Thursday, July 21, 2016

Save lives by limiting police pursuits

In the wake of a terrible crash that killed a Patton Village police officer and an 11-year old boy, State Sen. John Whitmire called on police departments to make law-enforcement pursuit policies public. Reported the local paper: "A Chronicle review of recent Houston-area chases from April through June found 13 crashes over 13 weeks that led to six deaths and nine injuries." The tendency of law enforcement in the past has been to blame the suspect being chased and disavow all responsibility for such deaths.

But in recent years, amidst growing evidence that chases are more deadly than previously understood, some larger departments have restricted police pursuits to protect both officers and the public. Police officers are more likely to die in traffic accidents than to be shot. And high-speed chases, it turns out, are one of the most dangerous activities cops engage in, both in terms of threat to self and the public. More attention is generally paid to police shootings, but the lives of those killed during police pursuits matter, too - particularly innocent bystanders not involved in the chase. Frequently, those fleeing are immature or stupid, not necessarily dangerous, and letting them go poses less public safety risk than a balls-to-the-wall high-speed chase scenario. With dashcams and increasingly ubiquitous urban surveillance, suspects usually can be identified and arrested later with much less risk to officers and the public.

The Chron reported that many Texas police departments refuse to make their pursuit policies public. However, this is but a symptom of a broader problem. Since the Texas Supreme Court expanded the law-enforcement exception to the open record law in 1996, and the Lege codified the bad ruling the following year, many departments have begun to keep their written policies secret, including for use of force. These secret instructions about police officers' most critical decisions breed distrust and make it look like department brass have something to hide.

New tech that fires GPS tracker darts at a suspect vehicle may reduce the number of chases at the margins, but the equipment is expensive and can't replace good judgment or sound departmental policies.

Could state legislation address this issue? It's difficult, but there could be a few policy prescriptions they could implement at the statewide level. For starters, police policies should be made public, about pursuits, use of force, and all else. Law enforcement in America should not be operating under secret orders.

Further, Grits would like to see the Lege restrict chases for traffic offenses and other minor crimes. Recent deaths involved shoplifting suspects and a man who allegedly urinated in public. Enforcing these laws isn't worth the death toll. Perhaps it's time to consider a statutory ban on high-speed chases except for those suspected of violent felonies.

Whitmire's Senate Criminal Justice Committee has been tasked with an interim charge to analyze officer safety, and it's understandable that folks will want to discuss the murder of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in that context. However, there's not much police can do to stop a military-trained sniper from taking action. And there's a lot that can be done to prevent officer deaths in traffic accidents, not to mention prevent loss of life among innocent bystanders and suspects.


Anonymous said...

Does the interim charge to the Criminal Justice Committee cover DPS as well as local departments?

They were the agency involved in the most recent pursuit fatality in our neighborhood.


Lee said...

When I was helping a colleague at work today who was have a difficult and frustrating time operating our postage machine, it made me think about a parallel to our justice system. I have been using this machine for more than a year and frequently do troubleshooting on it when everyone else has problems with it. For me (because I actually read the instruction manual that I keep on the shelf next to the machine, which is too much trouble for everyone else) the machine has always worked great.

It took me this moment today to realize that the machine of justice system isn't perfect but it works really well. Sur we could always raise the standard of proof and eliminate the death penalty but the machine is the best in the world.

The problem is the operators of this machine that are faulty. Devon Anderson or Governor Abbott for example is an operator within this system that needs to be replaced and many others including Ron Hickman should also be replaced. We have many operating this system whom either have no since of justice, have not educated themselves on the instruction manual, abuse the system, and try to obtain ends that the system was not designed to produce.

My point is to get out and vote to replace those faulty operators. Since often the choice is between two poorly qualified operators, we must choose the least of the two evils however marginal the difference may be.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Lee, I'm not sure voting D or R will affect police pursuit policies either way.

Anonymous said...

Looks like Patton Village won't need to worry about their chase policy any longer. It's my understanding that both the officer and the innocent child who perished have retained counsel and plan to pursue civil judgements which should end in large settlements that will make it impossible for the infamous speed trap to find an insurer.