When a high-speed police pursuit of some petty transgressor ends badly, I think of Kenneth Scott.
The circumstances that led to the deaths of two innocent bicycle riders in Cooper City on Aug. 5 weren’t so different than the mad, mindless car chase that killed Scott two decades ago just a half block from my house. Police were after a car burglar in the Cooper City case. Scott was collateral damage in the ripping pursuit of an “erratic driver” in Fort Lauderdale.
When a police officer attempted to pull over a swerving old Thunderbird on A1A, the driver, who had been drinking and had a suspended driver’s license, panicked. He sped down Ocean Drive, turned onto Las Olas Boulevard and raced towards the city’s crowded café district. With police, as they say, in hot pursuit.
The madness overtook Kenneth Scott as he rode his bicycle along the sidewalk. The smash-up was so terrific, so loud, it brought me running from my house. I came upon one of those scenes that can’t be erased from memory. Scott’s bike was a tangle of metal in the gutter. The old brown Thunderbird in the middle of Las Olas had the grotesque indentation of a human body stamped into the windshield and roof. Kinetic forces of the impact had knocked Scott’s body in one direction and ripped off one of his running shoes and sent it flying 30 feet the opposite way. It was a tough image to square with erratic driving.
Neither did the suspected crime on Aug. 5 in Cooper City equate to the mayhem. The Miami Herald’s Michael Vasquez and Daniel Chang reported that perhaps as many as five Broward Sheriff’s Office patrol cars were in pursuit of a suspected car burglar, hitting speeds of 100 mph or more.
The fleeing Infiniti, driven by 26-year-old Obrian Oakley, crashed into a Toyota at the intersection of Sheraton Street and Palm Avenue, then swerved into two bicyclists. Both Christopher McConnell, 61, and Dean Amelkin, 60, were killed. And I thought of Kenneth Scott.
Except, that in 2012, BSO has a policy against high-speed pursuits for low-rent crimes. Geoffrey P. Alpert, former director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Miami and a national expert in high-risk police procedures, told me Monday that since the 1990s, police agencies have been moving toward allowing police chases only in pursuit of violent felons.
Alpert said studies have clearly shown that curtailed chases haven’t led to an increase in crime. Other data, he said, indicate that drivers who flee often aren’t serious criminals. They could be just as likely teenagers caught without a driver’s license. “Or some silly thing.”
Despite the official policies, about 360 people a year still die in crashes stemming from police chases. “About one a day,” said Alpert. “By the end of today, someone will be killed in a police pursuit.”
A third of those, like Christopher McConnell and Dean Amelkin, are hapless bystanders. Apparently, official policies against dangerous chases for lowly crimes don’t always trump a cultural police antipathy against allowing even a petty criminal to simply race away.