ISSUE: Driver fleeing police involved in fatal crash

OUR VIEW: Important to review policies, judgment

A high-speed police chase makes for exciting reality television. Such video also garners top-tier viewer interest on YouTube. But when these pursuits cause death or life-changing injury to other innocent motorists or bystanders, scrutiny is expected and law enforcement owes the public explanation regarding the actions and decision-making of their officers and supervisors.

Killed on the evening of Oct. 20 were Elizabethtown teenagers Jacob Barber, 18, and passenger Katarina Peeters, 17. Barber attempted to cross the intersection of U.S. 31W and Battle Training Road and was struck by a stolen 2000 Chevrolet Silverado driven by Shawn Welsh, 36, of Marion, West Virginia.

According to Kentucky State Police, Welsh was fleeing pursuing officers from the Meade County Sheriff’s Office, Vine Grove Police Department and Radcliff Police Department when he ran a red light at the intersection, crashing the truck into Barber’s Honda Accord.

After refusing to stop for the sheriff’s deputy along a dead-end road in Flaherty, Welsh evaded officers for some 21 miles. ]

Officers report he erratically passed other motorists along Ky. 313 and sped down county roadways and neighborhood streets. Welsh almost hit an officer when he swerved to avoid tire-deflating stop sticks thrown down in attempt to stop his vehicle.

The pursuit’s violent and deadly conclusion ended the lives of the two teens and resulted in serious injuries for two others teenagers.

Welsh has been indicted on two counts of murder and other related charges. He faces a possible life sentence if convicted and held accountable.

A passenger in the Silverado, Laura Neville, 36, of Morgan­town, West Virginia, has been indicted on a charge of first-degree possession of methamphetamine.

Police pursuits are inherently dangerous high-risk action, especially when such take fleeing suspects and pursuing officers down heavily trafficked roadways.

Saturday evening’s fatal crash on this stretch of U.S. 31W wasn’t the first resulting from such a chase. In June 2010, 36-year-old James E. Fentress was killed at the intersection of U.S. 31W and Ky. 313 when his vehicle was struck by man evading a Hardin County sheriff’s deputy and officers from the Vine Grove and Radcliff police departments in a stolen SUV.

Written pursuit policy and guidelines obtained from the Meade County Sheriff’s Office, Vine Grove and Radcliff police departments are each very similar, justifying pursuit when officers know or have reasonable belief that a suspect has or is attempting to commit a violent felony crime or when posing an immediate danger to the safety of law enforcement or the public.

The guiding policies also define when such pursuits are to be avoided or terminated based on the risks involved. Acknowledging the deputy’s vehicle was almost hit, a stolen 18-year-old pickup falls short in being considered a serious, high priority crime.

While those who knew and loved these Elizabethtown teens mourn their deaths, law enforcement must review pursuit policies and decisions by the officers involved. Top brass with these agencies must determine if the chase of Welsh unnecessarily placed the public and the officers themselves in harm’s way.

To be clear, fault rests with the driver of the stolen SUV who attempted to avoid police. But because innocent lives are endangered, police would be wise to think of these high-speed events in different terms. Let’s call it what it is: a high-risk pursuit.

This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.

(1) comment

Likeitis

Agreed. Perhaps it is too easy for law enforcement to get caught up in the adrenaline rush of the chase. The stolen vehicle was totally insignificant in relation to the lives of two human beings. Cooler heads must prevail over hot pursuit when the chase enters heavily traveled roadways with red lights and intersections. At some point the driver of the stolen vehicle will have to stop for gas, if no other reason. By radioing ahead and alerting law enforcement and the public of the stolen vehicle description and license plate, perhaps unmarked law enforcement could track and then apprehend the driver in a safer place without scaring the driver into reckless actions like driving through the red light of a busy intersection.

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