‘Not worth anybody’s life’: When should police start a chase or stand down?

CHARLOTTE — When police officers chase suspects, innocent drivers in their path can end up hurt, or worse.

Channel 9 has covered countless cases over the years, from Anthony Williams’ death during a police chase in 2021, to Kayla Kennedy’s life-altering injuries during a chase in 2022, and even back to 2007, when Leeanna Newman and her unborn daughter were killed during a police chase through Kannapolis. Just last week, a father was killed in Alexander County after he was hit by a driver fleeing police in a stolen vehicle.

Now, in a special Channel 9 investigation, we’re taking a deeper look at one of the most dangerous elements of police work; when police should initiate chases, and how can they do it safely? Evan Donovan spent months comparing the pursuit policies of our local law enforcement.

A new report outlines the best practices for a police pursuit so that innocent bystanders like you don’t get hurt.

A family torn

For Beth Fox, one officer’s decision to initiate a chase had a devastating impact.

Fox pauses at a memorial in her home every day.

“This is what my daughter made me for my birthday this year,” Fox told Donovan.

Her daughter, Cynthia, and her grandson, Michael, were killed in a car crash last September.

“This one really hit home after the wreck,” Fox said, pointing out part of the memorial’s inscription. “When in pain, your comfort soothes and brings me back. And I can’t bring her back.”

Fox’s big family is hurting. The North Carolina State Highway Patrol says Cynthia and Michael were in their van when they were hit by a Hickory police officer going nearly 100 miles per hour.

The Hickory police officer, identified as Atia Mohamed Shamseldin, was pursuing a motorcyclist for allegedly driving recklessly and not having a tag.

“There should never be a high-speed chase for that, that’s not worth anybody’s life,” Fox said.


Few things draw the public’s attention as much as a police chase. Chopper 9 Skyzoom has flown over many chases, and they sometimes turn into crime sprees.

Take one chase in July of 2022 -- Chopper 9 Skyzoom saw an erratic driver in Charlotte evade police while stealing several getaway vehicles and causing numerous crashes.

And data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows just how dangerous they can be.

According to federal statistics, police pursuits kill at least one person a day in the United States on average. Over the past two decades, 236 people in North Carolina have been killed in police pursuits.

Nearly half of those killed in police pursuits, 107 people, were innocent bystanders, according to NHTSA data. In that same 20-year period, three officers lost their lives.

It’s such a problem that the U.S. Department of Justice asked a panel of current and former law enforcement officers to fix it.

“How can we catch them at a later time without endangering the officer, the person, and the people in our community? said Lt. Shelly Katkowski with the Burlington Police Department.

Katkowski told Donovan that she was part of a group at the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF. They spent three years coming up with best practices for police pursuits.

nhtsa. The primary finding is that officers should only begin a pursuit when two very specific standards are met: a violent crime has been committed, and the suspect poses “an imminent threat to commit another” crime.

“That was a very lengthy conversation with the group to decide ... what does that mean, ongoing or imminent threat? Was it a violent crime that happened six months ago, and you know, the person’s taking their kid to school today? ” Katkowski said. “I think that just comes down to the totality of the circumstances of what you actually have.”

The chase case

PERF says that violent crimes make up only 10% of all police pursuits.

Data shows that traffic violations and stolen cars are the primary reasons for chases.

Katkowski said it’s hard because officers want to keep people from breaking the law.

“But it’s not going to be by going 90 miles per hour at 7:30 in the morning past some buses ... you could get the tag, you could get an address,” Katkowski said. “If we’re not able to pursue them at that time, it doesn’t mean we’re not going to catch them, it means we’re going to start an investigation into who is this person?”

Donovan researched the PERF report and found that it shows more often than not, suspects are apprehended through police work rather than cases or pursuits. Katkowski agreed.

Policing the policy

Donovan reviewed the pursuit policies of seven local law enforcement agencies: the sheriff’s offices in Union, York, and Mecklenburg counties, plus the police departments in Hickory, Rock Hill, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, along with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.

When compared to the PERF report for police chase best practices, only one agency’s guidelines met the specific standards for when a pursuit should begin. That was in the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.

However, PERF’s report only came out in September, and some of their other recommendations aren’t in local police policies either.

And even when there is a policy in place, it needs to be followed so that innocent bystanders are kept safe. That’s exactly what Fox wants.

“That’s what’s next is to take this grief and anger and this frustration and channel it into something positive, and you know, be able to look at that picture in there of Cynthia and Michael and say, ‘I’ve made sure nobody else will go through what she went through,’” Fox said. “I can’t bring them back, but I can make sure it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

The officer involved in the chase that killed Fox’s daughter has since been terminated by the Hickory Police Department. The district attorney is deciding whether he will face any charges.

You can see the PERF pursuit recommendations at this link.

The responses from some of our local law enforcement agencies are below:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department: It will let Channel 9 know if it plans to make any changes.

Hickory Police Department: “Although HPD pursuit policy was being violated at the time of the crash, we are currently evaluating the policy. Considerations are focused on laws, court decisions and police best practices. The P.E.R.F report you mentioned is also part of that evaluation.”

Rock Hill Police Department: “We are familiar with the recommendations released by PERF. Being we are Nationally accredited through CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies) our policy must meet their guidelines. CALEA is established as the credentialing authority that uses input from IACP (International Association of Chief’s of Police), NOBLE (National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives), National Sheriff’s Association, and PERF. When new guidelines for policies are made by CALEA, we receive and review them moving forward with any changes needed to be made to our policies.”

Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office: “At this time MCSO does not foresee any changes being made to the pursuit policy at the moment.”

Union County Sheriff’s Office: “I will consult with the Sheriff and other Executive Command Staff members to determine if any changes in our policy will be made when considering whether or not to pursue fleeing criminals in the future.”

York County Sheriff’s Office: “We have not changed anything as of the date of this email [31-Jan-2024], but we have a pursuit training/meeting scheduled for February 9th to discuss possible changes. This will be just a discussion, and any changes decided upon during the meeting will take further time to implement.”

NC State Highway Patrol: “As an agency, we are constantly reviewing our policies and procedures in an effort to provide the best in law enforcement services to our state. The review of our polices related to pursuits are a part of that continued process. As I am sure you have discovered, our existing policy already mirrors many of the recommendations that are highlighted in the included report. Having a pursuit policy in place, ensuring that it clearly defines factors that guide a decision to pursue, the supervisory monitoring of a pursuit, the need for member training, the use of intervention/alternative techniques and post pursuit review and accountability are all well-established practices by our agency. These are all key components of the report that you have cited.

“As previously stated, the decision to continue a pursuit after it has been initiated is not taken lightly by the involved member(s) or by the monitoring supervisor(s). The continual evaluation of speeds, location, weather, traffic conditions, and reason for pursuit are taken into consideration when determining to continue a pursuit. The safety of the public, the involved member and the violator are all taken into consideration when a pursuit is initiated and during the continued pursuit.”

(WATCH: Stolen SUV leads police chase through Meck, Cabarrus counties; ends in crash)

Evan Donovan

Evan Donovan, wsoctv.com

Evan is an anchor and reporter for Channel 9.