HICKORY, N.C. — A Friday evening police chase in Hickory that killed a mother and her son has renewed questions about when police officers should and should not chase vehicles.
When a motorcycle fled from a traffic stop around 10:30 p.m., the Hickory Police Department officer pursued the fleeing motorcyclist, the law enforcement agency said in a released statement. About one mile later, the police vehicle collided with a minivan that was entering the roadway, according to police. The motorcycle fled.
The driver of the minivan, 38-year-old Cynthia Nicole Lail, and her son, 12-year-old Michae Lail, died as a result of the crash.
Deaths associated with motor vehicle crashes involving a police officer in pursuit have been rising, a WCNC Charlotte investigation found. Between 1982 and 2022, records reveal law enforcement agencies across the country have reported at least 4,200 bystander deaths. In 2020 specifically, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data found North Carolina recorded a 24-year high of 16 fatal pursuit crashes in 2020.
In Hickory, the police officer involved in Friday's crash has been placed on administrative leave pending the conclusion of the investigation.
In response to a WCNC Charlotte inquiry, the Hickory Police Department released its pursuit policy Monday. The 11-page document is intended to regulate when officers do and do not chase. The policy shows much of the decision-making is left up to the discretion of the officer.
Before pursuing, the documentation encourages officers to consider the risk if the "pursuing vehicle is carrying passengers other than on-duty police officers." On Monday, the department confirmed a second person inside the officer's vehicle was a 21-year-old applicant who is not employed by the department.
Before initiating a pursuit, officers are to also consider whether there is "reason to suspect that a person, who has given an appropriate signal to stop by law enforcement officer, is attempting to evade arrest or detention by fleeing in a vehicle."
The driver of the motorcycle has not been publicly identified. In their statements since Friday, the Hickory Police Department indicates the last known location of that motorcyclist was when they were last seen fleeing the pursuing officer.
In North Carolina, a varying range of department policies indicate when officers can give chase. Chief Damon Williams, president of the State Association of Chiefs of Police, believes officers need flexibility for situational discretion.
"There's not one solution for every community," Williams told WCNC Charlotte's Nate Morabito last year. "Every community is different. Some major metropolitan areas have the resources to pursue with stop-sticks and helicopters. Some of the rural departments don't have that."
Pursuit expert Geoff Alpert, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, doesn't buy that reasoning.
"Good police work will find someone who flees from you," Alpert told Morabito for his 2022 report. "Even those who get away at the moment can be tracked down."
Alpert has published some of the leading research on police chases. He told WCNC Charlotte that attempted traffic stops — escalated into pursuits by law enforcement officers — can fuel a driver's often irrational desire to get away.
"The data show that people flee for not wanting a ticket," he said. "They're scared of the police. They're just not making good decisions and they flee for really bad reasons."
Friday's crash in Hickory joins the list of police-involved crashes where 4,200 bystanders have been killed since 1982.
A January 2022 crash in Charlotte is also on that list. A coordinated effort by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police to stop a man for a minor traffic offense left Brittany Webb dead and her friend in a coma for a month.
In the minutes before a driver crashed head-on into the car carrying an unbelted Webb and two others, CMPD officers tried to pull over a Jeep for driving with a covered, but still visible license plate. Records show the officers made "several separate attempts" to stop the driver before the Jeep sped up and drove into the wrong lane, at which point they "disengaged" for the last time. CMPD later suspended the two officers involved.
Michael Mansell, 30, is also on that list.
"It's just a whole lot of pain," his sister Miahia Mansell-Green told Morabito for the multi-part investigation that first aired on television last year. "It still hurts. While we still try to grieve him, we have to relive that moment that took him away from us."
Mansell, a father of three, died in Greenville, South Carolina, as a passenger in a fleeing car in 2019.
A subsequent review by the South Carolina Department of Public Safety found the trooper involved violated policy for failing to alert the agency that he was in pursuit of a vehicle. The agency later fired the trooper for "failing to provide truthful information."
Mansell's family received a settlement in an eventual wrongful death lawsuit. Court records show the pursuit reached speeds of more than 100 mph.
In Hickory, the crash investigation is ongoing. The North Carolina State Highway Patrol has joined the investigation.
The Hickory Police Department officer and job applicant received non-life-threatening injuries in the crash.
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