Adopting a highly defensive posture after 12-year old Kendall Batiste and his mother were critically injured as a result of a high speed chase by Houston PD on Friday, Chief Harold Hurtt announced the department would form a committee to review its chase policies, but he sounded like he's doing it against his will.
"Unfortunately, this is yet another incident in which a criminal whose blatant disregard for the law caused a tragedy to occur, not our police officers," the chief said in a statement. "It is the intent of our officers and our pursuit policy to safely apprehend fleeing suspects."Well, actually Chief, since the driver was fleeing because of outstanding warrants, there's an excellent chance he wouldn't have continued speeding through town if police weren't chasing him. He wasn't doing so before. That's the point! He was previously an absconder over small time warrants -- hardly a character reference, but not life threatening for anybody in any way. Now two people are critically injured and if the boy dies, the supspect will be chargd with murder. The chase made things worse for everybody involved -- there was literally zero public safety benefit from the outcome that I can see.
Last week's chase ended when the man being pursued, 31-year-old Jatinderjit Mann, of Spring, drove the wrong way on a Southwest Freeway ramp and crashed into a car carrying two women and a 9-month-old baby. No one was seriously injured. Mann was charged with aggravated assault and evading arrest.
As early as Wednesday, Hurtt said he saw no need to change the department's existing policy, which allows police to pursue anyone who flees until they or their supervisors deem the chase too dangerous.
"We have pursuits every day in this city. We have a number of them that have been successful," Hurtt said before turning to Friday's chase.
"If we had not chased the individual, is there a guarantee that he would have stopped and not run over the 12-year-old?" Hurtt said.
Many times when cops chase people for penny ante stuff -- or worse, for no other reason than that they ran and the officer doesn't know why -- it's statistically unlikely that any public safety benefit outweighs the tremendous risk. Just ask the Batiste family whether this one was worth it - I bet the answer would be "no." Police department policies should take into account whether suspects are truly a danger to others -- they're brandishing a gun, for example, or drove their car through a crowd or on the sidewalk -- or whether the biggest danger to the public would actually be the chase itself.
Hurtt's new committee should recommend mimicking reforms implemented under former Chief Al Philippus in San Antonio, where officers can chase suspects in vehicles "only when the benefit of apprehension outweighs the risk to the officer or the public." Reported the San Antonio Express News (4-7-01 - not online), SA's policy sets a "speed limit for pursuing officers of no more than 10 mph over the posted speed limit, prohibited chasing people for traffic violations and ruled that officers must come to full stops at red lights at all times"
That would preclude dangerous pursuits in urban areas over small-time foolishness like people fleeing to avoid arrest for unpaid traffic warrants, which is how most police chases start. In those instances, it's better all around for public safety if the officers call on their radios for other officers to intercept the suspect, or just get the license plate number and find the person later.
San Antonio PD's chase rules add a sense of proportionality to the chase process, balancing law enforcement's legitimate need for pursuits with the high importance of preserving public safety on the city streets. Hurtt's new committee should recommend that HPD follow their lead to protect officers, suspects and the public.