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Car Chases: Not Like What You See in the Movies

10:59 AM EDT on April 28, 2009

crash.jpgThe aftermath of yesterday's deadly car chase on Manhattan Avenue. Photo: Graham T. Beck

Manhattan Avenue, the bustling main street in my usually quiet Brooklyn neighborhood, became a multi-block crime scene yesterday afternoon when a mini-van driver, reportedly fleeing police at high speed, struck and killed a woman near India Street before crashing into a parked SUV five blocks further north.

The pedestrian who was struck, Violetta Kryzak, a 38-year old Polish immigrant and mother,
was taken to Bellevue Hospital and pronounced dead
following the crash. The driver of the van, Jose Maldonado, 28, is
awaiting charges after being taken to Woodhull Hospital with a broken

I was out walking my dog when I came upon the scene. Several people I spoke to near the multi-vehicle pileup told me that two unmarked, gray
police cars without their sirens on were pursuing the mini-van down
Manhattan Avenue at extremely high speed.

"There were two cops chasing a white van up the avenue," said Kamil Uminski, 20, who witnessed the van strike the
pedestrian. "[The van driver] was flying -- like 100 miles an hour -- ran a red light at India Street, hit the lady, kept going, and I guess this is where he lost it."

NYPD has been unwilling to explain what prompted the high-speed chase, or even acknowledge that officers were pursuing the vehicle that struck the woman.

I've probably seen a thousand police chases on TV and in the movies, but this was the first time I'd come across the aftermath of the genuine article. It was easy to see why, in real life, the tactic has been discredited in all but the most extreme circumstances.

According to Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, research indicates that most suspects chased by police are not serious criminals, but "deadbeats making stupid decisions to avoid being caught for not having a license or some offense that would be very minor compared to what happens when they initiate a pursuit."

Even when the suspect is being pursued for a serious crime, the outcome of these tactics is often deadly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2001, 365 people died in police pursuits, including 140 who weren't in a police car or a vehicle being chased.

Yesterday's tragedy on Manhattan Avenue made these statistics all too real, and left many of the people I spoke to questioning the judgment of the police. As Miss Heather, the author of the Greenpoint neighborhood blog newyorkshitty, wrote to me in an email, "I cannot believe the police decided to pursue this guy down Manhattan Avenue which is without argument TEEMING with pedestrians. Very. BAD. Decision."

According to Leonard Levitt, who wrote the column "One Police Plaza" for Newsday and now pens NYPD Confidential, the police department has "taken the lead in swearing off high-speed pursuits as dangerous to both civilians and officers.” As to whether or not there are exceptions to this ‘swearing off’, Streetsblog has a request in with NYPD's public information office.

Given the tragic outcome of yesterday's pursuit, it seems a sensible time to ask: Is a police chase in the city ever appropriate? The television shows and movies that make screeching tires the stuff of everyday law enforcement send an unambiguous message: the faster the cops give chase, the greater their dedication to justice. But walking down Manhattan Avenue this morning, past piles of shattered glass, stains that I couldn’t help seeing as blood splotches, and the faces of people who might have been in mourning, police pursuit seemed a whole lot more complicated than getting a bad guy and burning some rubber.

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