Lt. Craig Holcomb has spent 22 years at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. Through the years, he has seen his fair share, and been part of, plenty of police chases. Holcomb remembers one in 2007 that started in South Pittsburg, Tennessee and went all the way to Rainsville, ending in a wreck that killed two South Pittsburg teenagers.
“That was probably the worst one,” remembers Holcomb.
Police chases are on the rise in the county, said Chief Deputy Rocky Harnen, of the sheriff’s office.
“We are seeing more than usual,” he said. “There are times we will see two or three a week.”
Currently, by law, a fleeing to elude is a Class A misdemeanor unless the flight or attempt to elude causes an actual death or physical injury to innocent bystanders or third parties, in which case the violation shall be a Class C felony.
Harnen said he doesn’t think the penalty is tough enough, which currently results in a fine.
“There’s a lot of attitude where people don’t care,” said Harnen. “I can break the law.”
While some law enforcement agencies have a no chase policy, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office’s policy allows a chase, under certain conditions.
“Our deputies can pursue,” said Harnen. “But they must take into account the time of day, cars on the road and the violation itself. “If it’s a bank robbery or a violent crime, we push a little further than a minor violation.”
Harnen said most police chases result from a person having drugs in the vehicle or facing arrest warrants.
In Scottsboro, Interim Police Chief Ron Latimer said several factors go into a police pursuit.
“First and foremost, the nature of the crime and the seriousness of it,” said Latimer. “That dictates the decision. Also, road and weather conditions, vehicle and pedestrian traffic and time of the day.”
Latimer said an officer also needs to determine who is in the vehicle he or she is pursuing and determine if children are inside.
“All of those factors are taken into consideration in a split second or whether to stop the vehicle or not,” said Latimer.
Harnen and Latimer both said supervisors monitor the pursuits and have the ability to shut down a chase at any time.
Latimer, with over 30 years of experience himself, has seen his share, including a suspect vehicle once intentionally ramming his vehicle. He’s also witnessed other times when vehicles collided with other vehicles.
“The main thing to take into account is your own personal safety and the public’s safety,” said Latimer.
Harnen said emotions also play a part.
“You want to get the bad guy,” he said. “That’s what we get paid to do. There’s usually a lot of adrenaline going. If you are by yourself, it’s even more difficult. The biggest danger is running through intersections and red lights.”
Harnen said the sheriff’s office has been very lucky with no major accidents during a pursuit.
Holcomb said he’s been in some fast pursuits with speeds near 100 miles per hour.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and even fear,” said Holcomb. “You have to take into account everything around you. You have to try to be cautious.”
Latimer said his officers are trained with numerous hours spent on vehicle operations and pursuit driving.
For police pursuits to stop, Harnen and Latimer agreed laws have to be stronger. Holcomb said he sees more and more people with the impression that nothing will happen to them.
A mandatory jail sentence could change that, said Harnen.
“If a person got 30 days in jail, that would make some think twice,” he added.