting everyone at risk. Even if you’re out in the country, you could hit a pothole, you could hit an animal. I don’t want to say no reason because you never want to say never, but there’s got to be a very, very good reason to be driving that fast, not only for the public but for yourself. There’s not much officer safety at 100 miles an hour.”

Capt. Roger Antonio says over the last three years, the number of chases Charleston County Sheriff’s Office deputies have cancelled has gone up.

“We have been emphasizing public safety during pursuits and we have had an increase in the number of pursuits that we cancelled,” Antonio says. “In 2018 and 2019, we were canceling about 22% to 23% for those two years. In 2020, we increased to about 30%.”

Antonio adds no deputy can be disciplined for disengaging from a pursuit.

Antonio says they also review every pursuit case involving Charleston County deputies and put together what he calls a “pursuit package” which includes dash camera video, body camera video and dispatch recordings.

Antonio explains a majority of pursuits initially start as a traffic violation. He says a lot of the chases happen in the rural, outlying areas like the Hollywood/Ravenel area and Highway 17 North in the East Cooper District. He adds many times, once the chase ends, drugs or firearms will be found or deputies will discover the person who fled was wanted.

In South Carolina, ‘failure to stop for blue lights’ without injury would result in a misdemeanor charge.

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