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Why some police departments won’t stop chasing no matter what the cost

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INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- When most of us see a police chase, we’re rooting for police to catch the criminal. But the fact is the criminal isn’t the only one at risk.

Every year, nationwide, more than 300 people are killed because of high-speed pursuits. People headed to work, or church or just crossing the street. People like 17-year-old Chris Cooper.

He was headed home on his bicycle and crossing Noland Road in Independence when he was killed by a driver fleeing police. The speeds reached 90 miles per hour.

The driver was wanted for leaving the scene of a fender bender -- a misdemeanor that cost Cooper his life.

“I think a lot about his last moments and wonder if there was anything going through his mind,” his mother Cheryl said. “I pray there wasn't pain, but I'll never know. It haunts me that I couldn’t be there and be with him when he left this life. It never stops the grief.”

Although the crash was 11 years ago, attorney Sean Pickett, who represented the Cooper family in a lawsuit against Independence Police, said little has changed.

“They continue to have accidents,” Pickett said. “They continue to kill people, to hurt people."

Per capita, there are nine times more police pursuits in Independence than in Kansas City, Missouri, and 50 times more than in Overland Park.

No one from Independence police would talk to FOX4 on camera, but the department did send a statement defending the chase policy, stating that last year 133 suspects were arrested as a result of a police chase.

"33 percent of these suspects were charged with Stolen Auto, and 32 percent of them were charged with a felony or had a felony warrant,”
the statement read. “Without a policy that holds criminals accountable for their actions, these suspects would not have been apprehended."

Read the full statement from Independence police here.

But others question that reasoning, including UMKC criminology professor Ken Novak.

“I am unaware of any research that demonstrates that any pursuit policy that a department has has any relationship on crime,” said Novak, adding there
are many ways to catch criminals that don’t involve high-speed pursuits.

Novak said the vast majority of people who run from police have not committed a violent crime. They are just making a split-second, stupid decision.

“My question is do we want to be pursing people who are very likely drunk, under-insured, not have a valid license and driving someone else`s vehicle?” Novak asked. “Are they making good decisions during that pursuit?”

Independence’s pursuit policy, which gives individual officers a lot of discretion as to whether to chase, defies a national trend. Nationwide, the majority of police departments have banned high-speed chases except in the case of violent felonies.

Police in KCMO, Overland Park, Grandview and Lee’s Summit are among them.

“As soon as it becomes evident that someone's life could be placed in jeopardy, we really need to consider whether it’s worth chasing them or not,” said Raymore Mayor Kris Turnbow, who spent more than 30 years in law enforcement.

When he was Raymore’s chief of police he adopted the same strict pursuit policy that KCMO has. It mandates that every pursuit must be approved by a supervisor, not the cop behind the wheel. That’s because good officers can make bad decisions during a high-speed chase.

“You are thinking fast and hard, and you want to catch that bad guy,” Turnbow said. “But you are not always thinking about what else is going on around you."

Independence isn’t alone in believing in police pursuits. KCK Police Chief Terry Zeigler is also a believer.

“They are scrutinized,” Zeigler said. “They are monitored. But I'm not going to tell you they are not dangerous. I know that. But we had to do something in our community to try and turn back this tide in drive-by shootings.”

Last year, Zeigler abolished a more restrictive pursuit policy that KCK adopted in 2014 after the death of Graciela Olivas and 7-year-old Jasmine Rodriguez. Both were innocent victims of two separate police pursuits.

Since Zeigler abandoned the restrictive pursuit policy in favor of a more lenient one, pursuits have jumped more than 400 percent -- from 50 in 2016 to 281 in 2017.

FOX4 asked Zeigler how he would feel if more innocent people died because of his more lenient pursuit policy.

“I would feel horrible that someone decided not to comply with law enforcement and ended up taking somebody else's life,” Zeigler said. “I'd feel horrible, but the (criminal) behind that wheel is 100 percent responsible for their actions."

That’s an argument that those who have lost family members to high-speed pursuits don’t buy. Just ask Cheryl Cooper.

“(My son) did nothing wrong. They are the ones who conducted a deadly pursuit. They are the ones who continue to conduct deadly pursuits every day in this city.”

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