BYRON, GEORGIA (WCIV) — High speed police chases are among the most dangerous circumstances a law enforcement officer can face. They pose a risk not just for officers and suspects but even innocent people like your family.
Pursuits routinely reach speeds of 100 miles per hour and can end in disaster.
ABC News 4 recently traveled to a small town in Georgia where officers are using a new crime fighting tool to take danger and speed out of the equation.
American audiences for years have tuned to footage of high speed chases playing out on the news. Drivers eager to evade capture will swerve, speed and narrowly miss other cars – crossing lanes and putting the lives of other motorists in danger.
Byron, Georgia Police Chief Wesley Cannon has felt the blood-rushing, adrenaline-pumping thrill and danger of a high speed chase.
“Car chases, I believe are the second biggest danger, but it’s not just a danger for us,” Cannon said. “It’s a danger for every citizen in our community. And a danger to the offender we are chasing.”
The website www.pursuitforchange.org is a national database that tracks chase related fatalities. According to their records, 385 people were killed as a result of police chases in 2014. More than 70 of those people were not even involved with a crime, just folks in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As 23-year veteran of the police force in a town with a long stretch of interstate just outside of Macon, Cannon knew something had to be done to keep those bad guys in check without putting the lives of those he has sworn to protect in danger.
For Byron, the solution came on a chance encounter at a police conference hundreds of miles away in Philadelphia. It was there Chief Cannon first saw the StarChase Pursuit Management System.
StarChase’s website lists the new technology as a tool that “provides pursuit management and GPS tracking technology to public safety and government agencies worldwide. Our patented force multiplying technology empowers law enforcement, mitigates risk and protects communities.”
The StarChase system features a fixed air cannon mounted onto the front of a law enforcement vehicle. It uses a laser guided targeting system to lock onto the suspect vehicle. When a Law enforcement officer is “locked on” StarChase fires a plastic container containing a GPS tracking device.
A strong, non-corrosive adhesive allows the canister to stick onto the fleeing car, and most times a suspect will not even be able to hear it attach.
Sure, it sounds like an expensive tool right out of an action movie. Chief Cannon admits he was immediately intrigued. As luck would have it, his department won a raffle at the convention. The prize – a StarChase system.
“We are always looking at ways to take a danger out of our line of work and make things safer, Cannon said. “And this system to me covers every bit of that when it comes to car chases.”
To say he was impressed is an understatement.
Three years later, StarChase systems are equipped in almost every Bryon, Georgia police car. And Cannon is working to outfit the rest of his fleet.
“I believe that this system should be in every car, in every police car in every department nationwide. I think it’s as necessary as a light bar, a cage, a radar, a radio, as a gun, as a Taser. To me, it is that important to have, Chief Cannon said.
Once tagged, law enforcement officers and dispatchers are able to track the GPS signature via their computers. They can even share the location with neighboring communities and other departments. StarChase representatives say the battery on each tracker lasts about eight hours.
Cannon says the results have been simply astounding. Once the fleeing car has been tagged, his officers will turn off their blue lights and slow down. Once the suspect no longer sees an officer behind, that person will instinctively begin to slow down as the escape reflex and adrenaline fade.
“The officers are able to tag the vehicle and back off immediately,” he said. “Just within miles of them backing off you can see the speed of the vehicle they were chasing go from 100 mph to 90 to 80 to 70 to 60 to 50 and then jump off the interstate then stop.”
Then Byron police officers can simply follow the suspect via their GPS signal until they stop.
“At some point in time everyone is going to have to stop,” he said. “Whether it’s because they want to hide, run out of gas, they are going to stop, they were able to converge on them and place him in custody without incident.”
But in Byron, the chief says StarChase came with an added bonus — a big drop in crime.
“We have been hearing it on the street,” Cannon said. ”They’ve got that GPS gun, you better watch out.”
And that’s exactly why Byron’s top cop says he instructs his officers to be transparent with the new technology.
“I want our criminal’s to know what we have in our arsenals to catch them, he said.” So don’t come to Bryon and commit a crime because if you do and we will catch you.”
StarChase is in use at over 100 departments across America and Canada.
The launchers themselves even come with a heating component, which is used to prevent the adhesive from freezing – meaning StarChase can be used in any weather.
StarChase may help reduce the danger that high speed chases create, but it doesn’t take it away completely. Officers, troopers, or deputies still need to get within at least 10 to 20 feet of the fleeing vehicle.
WOULD IT WORK HERE?
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon says his department saw an increase in the number of police chases in 2016. More and more people are running, and that means more chases.
In 2012, Cannon himself was involved in a high speed chase along several Lowcountry highways. Cannon eventually helped subdue the suspect off Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant.
Soon after the suspect was detained Cannon approached him while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car and slapped him. Cannon says it was a reaction to the suspect putting so many lives in danger.
That suspect it turns out, had run from police before. Sheriff Cannon said he equated the suspect’s blatant disregard for human life that day as someone standing in an intersection with a loaded pistol.
“When you are dealing with someone who is using a car as a deadly weapon, he is just as deadly if not more so, because he’s got 3,000 pounds of metal he is projecting down the highway, then someone firing a firearm,” Cannon said.
Charleston County uses StopSticks and its helicopter to track and subdue chase suspects.
Sheriff Cannon admits GPS tracking or disabling a vehicle’s electronic systems, even drones are the future in pursuit prevention.
“I think the GPS aspect could be a significant game changer,” Sheriff Cannon said. “It certainly is a way to get the information we need and allow us to back off and find a person later.”
Sheriff Cannon admits that he monitors regular testing of new products but that sometimes his hands are tied when it comes purchases, which often need county or municipal approval.
At $5,000 per unit for StarChase, Sheriff Cannon says installing them in Charleston County right now just isn’t feasible.
“I think there are some instances that would be helpful,” Cannon said. “I think it’s early in development yet. I think there is a way to go. And it’s not something that would work in every instance. But the theory of affecting the vehicle’s electronics or GPS tracking, I think will hold the key to address the issue of people running from the police.”
Chief Cannon of Byron thinks otherwise.
A department or a sheriff or a chief that has to budget for this, he said. “You can’t put a value on human life, number one. Your officers, your citizens, or even the bad guy you are chasing. $5,000 is a drop in the bucket to prevent a fatality or serious bodily injury in a car chase. Ninety percent of car chases end up in accidents. It is going to happen, and a high speed accident is a recipe for disaster and $5,000 should not be a consideration.”
Currently, no law enforcement organization in South Carolina uses the StarChase system.
The South Carolina Highway Patrol tested similar equipment but ultimately decided not to purchase it, though they would not tell ABC News 4 why.
Byron Police Chief Wesley Cannon says that he has never had to budget for a StarChase system because “lets his drug dealers pay for them” – using drug seizure money to pay for the equipment.
He hopes to outfit his entire fleet of vehicles with StarChase by the end of the year.
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