Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Limiting police pursuits would save lives but cops like them too much

Houston police Chief Art Acevedo says HPD won't change its policies after three high-speed chases in one night, all of them initially stemming from suspects who fled at traffic stops, resulted in two innocent bystanders killed. According to press reports, Houston cops on average undertake 2-3 high-speed pursuits per day. Similar issues arose when the chief was in Austin.

Indeed, overuse of police pursuits has been a hobbyhorse of this blog for many years: High-speed chases are among the most dangerous things police officers do and result in many preventable deaths. In 2015, USA Today reported:

More than 5,000 bystanders and passengers have been killed in police car chases since 1979, and tens of thousands of more were injured as officers repeatedly pursued drivers at high speeds and in hazardous conditions, often for minor infractions, a USA Today analysis shows.

On average, more than one person per day dies in a police pursuit nationwide, about a third of them bystanders. Moreover, there's good reason to believe that bystander deaths from police chases are significantly undercounted. For that matter, high-speed chases are dangerous for officers as well, more of whom die from traffic fatalities than gunshots.

To the extent traffic safety is public safety, the public is safer without high-speed pursuits: the best-available research shows that, "a suspect who does not know he or she is being pursued will drive in a reasonably safe manner, and suspects who know they are being pursued and drive dangerously will slow down after the police terminate their pursuit." So, especially when a suspect is being chased solely for a potential traffic violation (as was the case with the deaths in Houston), chasing them through the streets in a car makes the public less safe than simply taking down the license plate number, if possible, and following up later.

It's okay. Not every hooked fish ends up in the boat.

These are not new issues, it's just a topic where law enforcement has dug in their heels, whether they genuinely believe chases make people safer or just enjoy the thrill of the chase. Either way, it's a high-risk endeavor. In 2010, the SA Express News analyzed pursuits in that city. They found: 

In the past six years, officers chased vehicles nearly 1,200 times — an average of one chase every two days. Two of five chases reached speeds of 60 mph or more.

Forty percent of all chases — 480 incidents — damaged cars or property, in cases ranging from minor fender-benders to horrific wrecks.

Nearly one of five chases injured someone — usually the suspect.
The problem is, the Express News reported, when officers undertake a chase they initiate a series of high-risk actions they can't control:
In a nationwide study of police chases by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the most frequent ways a pursuit ended was when a suspect gave up; there was a collision; or the suspect got away.

“What is telling about these statistics is that 72 percent of all pursuits end because of a reason that is almost completely out of the hands of the police,” wrote the study’s authors, Cynthia Lum and George Fachner.

Arguably the greatest car-chase scene in cinematic history, with apologies to the Furious franchise
Arguably the greatest car-chase scene in cinematic
history, with apologies to the Furious franchise
Desistance by police officers in most cases makes far more sense than careening through the streets like an extra from The Blues Brothers. Grits is a long-time Popular Mechanics subscriber and in 2013 they ran a somewhat optimistic and premature feature titled, "Why high speed chases are going away." The author, himself a police officer, had come to believe over his career that the juice simply wasn't worth the squeeze. Quoting one of his own trainers, he wrote:
About one-fifth of police departments allow pursuits only for felony offenses, while half require the pursuit to end when the suspect has been identified, according to the IACP study. "Ending the pursuit" often means the officer must switch off his lights and siren, stop, and turn around. Vaughan says departments commonly require the permission of a supervisor to allow or continue a pursuit. The new limited-pursuit policies mean that if an officer is chasing someone, the officer—and his supervisors—believes the suspect has done something really bad.

Still, not pursuing a suspect is hard for some cops to accept. "[It's] a difficult pill for some officers, especially the less experienced, to swallow," Vaughan says. "They perceive a fleeing suspect as something personal." The authors of The Criminal Law Handbook (Nolo Press) label running from the police "contempt of cop."

But times change, especially in a society prone to high-dollar litigation. "Chasing was far more prominent back in the day when there was not as much training and officers had more leeway," Vaughan says. "There's been evolution of the profession through better training and better policies. Also, departments that have experienced litigation are encouraged to change their policies by insurance-fund administrators."

Will limited-pursuit polices cause more drivers to flee, knowing police regulations restrict high-speed pursuits? An IACP study found no evidence to support that. Also, interviews with people who have fled from the police, conducted by the National Institute of Justice, revealed that the offenders returned to normal driving within about 90 seconds of the chase's being abandoned.
The rationality of such evidence-based commentary today seems almost quaint. With 20/20 hindsight, it's clear the author over-estimated the extent to which police departments are responsive to litigation costs, and underestimated the extent to which "but we've always done it that way" would become its own self-fulfilling justification for cops like Chief Acevedo who simply don't want to change. 


Phelps said...

I haven't noticed a huge increase in crime since Dallas changed its pursuit policy to only target high-risk, violent offenders. I think that we would all be better served with a helicopter pursuit policy. As you pointed out, it's the perception of being chased that causes the alleged perps to take the risks. Even if we can't get a "no pursuit" policy, I think that increasing air cover and taking a "contain once the helicopter is on scene" policy would be a huge improvement for the public's safety.

It would also help with people like me who feel (perhaps irrationally) that there are broader social implications with the message that if you just run from the cops you will be allowed to get away. (Again, this is the message if not the factual truth.)

Anonymous said...

Law enforcement would still be criticized for ‘letting those go” so it seems like it is a double edged sword. Criticized slightly less - yes, for letting evading crooks flee...than pursuing and causing damage/injury. You will never make people happy with no, restricted and/or full pursuits.

On the statement, on average more than one person dies in the nation per day in police pursuits, I’d guesstimate that 100x+ that die per day due to medical malpractice and medical misdiagnoses in the US. Police pursuits with serious injury or death just happen to make the news where the other rarely does.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:59, the public doesn't hear about pursuits that never occur, so I don't believe the PR concern you raise is valid. Plus, IMO the public generally accepts "it was too dangerous" as a reason for calling them off.

Meanwhile, cancer kills more than medical malpractice, but that doesn't mean malpractice should be ignored. Same goes for preventable injuries and deaths due to high speed chases. Many departments have already shifted to best practices to save lives. The fact that other causes kill more ppl in other contexts is an excuse, not a reason, for not doing better.

Debbie said...

From Brownsville to El Paso, the border has a severe problem with Border Patrol high-speed chases. Even in cities where local police chases are banned, the feds continue to cause injury and death with these pursuits.

See two examples from El Paso, above. In the first, a young man was killed, a young woman remains severely and permanently brain injured, and a third person is crippled. The second incident resulted in seven deaths, including of several teenagers.

Gunny Thompson said...

From Unfiltered and Uncensored Minds of Independent Thinkers of the 3rd Grade Dropout Section:

While I'm in agreement with the author, I would suggest that public officers involved in the injury or death of any citizen forfeit his/her rights of immunity in civil or criminal court. Additionally, those officials are immediately suspended from duty, without pay, drug tested and referred to a court of inquiry for a determination of guilt.

Anon @ 5:59, 12.23/20 P.M. While, in part,I may agree with you, but medical malpractice has been greatly reduced by laws established in preventing such occurrences, along with the requirement of continuing education and oversight, etc...

Anonymous said...

5:59PM here

Grits - The context for comparison I was thinking on medical malpractice and medial misdiagnoses was more so that both LE and medial professionals take an oath...
It rarely makes the news when a doctor, nurse, etc. makes a wrong decision (injection qty, delayed treatment, misinterpretation of an MRI, too deep of an incision, wrong medication, etc.) and that wrong decision causes more damage, pain or death. These are acts or omissions similar in a generic context to acts and/or omissions by LE in pursuits that cause injuries or death. As stated above, this likely results in 100x+ the amount of deaths per day than the 1+ mentioned in the link related to pursuits. Cancer and other medial conditions such as heart disease (etc.) are tragic. However I’m referring to the acts or omissions by those medical professionals that are negligent, reckless, etc which result in additional injury or death and/or go against best practice.

As far as the double edge sword. True - people don’t hear about pursuits that don’t occur, but that has the potential to attract criminal elements. The first time a pursuit is called off of a stolen car, reckless driver, traffic violation evader and it is later determined that a child or other victim was in the evading vehicle and is later killed by the suspect (i.e. burned car/body recovered hypothetical scenario) LE will catch hell for calling off the pursuit by the media/public. This could be hypotheticalied to death...sure.

Retired Veteran said...

In accordance with Texas Code of Criminal Procedure (TCCP) Section 2.122 sub section C: Customs, Border Patrol, and Immigration Agents are NOT Peace Officers in accordance with the Code. Their jurisdiction is limited to the permanent border crossing points between Texas and the United States of Mexico, the permanently installed vehicle inspection points ...

The Border Patrol DO NOT HAVE JURISDICTION to conduct vehicle chases thru the State. Their jurisdiction is limited. Art 1 Sec 8 Clause 17 of the US Constitution is the granting authority for their jurisdiction. They DO NOT have any arrest authority of Texas citizens. To arrest away from the border they must involve local or State law enforcement agencies. There is no authority for them to violate private property rights, either.

Anonymous said...

Retired veteran...

Sorry but the Border Patrol's jurisdiction (along with CBP) is NOT limited to the border and never has been. They do have jurisdiction to conduct chases as any other federal officer has such jurisdiction be it by helicopter, auto or on foot. They also have federal arrest authority and can and do arrest away from the border. The Border Patrol once had an office in central California (Stockton) and daily arrested dozens of persons believed to have entered the US without authorization. Also CBP, for example, chase air smugglers into central Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee and arrest them upon landing. They need no local agency to do so.

As for private property rights, like much in life, it depends. Across border acreage versus your own home, for example.

BP & CBP enforce federal law and normally have no authority to detain a drunk driver driving into the US as there isn't an applicable federal law. 2.122 allows the CBP officers to arrest the drunk before they drive further into Texas under Texas law and under Texas legal authority. Any other arrest generally is under federal authority or as a citizen's arrest. If an agent sees a murder (normally a state crime) they are expected to act and arrest the suspect and will have the US Attorney make sure they are protected.

My apologies challenging your comment but you have no idea whatsoever as to what you writing about.

Rob said...

Everything sounds fine and dandy until somebody refuses to pull over and the police decide not to pursue them and then they find out later that they were kidnappers

Phelps said...


That's not a hypothetical, either. It's a historical fact in Dallas.