Atlanta police chase accidents that have claimed the lives of innocent bystanders have been on the front page recently. Police chases are dangerous events. More people in our nation die as a result of police car chases than as a result of police shootings. According to experts, high-speed police pursuits result in an average of at least one death a day across the nation. Four recent days in the Atlanta area bring this alarming statistic to the forefront of our minds and our justice system as D.A. offices in two counties begin to investigate separate high-speed police vehicle pursuits that ended in tragedy. For the second time in less than a week, innocent residents of the Atlanta area have been snuffed out in the wake of a high-speed police car chase. College Park, Georgia resident Cynthia Wright (age 75) was taking her grandchildren - Cameron Costner (age 12) and Layla Partridge (age 6) - to 1st Peter A.M.E. for Sunday morning services when the Buick she was driving in a neighborhood near historic Westview Cemetary was struck violently by a man in a stolen Chevrolet Suburban. The Suburban driver was trying to outrun a police vehicle pursuing him. All three church-goers died at the scene. One witness to this dangerous chase told media that the speeding Georgia police officers should have backed off, especially as the chase entered a residential area.
The police car chase that killed Wright and her grandchildren echoed a similar pursuit that took place in Gwinnett County, Georgia last Thursday evening, when two retired CDC researchers - Kryzysztof Krawczynski (age 77) and Elzbieta Gurtler-Krawczynski (78) - driving home from a family birthday celebration were blindsided by a white Ford Crown Victoria. The Ford was being pursued by Johns Creek Police Officer William Goins. The Krawczynskis were pronounced dead at the scene.
Clearly, the men driving these vehicles that were being chased by law enforcement officers are negligent for the damages that the resulting collisions caused, and they should be held accountable. But the police officers may also be negligent. Only a thorough and detailed investigation into each event can uncover whether or not these Georgia officers followed their department guidelines regarding the choice to engage in such an inherently dangerous activity.
In each recent incident, the given reasons for the high-speed chases that officers conducted do not seem urgent enough to warrant the eventual innocent human toll exacted. College Park officers were chasing a suspected stolen vehicle. Johns Creek police were chasing a vehicle that had been identified as having equipment violations. Are a stolen car or a car driving around with too many antennas worth the collateral damage of five honorable lives taken from their family and friends in an instant?
Some police departments don’t think so and they minimize the risk of this inherently dangerous activity with policies, procedures and training that ensures their officers will only pursue a person in a vehicle at a high rate of speed if the person is suspected of committing a violent crime.
Police departments around the Atlanta metro area must start asking themselves tough questions in the wake of the week’s senseless tragedies. Police car chases that end in serious injury or death are not a problem unique to our state, and we must look to experts and to models other states have in place to come up with more sensible policies for our own officers.
One such expert is Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor of criminology who has studied high-speed police car pursuits across the country for more than two decades. Alpert has conducted numerous Justice Department studies on the issue and while his research is invaluable to our overall understanding of these chases, their causes and their resulting fatalities, his search for a better police car chase model is often hampered by the fact that the national databases kept concerning these chases are consistently wrong.
Still, according to Alpert, the trend in law enforcement divisions in every state is towards restricting officers from engaging in these dangerous vehicle chases. This is a trend that we should welcome here in Georgia, but clearly it’s not here yet. Just ask the families of Kryzysztof Krawczynski, Elzbieta Gurtler-Krawczynski, Cynthia Wright, Cameron Costner and Layla Partridge.