When Deputy S.P. James saw an SUV speeding down Interstate 526, the lights and sirens on his patrol cruiser were already on.
Recent Sheriff’s Office pursuits
Jan. 30: Sheriff Al Cannon starts chasing a pickup that nearly struck his personal vehicle in Mount Pleasant. The chase ends 25 miles later after Cannon and others shoot the tires of Timothy McManus’ pickup.May 8: Toland Gathers and Shahied Ladson are killed after their car fails to negotiate a turn on Camp Road on James Island and hits a tree. A deputy was chasing the vehicle, which was seen making improper lane changes.May 24: A stolen car reaches speeds of 100 mph over U.S. Highway 17 and S.C. Highway 164 near Hollywood. Its driver, Abraham Jenkins, and two juvenile passengers are injured after the car hits a tree and flips.June 9: A deputy briefly chases an SUV speeding on Interstate 526. The SUV exits the interstate and collides with a minivan, causing injuries to both drivers. Eddie Clayton is arrested.
James had been responding to West Ashley, where deputies stopped a car after a short chase Saturday night. As a K-9 deputy, he was wanted at the scene to track down two passengers who ran away.
James looked at his speedometer: 85 mph. But the SUV was pulling away: 100, 110.
“I ... wasn’t sure if the vehicle was just driving recklessly,” James wrote in an incident report, “or if maybe they thought the lights way behind them were for them.”
In moments, James decided to chase the SUV, thinking its driver could be drunk. Only 30 seconds later, just after exiting the interstate with blue lights close behind, the SUV ran a red light on Dorchester Road. It broadsided a van, injuring a 60-year-old man inside. The SUV burst into flames soon after its driver climbed out.
For the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, it was the fourth high-speed pursuit this year that ended in a crash, including one that proved deadly. In most cases, the act prompting the pursuit was a traffic violation.
But officials have insisted after each incident that the fleeing driver presented a threat to motorists. They pointed to the agency’s policy, which gives discretion to deputies in weighing the risks of a pursuit and an at-large reckless driver.
“The reason should be that the vehicle is a danger,” said Capt. Mike Stanley, a sheriff’s spokesman. “Sometimes, you don’t even know what a person has done when you decide to pursue.”
In connection with the chase and crash Saturday night, Eddie Raynard Clayton of Crossroads Drive in North Charleston was arrested after being treated for serious injuries. The 33-year-old faces charges of failing to stop for blue lights, reckless driving and driving without a license.
Clayton’s Mercury Mountaineer struck a rear door on the driver’s side of a Dodge minivan driven by Freddie Doe of Summerville, who suffered minor injuries. Reached by telephone Monday, Doe said, “I’m doing good, but I have no comment.”
As another common theme with the recent pursuits, the driver in Saturday’s incident had been convicted of fleeing from law enforcement before.
Clayton was arrested in November 2008 after a North Charleston officer heard loud music coming from his car. The Volvo reached 100 mph and traveled the wrong way on Rivers Avenue before hitting a curb, which punctured its tires. Officers found an open can of Bud Light in the vehicle.
Clayton also has arrests for driving under suspension, criminal domestic violence and resisting arrest, according to the State Law Enforcement Division.
The chaseSaturday’s chain of events started just before 11 p.m., when a deputy in West Ashley tried to stop an SUV without a license plate light. But the Chevrolet “sped away,” according to a report, and reached speeds of 40 mph on the residential streets near Savannah Highway and Wappoo Road.
Two passengers jumped out and ran into the woods, but Dante Brown, 25, of Battery Island Drive in James Island was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct.
James was responding to the call when he spotted Clayton’s sport utility vehicle on I-526. James first summoned North Charleston police officers to chase down the SUV, then changed his tack.
“At this point, I assumed that the vehicle was fleeing from my lights,” James wrote in the report.
James decided to give chase. Thirty seconds later, the SUV left the interstate, ran the red light and hit the minivan on Dorchester Road. Both vehicles tumbled over.
Inside the toppled SUV, Clayton started kicking at the windshield to get out. With his gun drawn and his police dog nearby, James told Clayton to stop.
“Stay down, or you will be dog-bit,” James said, according to video taken from his cruiser. “Stay down. I will shoot you.”
But Clayton climbed through the sunroof of his smoking Mercury and surrendered. Minutes later, fire engulfed the SUV.
Safety concernJames’ pursuit was the fourth since January that ended with a crash, including one May 8 on James Island in which two men were killed. Drugs were found in their car.
In all but one case, in which a stolen car flipped after a chase through Hollywood, the suspect’s vehicle was first observed breaking traffic laws.
Sheriff Al Cannon came under fire in January when he started chasing a pickup that nearly struck his personal vehicle in Mount Pleasant. That pursuit lasted 25 miles and hit speeds of 120 mph.
Cannon later admitted to slapping the pickup’s driver, Timothy McManus, who was sitting handcuffed in a cruiser. SLED is still investigating, a spokeswoman said.
Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor who studies pursuits, said the issue frequently rears its head when someone dies. On average, one American is killed each day in a chase.
“If it’s just a traffic offense,” Alpert said, “there’s not much it accomplishes other than putting the public at risk.”
The sheriff’s policy asks deputies to take weather and traffic conditions into consideration. James’ report mentions that the road was dry and traffic was moderate Saturday night.
Stanley, the sheriff’s spokesman, said residents and critics have reason to be concerned. But safety is deputies’ top focus too, he said.
“You weigh the totality of the circumstances and make a determination,” Stanley said. “We worry about that stuff too, obviously.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.