Author: Mike DeForest
Stephon King is halfway through his eight-year prison sentence for stealing a truck and leading authorities on a high-speed chase through Brevard and Orange counties in 2010.
No one was seriously injured in the nearly 2-hour pursuit, which at times exceeded 100 miles an hour as King sped into the path of oncoming cars along the 408 Expressway, made an abrupt U-turn on the 417 Expressway, and nearly sideswiped a school bus.
"Sorry, but I had to do it," King told Local 6 after his arrest for armed carjacking. He claimed did not consider the possibility his erratic driving might hurt or kill someone.
In 2001, UCF nursing student Sarah Phillips died when a suspected gunman being chased by Orange County sheriff's deputies crashed into her car. Phillips had been stopped at a police roadblock when Shamir Suber slammed into her Ford Escort while being pursued by law enforcement, according to authorities. Orange County later settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by her family for $200,000.
Since Phillips's death, many Central Florida law enforcement agencies have revised their pursuit policies, typically allowing officers to chase a vehicle only if the occupant is suspected of a violent crime or may put the public in imminent danger.
Now, a relatively new device called StarChase promises to make vehicle pursuits even safer by allowing law enforcement officers to track a fleeing suspect using GPS rather than following close behind the getaway car.
With the push of a button, a box mounted on the front of an officer's patrol car fires a small cylinder at the fleeing vehicle. The dart, which sticks to the suspect's car with an adhesive, contains a GPS tracker.
"The officer can back up and then we can pursue at a safe distance, minimizing risk to officers or civilians," said Marcus Davis, a police officer in Austin, Texas.
Davis's department has been using StarChase for about 18 months. In that time, officers have deployed the GPS trackers 36 times, he said.
"We have never had one officer injured, never had a suspect injured," said Davis. "We've never had any vehicle crashes. And we've always been able to apprehend the suspects 100 percent of the time."
St. Petersburg police, which has equipped at least 15 patrol cars with StarChase, is among a small number of Florida police agencies using the technology, according to a department spokeswoman. A representative for StarChase declined to identify other agencies in the state which have purchased their product.
It costs about $5000 to equip a patrol car with StarChase. That can be a large investment for some police agencies, especially considering the system is only effective if the patrol car closest to a pursuit is equipped with the GPS tracking device. About 5% of the Austin Police Department's 350 patrol cars are outfitted with StarChase, according to the agency.
Esther Soanes's husband James was killed in 2012 by a driver speeding away from police in a stolen truck. She now works with a non-profit organization called PursuitSAFETY, which estimates that an average of one person dies every day in police pursuit crashes. About one-third of crash victims are innocent bystanders, according to the organization.
“We are looking to save lives. We don’t want anybody else to go through that,” said Soanes, who supports technology like StarChase that can make pursuits less dangerous.
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