Karen Schmeer, a friend of a dear friend, was killed Jan. 29 while carrying groceries home. She was hit on Broadway at West 90th Street by a speeding car driven by drug store shoplifters fleeing police. The impact knocked her out of her boots and flung her half a city block through the air.
Karen’s death is more than a simple tragedy. She might be alive if police did not bend or break the rules put in place to prevent this kind of senseless death. Let me be clear: Police did not kill Karen Schmeer. Criminals did. But that guilt does not absolve police of responsibility.
While police must catch crooks, it’s not always their job to chase crooks. Not in cars. Police say they weren’t in pursuit at the time of the crash, but witnesses, according to the Daily News, “saw the car weaving in and out of traffic going north on Broadway with a squad car with lights and sirens blaring in hot pursuit.” Why the discrepancy? Because police should never be chasing suspects up Broadway at 8 p.m.
New York, like most cities, forbids car chases “whenever the risks to [police] and the public outweigh the danger to the community if the suspect is not immediately apprehended.” That’s pretty much all the time, unless it’s Osama bin Laden at the wheel. Car chases aren’t worth it. They often end in a crash.
Police love a good chase, and there are informal rules to keep your supervisor from stopping the fun. Don’t “chase,” instead “follow.” Don’t get on the radio unless your voice is calm and your siren is off. If, God forbid, something really bad happens, say you lost contact before it happened.
When I was a rookie cop on the streets of Baltimore and driving too fast, I was confronted by my partner: “Do you know anybody out there? Would you cry if anybody died?” My sergeant put it another way: “I think of my wife or children in a car. They may die. For what?” This was the wisdom of experience. The message was simple: slow down.
Still, I couldn’t resist the thrill of the chase. I remember one fondly, on small empty streets in the middle of the night. A guy with a van was speeding, ran a red light and wouldn’t pull over. The guy bailed and didn’t crash. I caught him. Nobody got hurt. I had a blast.
I found out in the end he was driving without a license and a little drunk; but that’s hardly a reason to risk a lethal chase. Honestly, I just did it for the thrill. I count my lucky stars nobody was killed. I made a dangerous situation worse by going the wrong way down one-way streets and pushing another driver past his limits.
Had Karen Schmeer walked in front of the car I was pursuing that night and been killed, I would have tried to cover my ass with the exact words an NYPD spokesman used: “Cops tried to pull over the suspects minutes before the crash, but they lost the car momentarily. When they caught up with the vehicle, it had already struck Schmeer, as well as several other vehicles.”
Maybe that’s true. But at least I’m willing to say I was wrong.
Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer, is an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the City University of New York’s doctoral program in sociology.
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