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Editorial: Is a high speed police chase worth the risk?

You used to see them on the TV cop show dramas. The bad guy takes off in his car with the police behind him in hot pursuit. The cars drive at high speeds through the city streets, barely missing pedestrians and sideswiping parked cars until the one being pursued crashes and is caught by the police.

Today you can see real life versions on You Tube videos. Exciting and dramatic video footage of cops on the trail of a speeding and reckless vehicle. The dangerous chase goes on, often, until it ends in a spectacular crash.

Two police pursuits involving speeds of more than 100 miles per hour happened in West Virginia this week, one in Huntington on Saturday and one in the early hours of Monday that started in Hurricane and ended in St. Albans. Fortunately, no one was hurt and property damage was minimal in these chases, but that’s not always the case.

In Martinsburg in 1996, a 21-year-old nursing student returning home from working late at WalMart died when a driver traveling more than 100 miles per hour in pursuit by the State Police slammed into her car head on.

In Charleston in 2005, a truck driven by a 69-year old woman was struck and the driver killed by a speeding Charleston police cruiser driven by officer Brandon Tagayun, who, with no headlights and no siren, was pursuing a suspect.

There are many more such stories based on high-speed pursuits in West Virginia and across the country.

USAToday reported in 2010 that about 35 to 40 percent of police chases end in crashes, killing 360 people each year. While most of the deaths involve the fleeing driver, innocent people and even police become the victims at times.

To be sure, the fleeing drivers create the first risk by fleeing from police. They are usually caught, and punished according to the law. For instance, the driver who caused the 1996 Martinsburg crash was convicted of DUI and sentenced to 1 to 10 years in prison. Presumably, he’s out now. The nursing student, however, is still dead.

Following the natural human impulse to “go get ‘em” is not appropriate when innocent lives are at stake, particularly when the offender can be located later based on the license plate registration.

Recent high speed pursuits show that many West Virginia law enforcement organizations still need to adopt strict policies to guide officers in the very rare instances when it would be acceptable to give chase.

Pursuing a drunken driver or other offender at high speed is not worth the risk to innocent people who may be on the road, like young nursing students and little old ladies.

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