‘No more senseless deaths’: A federal push and a mother’s quest to reduce deadly police chases

Local law enforcement agencies don’t have to adopt new federal guidance
Local law enforcement agencies don’t have to adopt new federal guidance
Published: Oct. 19, 2023 at 4:53 PM EDT
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HICKORY, N.C. (WBTV) - Nearly six weeks since the phone call at midnight that changed everything, Beth Fox finds comfort in the little memories.

A poster in her entry way, one of the last gifts she received from daughter Cynthia. The tree in the front yard of her home in Hickory, where grandson Michael would climb and hide to surprise guests coming to her home. Cynthia’s boxes full of photos, relics of a young woman who embraced life’s memories with film as a way to remember her loved ones when she got old.

But Cynthia, 38, would never grow old.

“I got woke up at 12:30 in the morning,” Beth recalled. “(Granddaughter) Ella crying hysterically, ‘Grandma, grandma, grandma. Momma’s been in a wreck.’”

Moments later, Beth saw headlights outside. She knew the N.C. State Highway Patrol wouldn’t be at her home if the crash wasn’t deadly. Her knees crumpled underneath her when troopers told her a young boy, about 12 years old, was also in the van.

“I had to call (Michael’s) brother and sister and tell them that not only was their momma dead, but their brother was too.”

A deadly chase puts policies in spotlight

It’s still hard for Beth to express the confusion and anger that followed when troopers told her how the crash happened.

“I don’t understand. What do you mean, she was hit by a Hickory city cop? How does that happen?’” she recalled asking the troopers. “He embedded his SUV in my daughter’s car because of a missing tag? No. No. Makes no sense. It’s senseless.”

Less than a month later after an internal investigation, the Hickory Police Department fired Officer Atia Shamseldin.

Shamseldin was driving the squad SUV that slammed into Cynthia’s Honda Odyssey at 95 miles per hour the night of September 8, chasing a motorcycle with missing tags. Cynthia was on 13th Street crossing Highway 70; Shamseldin had a red light.

The crash report said both vehicles slid nearly 300 feet; crosses covered with toys, a teddy bear, and flowers for Cynthia and Michael now sit alongside Highway 70 in Hickory where the vehicles came to a rest.

As the crash investigation continues, to date only the motorcyclist – arrested nearly a week later – is facing charges in the incident.

In an email, Chief Reed Baer said Shamseldin had been in violation of the department’s pursuit policy. A copy of the termination notice obtained by WBTV indicates he was fired for failing to slow down before going through the red light during the chase, and for causing a preventable traffic crash.

But the reason for the chase -- a citation-level offense -- remains authorized in Hickory’s chase policy, provided to WBTV. It allows officers to pursue anyone who is evading arrest for any reason, after an officer has signaled for them to stop. Nearly all aspects of a pursuit are left to an officer’s discretion, including the determination of public risk. It allows officers to chase motorcycles, run through red lights, and disregard other traffic rules.

The policy’s authorization for pursuits anytime a person runs from police stands in contrast to stricter policies such as for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and Gastonia. Both departments only authorize pursuits for dangerous or violent offenses and imminent public risk – a wide gap from policies that only ask an officer to consider those factors when embarking on a chase.

New federal guidelines, if adopted, would severely restrict police chases

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice released a 160-page report detailing dozens of new recommendations for law enforcement agencies to consider including in their pursuit policies. A core recommendation: that police pursuits only be authorized for violent crime.

However, there’s no mandate for law enforcement agencies in North Carolina to adopt them. The North Carolina Department of Justice told WBTV that their agency does not have a role in recommending those guidelines to the state’s hundreds of law enforcement agencies.

The DOJ report included some of the strictest recommendations to date for how police engage in high-speed chases, including a recommendation that pursuits only be authorized for violent crime of when a failure to catch a suspect would be an imminent public safety risk.

“Any responsible police executive would look at those DOJ requirements and take a serious look at how they can improve their procedures,” said Dean Crisp, former police chief in Columbia, S.C. as well as former national training director for the FBI-Law Enforcement Executive Development Association.

“The guidelines are well put together, they’re well thought of, they’re more restrictive.”

While many police chase policies include language telling officers to include the severity of the suspected crime as a factor when making a decision, few set definite restrictions that would forbid a pursuit outside of a case of violence.

Crisp doesn’t favor removing an officer’s discretion from the factor entirely, but he does believe the new guidance should be closely evaluated for what can be incorporated into existing policies.

Much like pilots, he said, officers have “got to make split second decisions that are going to really impact a lot of people.”

Law enforcement agencies not committing to DOJ recommendations

Several pursuit policies around the Charlotte metro area don’t meet the DOJ guidance standards, according to a review of policies of some of the areas’ larger departments as well as the NC State Highway Patrol. (Two departments – the Cleveland Sheriff’s Department and Concord police, did not respond to emailed requests to provide policies.)

CMPD and Gastonia stood out as exceptions with stricter policies, with their mandates that officers generally not pursue outside of cases of violence or imminent public risk.

For agencies whose policies didn’t include a minimum of violence for authorizing a police chase, no agency committed to adopting the new guidance.

Instead, four agencies including Hickory sent statements essentially saying they are “constantly evaluating” their pursuit policies and always “reviewing all options” for changes as needed. None, however, said they would be adopting the federal guidance.

Hickory’s current policy, chief Baer said, was consistent with “national standards and best practices.”

The DOJ recommendations don’t represent guidance from the non-governmental bodies like The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies that local law enforcement agencies typically use when adopting guidance.

CMPD, for instance, has pursuit policies aligned with CALEA, a spokesperson said in a statement, and reviews their policies annually.

In some states, federal data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System shows deadly crashes from police chases have increased; in others, like North Carolina, numbers have remained in a similar range year over year for decades, outside of an all-time high of 23 deadly crashes and 28 deaths from pursuits in 1996.

Since the federal government began collecting the data about four decades ago, 468 people have died in chases in North Carolina; about a third of them (153) have been bystanders – neither in the car chasing nor the car being chased.

So far this year, Cynthia and Michael represent two out of at least seven bystanders killed in police chases in North Carolina. That puts the state at its highest number of bystanders killed in chases since at least 2017, when ten bystanders died in chases.

None of the chases this year where bystanders died started because a violent crime was suspected.

In March, a Harnett County deputy who is now facing criminal charges crashed into a pickup truck while chasing a driver that got away. Two people in the truck were killed.

In April, a suspect being chased for speeding flipped his car onto another car in Raleigh, killing the 32-year-old inside the car not involved in the chase.

Three people died in May in Forsyth County, including two teens in a car not involved in the chase, after a crash where deputies believed the car they were chasing had been stolen.

It’s not just for Cynthia and Michael that Beth has now started a petition asking North Carolina to set a strict statewide policy for chases: it’s for every family affected by crashes such as these.

Not one lawmaker or public official outside of the Hickory Police Department and crash investigators have reached out to her, she said, even though her petition has now garnered nearly 3,000 signatures.

“Please adopt those policies,” she now begs of every department, referring to the U.S. DOJ guidance.

“I will stick with it until it happens. That’s the only legacy I can give Cynthia and Michael.”