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.The problem is, the Express News reported, when officers undertake a chase they initiate a series of high-risk actions they can't control:
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.
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
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.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.
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.