BELMONT, NC -- A year after a police pursuit that ended with a horrific crash that killed the former mayor of Belmont and the daughter of a former city councilman, Belmont Police are revising their chase policy.
But the Police Chief says his officers did nothing wrong in the fatal pursuit.
Kevin Loftin and Donna Deitz were driving home from Ash Wednesday church services the night of February 22 when a speeding driver, being chased by Belmont Police, hit them broadside at approximately 80 miles an hour at U.S. 74 and Park Street in Belmont.
“They were telling me that Donna had died in an accident and it was awful and she was with Kevin and I said Kevin died too?” said Ellen Deitz Tucker, who lost her sister Donna in the crash. “If anything bad happened in this family before, the first person Donna would often call would be Kevin.”
Since the fatal pursuit, Ellen and her brother have asked the Belmont Police and city council to tighten the police pursuit policy to limit chases.
“You want these deaths not to be utterly meaningless,” said Ellen.
On that deadly night, Belmont Police set up a checkpoint on the entrance ramp to Interstate 85 northbound at exit 26 near Belmont Abbey, when Lester Norman Junior sped away in an Acura SUV that belonged to his sister.
Norman was on federal probation and did not have a drivers’ license. He later said he didn’t want to go back to prison. He was sentenced in December to 25 years in state prison for the two deaths.
District Attorney Locke Bell released “dash cam” video of the chase after an Open Records Act request was filed by NBC Charlotte.
Attorneys for Belmont Police had refused to release the video saying it was an “investigatory record” and exempt from public inspection.
The video was captured in two marked patrol cars. It shows the police quickly overtaking Norman and the Acura on I-85 before exit 27 near Mount Holly.
Norman pulled onto the emergency lane, whipped around another car and drove off the road and down an embankment just before a guardrail.
The two police cruisers stayed on the highway following behind Norman. He then drove up a grassy strip to the top of the exit ramp at exit 27 and sped through a red light, barreling to the right down Park Street only to blow through the red light hitting Kevin Loftin’s Audi in the passenger side door.
Police reports place Norman’s speed at 80 miles per hour at impact and Loftin’s speed at 20 miles per hour.
The force of the wreck spun the Audi across the intersection and into a third vehicle.
His car wrecked, his passenger injured and moaning, Norman pushed open his door and took off running behind a Walgreens across Park Street.
Officer Kevin Wingate chased Norman on foot, screaming at him to “get on the ‘expletive’ ground,” before shooting him with a taser.
At Norman’s sentencing in December, Ellen delivered a statement saying she thought Belmont Police were partly to blame. Ellen said of her sister Donna, “She was irreplaceable to us, but the innocent bystanders could have been anyone.”
Chief Franklin says his officers were not in any way responsible for the two deaths.
“It’s a sad situation, but Mr. Norman is responsible, not the Belmont Police Department.”
The day after the fatal wreck, the driver of the third vehicle, Debra Lynn, also questioned the police pursuit.
“What possible reason did the police officers have to chase that car?” she said. “What could he have done that they could be chasing someone through a populated area?"
Belmont Police Chief Charlie Franklin said Norman did not just speed past a police checkpoint without stopping. He said Norman was charged with trying to run down Officer Kevin Wingate.
“He intended to hit the officer,” said Chief Franklin. “That’s the way I feel and that’s the way the officers on the scene felt.”
The “dash cam” video cameras are both pointed away from Officer Wingate at the checkpoint so they don’t show whether Norman aimed his Acura at the officer or if he was just trying to escape. Ellen says Belmont Police emphasize the charges of assault on an officer “…because it’s the only justification for a high speed police pursuit.”
Belmont’s pursuit policy permits chases only for threats such as “serious bodily injury or death.”
Belmont Police Chief Franklin says he has reviewed the “dash cam” videos and the officers did not violate any department policy. Chief Franklin says the police were in no way responsible for the deaths. “Mr. Norman was in charge of that pursuit,” he said.
Belmont Police conducted a “post pursuit review” but refuse to release the report. An attorney responded to NBC Charlotte requests under the North Carolina Open Records Act by writing that the report was part of an internal investigation and contained personnel information exempt from Open Records laws.
It would not have been the first “post pursuit review” for Belmont. Serving a town of just over 10,000 people, Belmont Police have a history of high profile chases.
• June 6, 2000, Belmont officer Mike Ward was injured when he rolled his police car on the way to back up Mount Holly PD on a chase.
• August 18, 2003, Belmont officer Douglas Bryson was treated and released for minor injuries after getting out of his car trying to block the driver of a fleeing car with stolen plates which he thought had stalled at the end of a chase.
• May 13, 2004, Belmont Police chased a suspect into the midst of downtown Charlotte, at one point crossing through Trade and Tryon before the speeding car sped into a neighborhood and up a sidewalk.
After that chase, then Chief David James not only released the “dash cam” video of the pursuit, he narrated a play by play of the chase for reporters.
And often the chases begin with relatively minor offenses, not felonies or violent crimes:
• January 3, 2008, a Belmont Police cruiser collided with a suspect’s car that had allegedly sped through a school zone.
• August 14, 2008, Belmont Police chased a suspect in an undercover drug deal who ran into a trailer and a fence near New Hope Road.
• October 8, 2012, almost eight months after the fatal pursuit, Belmont Police chased two suspects wanted in connection with “drug activity” at a motel on Wilkinson Boulevard until they bailed from the vehicle off of Garrison Drive near US 74. No drugs were found.
When asked about police chases that began with traffic offenses or drugs, Chief Franklin responded, “It depends on the situation, obviously. Each individual chase is different. It’s the totality of the circumstances.”
But Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina and leading expert on police chases, questions whether the crime warrants the risk to the public of a high-speed chase.
“They are simply people who are making bad decisions,” Alpert said. “To put our lives at risk does not make sense.”
Alpert has helped police departments change their policies weighing when to chase – and when it’s just not worth the risk to the public.
“I draw the line in the sand with a violent crime,” Alpert said. “If he just shot someone, raped someone, robbed a bank, then yes.”
And what about DWI? Is that sufficient to warrant a high-speed chase? In Alpert’s view, no.
“The only thing worse than a drunk driver is a drunk driver being pursued by a police officer,” Alpert said.
Ellen Deitz Tucker wants Belmont Police and other departments to change their policy – no more traffic checkpoints gone wrong.
“They need a total mind change,” Ms. Tucker said. “Just as I don’t hate Lester Norman, I don’t hate the officers in that pursuit; I feel bad for them because they were never trained.”
Belmont Police are revising their chase policy but the Chief says he won’t make hard and fast rules.
A public safety committee of the Belmont City Council meets Monday at 5 p.m. at Belmont City Hall to review the new chase policy.