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Deadly police pursuits underreported due to lack of mandatory reporting

Two innocent bystanders died in as many weeks in CMPD pursuit crashes earlier this year. There's no guarantee the federal government will count their deaths.

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — This is Part 3 of an ongoing series. Here's how to revisit Part 1 about CMPD's pursuit policy and Part 2 about police liability.

As the public demands more restraint from officers, the number of innocent people killed as collateral damage from police chases continues to increase, yet bystander deaths likely far surpass the thousands WCNC Charlotte has already identified. A WCNC Charlotte analysis of the only available federal pursuit data identified a record high number of innocent victims killed in 2020.

This is a problem that demands a wide range of solutions, but experts believe a simple first step is requiring law enforcement to report every pursuit crash and death to the federal government. Right now, reporting takes place on a voluntary basis.

Since 1982, records reveal law enforcement agencies across the country have reported at least 4,200 bystander deaths, but University of South Carolina criminologist Geoff Alpert said the numbers are vastly underreported.

"By the end of today, someone's going to die," Alpert said from his office in Columbia.

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

Alpert, a leading expert on police pursuits, calls the available police pursuit death data, collected by the federal government incomplete, since agencies can choose what to report and how they report it.

"We don't have very good statistics, even on our fatalities," he said. "If we don't know the problem, we can't come up with a solution?"

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Credit: WCNC Charlotte
University of South Carolina criminologist Geoff Alpert

Pursuit Safety wants mandatory federal reporting too. The nonprofit, made up of mostly victims' families, tracks police chase crashes.

Ellen Deitz Tucker partnered with Pursuit Safety after her older sister's death in Belmont, NC in 2012. Donna Deitz died alongside former mayor Kevin Loftin after a driver slammed into their car while trying to escape a police pursuit. The chase started at a police checkpoint.

In the decade since her death, the number of innocent bystanders killed in police pursuits has continued to grow and that's not counting all the deaths that never get reported.

"It's frustrating and disheartening," Tucker said. "Really, I think what most people who've experienced this tragedy feel is simply: Can we not do it in a more rational way that keeps everyone safe? It's disheartening to feel that you're not being heard."

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Credit: WCNC Charlotte

Tucker's efforts after her sister's death prompted some change at the local level, but she said all too often, victims' voices only count in the immediate aftermath, if at all.

"I think those people are often ignored and forgotten," she said.

It's unclear if Brittany Webb's death will be counted in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's annual pursuit fatality reports. Webb died in January after a rush hour pursuit on Statesville Road in Charlotte. At the time, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police were repeatedly trying to pull over the driver of a Jeep when he fled, drove into the wrong lane of traffic, and crashed head-on into the car carrying Webb and her friend Aaron Norward.

LISTEN TO THIS PODCAST: What happened was tragic and life-changing

CMPD told WCNC Charlotte the agency does not send data directly to NHTSA. Instead, it's CMPD's understanding the State of North Carolina sends along data based on what police enter in their crash reports.

The lack of data has been on the federal government’s radar for more than two decades. In fact, in a Department of Justice 1996 report, federal officials recommended establishing a model to collect pursuit statistics.

WCNC Charlotte has repeatedly requested interviews with more than a dozen members of Congress on this very issue and most have yet to respond.

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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