It's a question that has been debated in public for years and stayed true at the local level this month, which has seen two cases -- one in Cape Girardeau and one near Perryville, Mo., -- in which traffic stops turned into potentially deadly police chases.
Sunday found law enforcement reiterating that the police practice is a necessary evil, while those who oppose it still say it's too risky and has only grown worse.
Jackson resident John Pfefferkorn, for example, has largely opposed the so-called hot pursuit of suspects since he had a family member killed in such a chase decades ago when the relative was a teenager. The relative, who Pfefferkorn didn't want to identify publicly, wasn't a hardened criminal, he said, but a young man who had just received his driver's license and was scared of getting a ticket.
"It's not always necessary, especially when it puts the public at risk," Pfefferkorn said.
The statistics bear out that such chases do not come without a risk. According to the FBI, one person dies every day as the result of police pursuits. A survey of pursuits from the mid-to-late 1990s showed, on average, one police officer was killed every 11 weeks in a pursuit, and 1 percent of all U.S. law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty lost their lives in vehicle pursuits, the bureau said. Innocent third parties who happened to be in the way constitute 42 percent of people killed or injured in police pursuits. Further, 1 out of every 100 high-speed pursuits results in a fatality, the bureau said.
Pfefferkorn was surprised it isn't more. When he heard about the Cape Girardeau man who was arrested after leading Perry County police on a chase that hit 110 mph -- with a 3-year-old girl in the suspect's back seat -- he was livid. The suspect told police later that he believed he had a warrant, but he found out afterward he didn't.
"I don't want to come off as being unsupportive of the police in any fashion," Pfefferkorn said Sunday. "It's not the police as a whole. It's that individual's decision. He made a bad one. He put that child in danger, and I'm talking about the policeman."
Police officials from Cape Girardeau and Perry counties countered by saying it's their job to keep the streets free of people who may be out to do harm. Police are trained to keep the chases as safe as they can while keeping an eye on the goal of catching a suspect.
Perry County Sheriff Gary Schaaf said that officers themselves have to weigh the risk and take several factors into consideration, such as time of day, traffic loads, information -- if any -- of the suspect and other safety risks.
"It has to be the officer's decision and he doesn't have much time to weigh it," Schaaf said. "We don't always like it, but we have to think about the damage a dangerous suspect can do if we let him go."
On Thursday night, Cape Girardeau police captured a suspect wanted in Arkansas for several felonies. He and two others were taken into custody only after he led police up and down city streets in evening traffic.
Interim police chief Roger Fields, like his Perry County counterpart, insisted his officers made the right call. In both cases, it should be noted, no one was injured.
Still, Fields said, "Yes, we're fortunate it didn't get any worse than it did," he said. "There are always those risks. But the officers can terminate those proceedings at any time. But this was a good call. When people are actively committing violent crimes, you need to get that stopped."
Perry County, Mo.
Cape Girardeau, Mo.